- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Mountain Characters
- Published: February 17, 2015
- Last Updated: February 17, 2015
Buzz Bowman has served with the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol since 1946, making him the longest-serving ski patroller in the United States.
And he doesn't appear to be slowing down much. At 85 years old, Bowman is still strong enough to ski a black diamond run and load a sled onto a chairlift. He goes into work at Bowman’s Hillsdale Pharmacy every day, and he helps out on the mountain as often as he can manage — although the lack of snow this season has definitely slowed ski patrol operations, along with everything else on Mount Hood.
Buzz was honored as Mount Hood’s King Winter in 2007 for his years of service to the all-volunteer Mt. Hood Ski Patrol, which was founded in 1937 with the opening of Timberline Lodge and still has nearly 300 volunteer members in its ranks. He also was honored by Jeff Kohnstamm and Timberline management when they named the black diamond run Buzz Cut after him.
Ever since we launched shredhood.org, people have been suggesting a story about Buzz. Well, I finally got the chance to meet up with him last week at his pharmacy, and we had a nice chat about his life and times on and off of Mount Hood.
Here's the transcript of our conversation:
So where did you get your name? Buzz Bowman - That is the perfect astronaut name.
Well, it was a good name to have when I was flying airplanes too. My real name is Harrison. But that’s kind of a big name for a little guy, so they shortened it down to Buzz over the years. They called me Buster when I was a little guy because at that time Buster Keaton was very popular in the movies. Somehow it got shortened to Buzz over the years.
What got you into flying airplanes?
I spent some time in the Arctic, and the only way you get around in Alaska is airplanes. So I got interested in flying and got my civilian license.
Where were you up in Alaska?
Up at the Northern Warfare Training Center. That’s about 90 miles out of Fairbanks. The National Guard unit I was with had missions for cold weather combat and defense of Alaska. The nation’s petroleum reserve is located in Alaska, only a few miles from Russia, and back during the Cold War they had to train people to operate in those types of conditions. So I had the privilege of taking 500 Oregonians up to the Arctic several times, to teach them how to survive in the Arctic. And the reason I got the job was, I was the only senior officer who knew anything about cold weather survival skills, because of my ski patrol background. So that kind of helped me get promoted (laughs).
What sparked your curiosity in the ski patrol?
I had a friend named Dick Platt who I went to high school with, and we started climbing mountains together, and we decided we wanted to join the ski patrol. My number is 134 and his number is 135. At that time, most of the members were veterans of World War II and the 10th Mountain Division. That’s who was running the patrol at the time. And the people from the 10th Mountain were our idols. Because they could ski.
That’s a great bunch of people to learn from.
Oh gosh yeah.
What keeps you coming back?
It has to be the esprit de corps of belonging to a good organization. For years, almost all my social life revolved around patrollers — birthday celebrations, weddings, funerals. A lot more of those lately, unfortunately. But I have always enjoyed the people. Ski patrol seems to attract the sort of people who don’t take themselves particularly seriously, but who do take their work seriously. So a lot of it has to do with the camaraderie. Besides, you get to break trail in the morning before anybody else does.
You get to be the first one to come down on a powder day.
The downside is, on a rainy day you’re still the first one out there too. And the last to come in.
Do you still go up to the mountain frequently?
I do. Except this year. This has to be one of the worst years ever for snow. Only about half of the runs are open and some of the areas aren’t open at all. And we have a lot of patrollers. When everything is open we need all the patrollers, but we really don’t need all the patrollers this year, so I’m letting the young guys and gals take up the dispatch spots. Once everything opens up, and I’m sure it will in the next month, then I’ll start dispatching again.
How is your health? Can you still do all the things you need to do on the hill?
Oh yeah. I can still ski all the runs. There’s one run, the Buzz Cut Run…
Named after you.
Yeah, so I always feel obligated to ski it. It’s so narrow and gets so moguled up that sometimes halfway down I’ll say screw it and go cut through the trees.
There’s probably not much snow on that run right about now.
It hasn’t opened yet.
