Last updated: December 29, 2016
“What’s the wind speed?”
Volunteer Margaret Bortolini holds a Kestrel hand-held weather meter up to the sky. A steady breeze is blowing, punctuated by hard gusts of wind.
“That gust was about 28 miles per hour,” Bortolini replies, working to regain her footing.
Bortolini is one of about 20 volunteers who help staff the Hidden Valley Snow Play Area at Rocky Mountain National Park. Braving the hard winds and often cold temperatures, these volunteers guide visitors to the best sledding areas. With the increase in backcountry ski, snowboard, and snowshoe users, the volunteers do their best to corral sledders into a large fenced area, hoping to prevent collisions between fast-moving sledders and faster-moving backcountry users.
“I think we see more backcountry users than sledders now,” Volunteer Rachel Williams says as we sit in the warming hut, thawing out our toes from the -5 degree temperatures outside. “Though during the holidays we see a lot of out-of-town folks coming up to sled. Maybe 200 or 300 per day.”
In addition to greeting visitors and showing them where best to go, volunteers can be found in the Hidden Valley Warming Hut, chatting with visitors, recommending other places in the park to visit and just sharing a moment of warmth. Built on the site of a former ski lodge, ever weekend morning (and weekdays during the holidays) volunteers unlock the door and open the blinds to allow visitors a place to get out of the wind and cold.
“On cold windy days, the Warming Hut about bursts with folks inside to thaw out, feed babies, and set up indoor picnics,” says Carole Tuttle, the lead volunteer at Hidden Valley. Tuttle not only serves on the ground at Hidden Valley, but also assists Ranger Dave O’Brien with coordinating schedules, forwarding daily condition reports, and being an encouraging voice to the other volunteers.
If a sledder or backcountry user is injured, the Hidden Valley volunteers are often the first to know. Radios in hand, the can often provide on the scene information to responding rangers, improving response times and helping the rangers know the appropriate equipment to bring with them.
“Rule number one: Always look uphill,” Volunteer Jay Blackwood says, holding up his heavily gloved index finger to underscore the point.
It seems rule number one for visitors is to listen to these volunteers. If they ask you to do something, there is almost certainly a safety concern powering their request. And ultimately, what are these volunteers tasked to do?
“We are here to ensure people have fun,” Williams says, a hill full of sledders behind her. “And in a place like this, it’s pretty easy.”