Advertisement

A good, long run: Schweitzer ski patroller Michael Boge reflects on 50 years on the slopes

Mar. 1—SANDPOINT — Michael Boge didn't remember the man sitting next to him on the chairlift, but the man remembered him.

It was earlier this winter at Schweitzer, where Boge is a ski patroller. The man told Boge that they'd met a couple of years earlier, when the man injured his shoulder in a ski fall.

Boge was the one who skied down to help, and the man wanted to say thanks.

"I run into that a fair amount," Boge said recently, sitting in the patrol locker room at Schweitzer. "It's something emotional for people when they get hurt, and they tend to remember who helped them."

There's no telling just how many people remember Boge.

The 69-year-old is in his 50th winter as a ski patroller, an impressive feat of longevity that includes 20 years at Mt. Spokane and the past 30 at Schweitzer.

It started as a good way to get a ski pass and became a lifetime of patrolling, full of accidents and rescues, mountain chores and extra ski laps, ski hill sunrises and sunsets.

A lot changed as the years stacked up. Chairlifts got faster. Ski run grooming improved. Accident calls are now relayed through a radio attached to his chest — when he first started, no patroller carried a radio.

Some things haven't changed, like Boge's enthusiasm for the job. Skiing is still fun. Helping people is still satisfying. And he still loves being around the people he works with.

"After a while, it wasn't the pass so much as being on patrol," Boge said. "It was the camaraderie."

Boge said this will be his last season on patrol, the end of a career that's lasted longer than some of his colleagues have been alive. He's hanging it up at a time when he can still do the job well rather than waiting until he's asked to leave.

In fact, Schweitzer probably wouldn't mind if he stuck around.

"I wish that we could clone him," said Arlene Cook, Schweitzer's patrol director. "I wish that we had more Michael Boges."

Rope tow

Boge grew up in Spokane. His father owned Boge's Bakery, a commercial bread supplier. His father was also an avid skier.

When Boge was 9, he started skiing at Mt. Spokane, using the old rope tows that sat below the lodge.

Right away, he was hooked. He loved the freedom of it, and the feeling of making a turn.

"It's just fun being out in the woods and up on the ski mountain," he said.

He and the kids he skied with would "haunt" the ski patrol, Boge said. To extend their days on the mountain, they'd hide in the trees as the ski patrol did their final sweeps of the day, trying to make sure everyone was off the mountain.

After the patrollers went past them, Boge and the others would emerge.

"We'd come out and they'd say, 'Hey! Get down here!' " Boge said. "Later on, here I am one of the patrol. It's funny how all that worked out."

He joined the Mt. Spokane Ski Patrol in 1974, when he was 19. The patrol was — and still is — all volunteers. The promise of a free ski pass was all the convincing Boge needed.

He still remembers the first accident he responded to, a lower-leg break on one of the rope-tow runs where he learned to ski.

He went down to help the person and loaded them into a toboggan. That's when he realized he had to get them to the patrol shack, which sat above the run.

Snowmobiles weren't in use yet. The only option was to use the rope tow, dragging the toboggan and patient behind him.

"I hauled them up the rope tow and skidded that thing across the road and got them to the patrol shack," Boge said. "I couldn't believe how I was sweating."

Night patrol

When he wasn't on the ski hill, Boge worked for his father's company. After the company was sold in the 1980s, he went to work for one of its competitors, Franz.

He was responsible for a handful of delivery routes in North Idaho. The company eventually added Sandpoint to his territory, and he moved there soon after. That fulfilled a dream he'd had since he was a kid, beginning when he would join his father on bread deliveries to the area.

"I always had that in my mind, that when I got the chance I was going to move up here," Boge said. "So that's what I did."

It was the early 1990s. He continued volunteering at Mt. Spokane for about 1 1/2 years before deciding the drive from Sandpoint was too much.

He was resigned to ending his patrol career there, after 20 years. Then the patrol director at Schweitzer reached out.

The mountain needed a night patroller. Boge agreed to do it.

Joining Schweitzer's patrol was more than just a change of scenery; it was a different culture. Ski patrollers there are paid, and many of them work full time during the winter.

"Everybody here, it's a job, and it's a livelihood," Boge said. "It's different that way. But deep down, it's still that love of skiing. You can definitely make more money elsewhere, but it's the love of skiing and being outside and helping people."