No, it’s too low. I don’t know how much snow you need to get that run open, but right now it’s just Pucci and Stormin’ on the lower mountain at Timberline. And we’ve got a parking lot full of skiers all wanting to use that little half-acre of snow.
I know. If it weren’t for the upper mountain we would all be sunk.
When Palmer is open the skiing is really good up there.
It’s always good up there. That’s one of my favorite places on Earth.
Yeah, and you know, people who don’t ski don’t get to see those sights.
Yeah. So, are your kids into patrolling too?
Some of them are. My oldest son went through the apprenticeship during the Vietnam War, and then he got drafted. So he never quite came back to skiing. But my son Steve has been a patroller for about 30 years. I still call him one of the new guys. And my daughter Laurie, before she had children she was a patroller too.
What’s the strangest thing you have seen up on the mountain?
One time there was a church group of young people, and they were playing in the snow by the climber’s parking lot. They were sliding around, and one of them slid into a car bumper and bumped her head. She was complaining of neck pain, so she got the full treatment, with the C collar and backboard and everything. Well, about eight of these teenage girls, they all went hysterical, and they all were saying that they were hurt.
They all felt pain?
That’s what I don’t understand. Because we went down there and there was another one injured. And she says her back is hurting. And then her friend’s back is hurting. And her friend. We were just listening to what they were saying and responding, putting backboards on all eight of them. And it turns out it was just hysteria. They didn’t have any injuries at all. I have never seen anything like that since.
But most of the work has been kind of fun. We worked on races, and halfway through the race they’d fall and we would put splints on and run them through the gates so they would get credit for finishing. There’s probably some lawyer rule that says you can’t do that any more, but that’s what we did.
The volunteer patrol has been around for 75 years. Do you think it will be around in another 75 years?
There will be a need for it. It has changed some from when I started. Before, there was no such thing as a pro patroller. When they started hiring for midweek they would hire from our group, someone who needed a job. But now everything is really tightly regulated and the pro patroller is definitely the boss. It used to be that we would supply all our own equipment. We raised the money, bought the sleds. But now the resort operators own all the sleds. And I think next year they’re going to supply all the splints and band aids. We used to always have fundraisers to buy that stuff. So they’re taking more and more control.
Well I guess that’s how most ski areas in the country do it.
Yeah, and the pro patrollers where it’s their 40-hours-a-week job, they become quite proficient.
What are some of the big changes you notice on Mount Hood?
Well the skiers are much better, because more people are taking lessons and the equipment is so much better. When they came out with the shaped skis that took 20 years off my skiing. I used to wear six-and-a-half-foot skis, even longer ones sometimes. Now we’re down to 170 centimeters or so, and they’re all shaped so they’re so easy to ski. And that has made a big difference.
How long have you had the Hillsdale Pharmacy?
I’ve been this neighborhood about 30 or 40 years. I was at the clinic up at 24th and Vermont for about 20 years, and from there I ran about eight pharmacies. But then all the doctors left the clinic and I anticipated that and bought this place. I had someone run this place for me for about five years, and then when the doctors evacuated the clinic I moved over here. That was about 15 years ago.
You still come in every day?
Oh yeah. But I don’t come in till about 1 or 2. That’s my retirement, to have mornings free. I work out with a personal trainer every week and I try to get in two other days of good exercise per week - unless I’m skiing that weekend.
Skiing will keep the legs in shape. So will dragging that sled onto the lift.
Well that takes more skill than strength. You don’t really have to pick it up. You have to have it situated just right when the chair is coming around, so it doesn’t hit the back of the sled. You have to tilt it down and then tilt it back up again. And then when the chair comes around you hook it on.
I bet you’ve done that a few times.
Oh yeah. But when it comes to the heavy lifting I usually get one of the younger guys to do it. They either respect me or feel sorry for me - one or the other.
What about your patrol work? Are you still heading up to the mountain most weekends?
Not this year, with the lack of snow. I am scheduled to go up to work the Ski the Glade event. They have six patrollers that escort people down from Timberline to Government Camp. This year it might be Walk the Glade. I don’t know, that’s not till March 11, so we should be okay. We should get some snow by then. I hope.