Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Ski Patroller Notches a Half Century Plus of Sunrises Atop Bald Mountain
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When Rich Bingham joined the Sun Valley Ski Patrol in 1967, patrollers carried Band-Aids and compresses and not much else. Now, they’re highly trained first responders.
 
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

The Army National Guard was in charge of detonating avalanche explosives when Rich Bingham joined the Sun Valley Ski Patrol in 1967.

Ski patrollers sidestepped down the mountain to groom it then. And their uniform was made out of cotton, something that didn’t provide much insulation in cold, snowy weather.

“There have been so many changes over the years— Where do I start? Where do I stop?” said Bingham.  “But they’ve been really exciting—incredible, really--from the evolution of skis to the high-speed quads.”

 
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“Patrolling has been an adventure every day,” said Rich Bingham. “Being able to ski every day, are you kidding me?
 

Bingham is hanging up his patrol jacket for the last time this week after 52 years on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. He joined the patrol in 1967 and served as assistant ski patrol director from 1970 to 2010.

And Sun Valley Resort is throwing a farewell party for him from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, April 18, at the River Run Day Lodge.

“Rich has been a vital member of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol team for many years,” said Mike Davis, Sun Valley Resort’s ski patrol director. “His experience and knowledge were a great contribution to the ski patrol family.”

Although skiing became his life’s passion and career of choice, Bingham did not start skiing until high school even though he grew up near Ogden, Utah, where his father owned Bingham Cyclery.

“I thought growing up there, surrounded by small farms, was cool because I could bike so fast,” he said. “Then a friend took me skiing and I immediately fell in love with it.”

The mathematically inclined Bingham attended Weber State College for a couple years thinking he might become an architect. But a fraternity brother encouraged him to spend a winter working on the Sun Valley Ski Patrol, and the 20-year-old never looked back.

“After three years, I figured out how to survive here year-round. I learned carpentry and I built homes in the summer season and that allowed me to keep busy when I wasn’t patrolling,” he said.

The Ski Patrol was more of a packing crew in the early days, Bingham said. Sun Valley groomed its runs with Tucker Sno-Cats, which featured steel tracks revolving around steel pontoons, and towed barrel rollers behind them to flatten the snow.

Given the skis with their long-thong bindings and low-top leather boots, you had to be pretty athletic in those days to ski powder and crud, Bingham said.

“People would ski two runs and give up. So, Sun Valley put us to work walking down the mountain after snowstorms, packing things to make it a little smoother and enticing for people to ski on.”

Bingham had received training in explosives with the Army National Guard so a few of the patrollers took him under their wing to teach him about avalanche mitigation.

Ketchum District Ranger Butch Harper was the snow ranger then, having worked on the patrol in the 1950s. And he called all the shots in the early years.

When it snowed, members of the Army National Guard would fire softball-sized shells out of a 105mm recoilless rifle positioned in the path of the new Cold Springs lift line that Sun Valley Resort plans to build this summer. The concrete building is still there, along with the magazine that used to support the gun, Bingham said.

“It was always dark when they’d shoot the gun, and flames shot out the back and front,” he recalled. “It gave off a big bang, a big blast—as impressive as heck.”

Harper piqued young Bingham’s curiosity as he taught him snow sense and how to collect data for avalanche forecasts. And Bingham was up for the task, serving as snow safety officer for the Ski Patrol from 1980 to 2015.

“Butch said that, if Baldy had been steeper, the snow would have sluffed off. But it was on right on the edge and so the snow would build up until there was the potential for catastrophic slides,” he recounted.

Collecting data in the early days was nothing like today, Bingham said. He would call NOAA first thing in the morning. But he’d have to wait until he got to the top of mountain at 6:30 or 7 in the morning to look at the drifts and figure out which way the wind had been blowing overnight, how fast it had been blowing and how much snow had piled up.

With the advent of computerized forecasts, he could get up at 4 in the morning and analyze the data on his computer as he had a cup of coffee and nibbled his toast

“I could make a plan in the comfort of my home instead of wondering what I’d find on top of the mountain. And I could start the call list before I ever left home to alert not just patrol but lift operators and mechanics to get everyone in place so we could open the mountain on time.”

Despite their attention to changes in the snow, even patrollers had some near misses in the early days, Bingham acknowledged.

Bingham recalled one afternoon in the late 1960s or early 1970s when three of the patrollers ducked under the boundary rope to ski down what is now Bruce’s Chute on the Warm Springs side of Baldy. They turned back to see Bruce Malone, who would go on to be ski patrol director, standing on top.

“He said ‘Yahoo!’ and made three turns and a four-foot slab broke loose. It swept him into the trees and he disappeared,” Bingham said.

“We didn’t have avalanche beacons in those day so when we heard him say he was okay it was one of the best things I’d ever heard. He had gone through a notch in the trees and one ski got hung up in a tree leaving him hanging down. He brushed snow away from his face as it came at him and ended up walking away.”

A young Bellevue man who went off the back side was not so lucky a few years ago in 1974, Bingham recounted.

“We had way too many people looking for him, and we only had two radios in those days for about 30 patrollers—you had to crank the phone at the lift house to call the patrol shack on top where they’d take the information and go from there. And, as soon as we went over the hill, we lost all communication given the system at the time. That did lead to a better communication system.”

Given today’s ski equipment, skiers fan out to every corner of the mountain searching for soft snow, Bingham said.

“You don’t need special skills to go into tight trees now. So, we’ve got people going places they never used to think of going. That certainly adds to the avalanche mitigation because we have to be aware of all these small pockets where people can get in trouble.”

A week from today, Bingham will get a hip replacement for a cranky hip—a prospect that’s got him downright giddy.

Then he can look forward to having 365 days a year to mountain bike, fly fish, camp and ski more runs on Baldy, thanks to the lifetime pass Sun Valley Resort has awarded him. He also plans to take up hiking with his wife Barb, who retired last year from View Point glass shop, and their black Labrador retriever Ace.

“Barb’s amazing,” he said, tearing up. “All these mornings I was up at 4 in the morning checking the weather, she was blowing the driveway so I could get out and head to the mountain.”

Bingham will miss the sight of the sun peaking up over the Pioneer Mountains from the ski shack. But he has a cellphone full of sunrise pictures to remind him. And he’ll never forget this past February, either, when Sun Valley Resort set a record for most snowfall in one month with 136 inches.

“February was incredible—and part of the reason for that was the combination of temperatures and the amount of water. It was some of the lightest snow continuously for weeks on end. You don’t see that light a snow often and certainly not for that long.”

Bingham estimates he has skied 156 million vertical feet and more than 100,000 miles on Bald Mountain, allowing for fewer runs during the days of the slow two-seater chairs and more runs with the advent of the high speed quads.

“As assistant ski patrol director for 25 years, I spent all my time skiing. And I loved it every minute, especially skiing in storms when it was quiet and there were not so many people on the slopes. So many good times, and a few sad times. But I consider myself fortunate to be involved this long with something I liked so much. And not many people can say that.”

 

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