Boge has always worked part time at Schweitzer. These days, he's what's called a "fill-in" — week to week, he's picking up whatever shifts need covered. Some weeks, he might work one day. Others, he'll work most of the week.

He stuck with the bread business for a few years after moving to Sandpoint, then got into restaurants. He started with a Zip's franchise in Coeur d'Alene, and eventually was able to buy other burger joints in North Idaho. He now owns a chain called Burger Express and also runs a business that puts on events like the Banff Film Festival showings in Sandpoint, Coeur d'Alene and Sun Valley.

Running those businesses and staying on ski patrol is a grind. The restaurants aren't as busy in the winter, which helps, but it's still a lot to juggle.

A different path had been available to him years earlier. Someone told him they could get him a full-time patrol job at a different resort. He turned it down, thinking about the way a random injury would tank his main source of income.

He also wanted to make sure he never got burnt out, and that coming to the mountain would always be fun.

"The best thing I could do was continue on a career path where I could make an income and then still do the thing I love," Boge said.

His love for skiing was always obvious to those he patrolled with.

Kim Grollmus met Boge in 2004, when she started as a patroller at Schweitzer. They worked night shifts together.

At that time, the patrol base for night skiing was on top of the mountain, well above the lighted runs below.

"When the snow was good, we would just do laps on the face in the dark," Grollmus said.

They've worked together off and on in the years since. She said he's always willing to help someone, whether it means covering their shift or helping with a call.

Grollmus remembers one time when she was responding to an accident on her own. As she was hauling a toboggan out to the patient, the toboggan started sliding below her, threatening to drag her down the mountain.

It got caught in a tree, which she said saved her, but it also meant she was stuck.

"I'm literally stuck on top of a rock with a toboggan just hanging on a tree," Grollmus said.

She called for help, and Boge was the one to answer.

When he got there, he didn't criticize her or make her feel bad. He just helped get the toboggan off the tree, and then they lowered themselves down to the patient.

"He's just so easygoing," Grollmus said.

Sweep

Ski patrollers begin their days early. At Schweitzer, on days when they need to do avalanche control with explosives, patrollers are on the hill at 6:30 a.m.

On other days, they begin with a meeting around 7:45 a.m. From there, they break and head uphill for what they call "chores" — checking signage, opening gates, brushing the rime off the boundary ropes.

All that gets done by 10 minutes to 9 a.m., and then the mountain is ready for the public.

From then on, patrollers are assigned to a certain part of the mountain, covering a set of runs. Some might sit and wait for calls to come in. Others, like Boge, ski laps instead.

"It makes the day go fast," Boge said. "I like going out and seeing the public, and interacting with them and such, so I try to ski as much as possible."

Some days, he might not respond to any calls. Other days — really busy days — he might get three or four. He never knows what will happen. That's part of the fun.

At about 3 p.m., the patrollers gather again for the afternoon sweep. They'll ski the whole mountain and make sure everyone is off before the mountain closes, and that no future Michael Boges are hiding in the trees.

On good days, when they make their sweep, the clouds will open up, and the views will become gigantic and gorgeous.

"You get a great sunset out of it," Boge said. "It's a great feeling."

The thought of making it to 50 years first occurred to him 13 years ago, a realization borne of simple math. He thought it would be cool to make it that long, but he also thought it was a stretch.

Last fall, when the National Ski Patrol System sent him a certificate recognizing his 50-year career, it hit him — he'd actually done it.

"This didn't seem attainable," Boge said. "I would never have thought it when I was 19."

He's something of a unicorn. Cook, the patrol director, said while Schweitzer's patrollers have more longevity than many other mountains, nobody's close to hitting 50 years. Boge is the oldest patroller. Cook and her assistant are in their 60s, and she has been doing the work for more than 40 years, but she doesn't expect to make it to 50.

"That's a long time," Cook said.

It doesn't exactly feel like a long time for Boge, but he's decided that it's long enough. His wife and daughter are on board with that decision, too.

He can still do the job, which is why he thinks it's the right time to go. He doesn't want to wait until he can't keep up with his co-workers to leave.

"I feel real lucky, real fortunate to be involved like I have for so long," Boge said.

Making the decision is one thing. What comes next is another.

He's still going to ski Schweitzer next year, of course. It's just that for the first time since he was a teen, he won't need to show up for a patrol meeting or respond to an accident.

"It's been difficult for me all year with the concept of thinking about that," he said. "I've done it all my life, so to not do it anymore will be very different."