by TOM WINTER

On November 12, 2015, the Taos Ski Patrol voted on unionization. The for/against tally split down the middle, with 22 for and 22 against. The verdict: the patrol would remain as it is.

One ballot, the deciding ballot, was blank. We will never know if unionization would have moved the needle for the members of this year’s Taos ski patrol, a group that had expressed concerns about benefits, pay and advancement opportunities. However, in the period leading up to the vote Taos’ management had moved to address some of the concerns that had been festering with patrollers for over a year, including raising the minimum pay to $10 an hour and formalizing requirements for promotion.

Resorts like Taos tend to attract the best of the best when it comes to ski patrol. Part of the draw is the challenging nature of the work. Steep, avalanche-prone and with an unpredictable snowpack, Taos is a skier’s ski area: The terrain makes steeps-lovers giddy and also has unique challenges, especially when it comes to running avalanche control routes and opening the mountain after a major storm cycle. It’s a high-risk high reward environment for patrollers who seek to do more than help beginners off the hill when they’ve tweaked their knees.

Being a ski patroller is not an easy job. Early mornings working before sunrise in bitter cold conditions with limited visibility and the very real danger of dying in an avalanche should something go horribly wrong are part and parcel of running avalanche control routes at a place like Taos (similar mountains include Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, Utah resorts Alta, Snowbird and Solitude, and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole). Along with the physical challenges come other issues: Ski equipment gets shredded on rocks, limited manpower with the skills and certifications to use explosives means that the control burden can fall heavily on a few individuals, and the early mornings can be punishing, especially during extended storm cycles when sleeping past 5 a.m. becomes a far-off summertime fantasy.

There’s also the challenge of raising a family or putting down roots in a ski town, working on the average ski patroller’s pay rate. It’s no secret that North American ski communities are some of the most expensive places to live on the planet. According to December 2015 figures from Coldwell Banker, the average listing price of a single family home in Park City, Utah is $2.9 million, with condos and townhomes averaging $1.5 million. Other ski towns are similarly costly, with the average listing price of homes for sale in Breckenridge, Colorado for the week ending November 25, 2015 (according to real estate site Trulia) clocking in at just over $900,000.

The cost of living in Park City and the surrounding vicinity is one reason why patrollers at The Canyons voted to unionize in 1999. Speaking to the Park City Record, Canyons’ ski patroller Pete Earl, a former president of The Canyons Professional Ski Patrol Association said, “I moved here 11 years ago, and one of the reasons I chose Park City is it was one of the few ski towns in the west where I could afford to live and work in the same town. But a big fear is that dream is ending because a lot of people are getting priced out. We have more and more people moving every year to Salt Lake or to Heber. We want to be a part of the community. That’s a big thing for us.”

There’s no doubt that the cost of living in Taos is becoming a concern for locals. The resort remained relatively low-key and undeveloped under the ownership of the Blake family, whose patriarch, Ernie, founded the ski area in 1954. However, the sale of Taos Ski Valley to billionaire investor Louis Bacon in 2013 changed things. The place is seeing a rapid increase in capital improvements including a lift to the top of the formerly hike-to-only terrain of Kachina Peak and a complete makeover of the base area, which is expected to be finished in the summer of 2016. There’s also been a rapid increase in property prices in the area surrounding the base of the ski hill, although listings remain well below those found in towns like Park City or Aspen. With these changes come both concerns and expectations.

“Everyone thought that as soon as this rich guy came in here and bought the ski area, that they’d get an instant $5 an hour raise,” says one Taos employee who asked to remain anonymous. “But it doesn’t work like that. You have to earn it. And quite frankly there are a lot of people who were coasting here for years under the Blakes.”

Stability beyond the Snowpack

Patrollers at Taos as well as similar mountains such as Telluride (which saw a successful effort by their patrol to unionize in March 2015) face unique challenges in the workplace. Both areas are extremely avalanche prone, and have an abundance of difficult to access hike-to terrain. Their locations—in the high mountains of the southwest—also makes for a fragile snowpack.

In their unionization effort, patrollers at Telluride Ski Resort cited the need to have stability and continuity within the patrol, continuity which allows patrollers to gain the kind of snow-safety and avalanche control knowledge that only comes from multiple years running control routes and watching the snow up-close-and-personal.

Taos patroller Rey Deveaux also cites the need for patrol workforce stability as well as other issues unique to patrolling as factors behind the move for the New Mexico resort’s patrollers to unionize. Concerns range from equipment allowances (patrollers shred skis during the rocky early season conditions at Taos as they work to open terrain and run control routes) to standards for promotions and pay raises. “We want things to be organized and transparent, and we want the work that we do to be recognized for what it is,” said Deveaux in a conversation with Elevation Outdoors prior to the vote to unionize.

“Our work is dangerous and involves a lot of specialized skills. We’re not like a lot of the other employees here at Taos,” added Deveaux. “You can die doing this job. It’s not like working in the cafeteria.”

With the split vote, the move to unionize in Taos is now on hold. According to National Labor Relations Board rules, another vote to unionize can’t be held for one year. Meanwhile, Mother Nature isn’t waiting, and the work to secure Taos’ steep, avalanche prone terrain and to rescue injured skiers goes on as the snow continues to fall across New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

—Veteran ski journalist Tom Winter spent his high school years working as a ski patroller for Lake Eldora Ski Area in Colorado. He’s still hoping for an “equipment” allowance.