For the Van Citters family ski patrolling is a family affair; it's actually where their family story begins.
In the early seventies Albert Van Citters was a catering manager at the Empress Hotel in Victoria, travelling seven hours or so to Whistler on the weekends to teach people how to ski. He soon joined Ski Patrol as a volunteer, committing to working 23 days a season in return for a ski pass. There he met Penny, a 15-year-veteran patroller who was his first aid trainer. They fell in love, got married, had two girls — Stephanie and Christina— and passed on their love of the mountains.
Their daughters grew up also doing stints as volunteer ski patrollers, Stephanie for seven years, Christina for two.
"They're not patrolling anymore," said Albert Van Citters. "I'm the only one who keeps going."
He's been going for 40 years.
Whistler Blackcomb recognized Van Citters at its annual Length of Service event where he was acknowledged for his 40-year commitment — the longest serving length of service award this year.
He turns 74-years-old in early April and has no intention of hanging up his red jacket just yet.
"As long as they can use me — definitely (I'll keep doing it)," he said, from his Victoria home where he was busy packing for a seven-day backcountry trip to the Rockies.
Whistler Blackcomb certainly values his contribution, along with the 200 other volunteer patrollers who work for the company every season.
"We rely on them to make sure we have an adequate and sufficient level of coverage on the hill every day and it certainly lends support to our professional paid patrollers," said Joel Chevalier, director of employee experience. "A lot of our volunteer patrollers come with a significant amount of first aid experience, whether they be paramedics, fire fighters, even some RCMP do it, as well as some doctors.
Van Citters has been with the company longer than many of its employees have been alive — quite an amazing accomplishment said Chevalier.
And like all the long serving employees he brings a certain perspective — there's nothing they haven't seen before and they will get through any adversity; they always do.
"We certainly couldn't do it without them," said Chevalier, of all the volunteers from patrollers like Van Citters to mountain hosts and mountain safety.
When asked what the secret is behind 40 days a year on average on the mountain, backcountry touring and racing in the Peak to Valley, Van Citters says it's all in the blood.
"Good genes — my father (lived to be) 103 and he was a very keen skier himself."
His father, Albert Sr., escaped from Germany to Switzerland and after the war he taught his son to ski on wooden skis in Wildhaus.
Later, in Holland, Albert Sr. would pull the kids behind his car to the dunes and the beach whenever it snowed.
Van Citters immigrated to Canada in his early twenties — Holland was becoming too crowded and the government was offering free transport to Canada. He landed in Alberta, where he worked on a farm. That winter, in 1959, he began working at the Lake Louise Ski School.
He moved to Vancouver and taught skiing at Mt. Baker. And then, in February 1966 Whistler opened.
Van Citters was hooked.
"It was such a fantastic mountain — there was nothing better, and being a ski mountaineer, I'd climbed there before, so I really felt at home and skied there so much that volunteering became just a pleasure," he said.
He began his 40-year tenure as a paid ski instructor — $10 per day —with the Whistler Garibaldi Ski School.
Before long he was on vollie patrol, a move that was ultimately to define the rest of his life.
In 40 years, Van Citters has been a first hand witness to the massive changes in Whistler. He remembers the slow two-seater Red Chair where on very cold days they used to hand out blankets, as it was such a long, chilly ride to the top.
Unthinkable back then that you could go up Creekside, take a gondola clear across the valley to the neighbouring mountain and be skiing down the Blackcomb Glacier within an hour.
"It has been an evolution," said Van Citters. "To see it before your own eyes is marvellous."
That evolution too has made a difference to his job. He remembers taking patients to the hospital in Vancouver via the backseat of his VW Beetle. That was before the days of heli-vacs and even ambulance service.
But the work of a volunteer patroller isn't always easy, he admitted. It can be stressful.
Van Citters doesn't want to talk about the accidents.
But there are people he thinks about. Often. How did their stories turn out?
In the old days it was easier to find out what happened to them after they were hurt on the mountain. Now, not so much.
"You have a bond with these people and they have a bond with you," said Van Citters. "But on the other side, it's only a stage in life. And it's their story, not ours."
Whistler Blackcomb recognized several employees at its Length of Service reception this month. Included in its 35-year length of service award was: Dennis Attfield, Cathy Jewett, Raine Brooksbank and Ian Cruickshank.
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