Friends in high places

Mountain Friends program brings a friendly face to unfamiliar terrain at Panorama Mountain Resort

“May all who enter as guests leave as friends,” reads a sign in the ski-rental building at Panorama Mountain Resort. It’s not just a sweet sentiment. It’s a wish the Mountain Friends take as their mission as they welcome skiers and snowboarders to the slopes each day, providing group tours and doling out kindnesses.

“They say that they feel really welcome… Like they’re skiing with old friends,” says Deb Dakin. With 22 years of cheery service, she is Panorama’s longest-serving yellow-jacketed volunteer.

Indeed as the Mountain Friends gather to collect their cohort of guests for the daily 10 a.m. tour, there are so many grins, hugs and peels of laughter that it’s like being at a reunion of besties.

For some of the guests – like Don Buick, who hails from Australia – it is a reunion. He’s come to Panorama Mountain Resort five times in the past seven years precisely because of the Mountain Friends, who are “a great, friendly bunch of people” and because of how easy it is to fit in.

“I always make new friends when I get here,” he says.

The Mountain Friends program means those who arrive alone don’t have to ski solo. Those who want to focus on fun don’t have to decide where to go or pay heed to their maps. Those of mixed abilities have someone else choosing terrain that’s accessible for the whole group. But the greatest benefit may be for couples.

Marion Labrie, who has been a Mountain Friend for seven years, jokes that the group could also be called Marriage Savers. She and Ms. Dakin say it’s common for a more-advanced skier to overestimate their spouse’s abilities and for the pair to have an unpleasant time returning to level ground.

Two couples heading out with the Mountain Friends this morning give the program credit for protecting their unions.

Hayley Criddle and her partner Adam Grillie rave about the Mountain Friends near the end of their week-long vacation.

“They’re amazing,” Ms. Criddle says.

“They’re brilliant,” Mr. Grillie agrees.

“You get sick of each other after a while,” he admits, adding that the Mountain Friends kept their trip fun and kept their enthusiasm up. “They put you at ease,” Mr. Grillie says. “We wouldn’t want to ski without them.”

The Mountain Friends offer free tours for anyone who is up for tackling blue to black runs (intermediate to difficult). As tours are catered to midrange skiers and snowboarders, who make up 80 per cent of those who opt for daily passes, the Mountain Friends don’t provide tours on green runs (the easiest) or double back-diamonds (the most-challenging).

But today Ms. Labrie and Ms. Dakin make an exception for one lucky green skier.

“You get the whole meal deal,” Ms. Labrie tells me as she and Ms. Dakin shepherd me down the mountain. She is following me to keep our little group together and to come to the rescue if I take a tumble, while Ms. Dakin is in front to show the way. Normally they have many more skiers in between, but today I have their undivided attention.

Step one for the Mountain Friends is to chat with their guests, make friendly connections and ask what level they’re up for skiing that day.

Step two is a warm-up run that’s secretly a test so the Mountain Friends can watch their guests in action to see how their self-assessments match up with their abilities before taking them onto more taxing terrain.

Apparently I pass my test because they tell me they’re sure I can handle a blue run. You can’t always take guests at their word, they say on the chair lift, since men tend to overestimate their talents while women are often capable of more than they think.

Step three is to jump into the real fun with the Mountain Friends touring guests on runs appropriate for the whole group.

“We show them around to all the runs so they can learn their way around the mountain,” Ms. Dakin says. “But I think we do such a good job that they keep coming back.”

It’s true. Of the half a dozen guests who pause for interviews before their Mountain Friends tour groups take off, each one is a returning guest.

“They don’t just come back, they buy condos here,” one says.

And they often bring their friends along when they return for additional tours, Ms. Labrie says.

Jennifer Brooks enjoyed her Mountain Friends tours so much she spent 14 years skiing with them. This year she is returning as a Friend herself.

At the top of the mountain, Ms. Labrie and Ms. Dakin stop to befriend anyone in need. They give directions and encouragement and basically support everyone however they can. When a young snowboarder is having trouble inching to the start of his run, Ms. Labrie runs over and offers a boost.

Later they stop to offer assistance when a man skis close with a youngster on his back. The little one has a broken binding, but the man is fine to continue piggybacking the child down the mountain.

My new Friends ask if I’m hungry, if I’m cold or if I need to rest. When my phone dies in the middle of a call, Ms. Dakin offers me hers. She’s also given me her back, where she is graciously carrying my camera bag. My Friends have me so throughly cared for that there’s nothing I need to think about besides the glistening snow and the glorious view.

Ms. Dakin says the Mountain Friends have to “recognize what’s needed wherever you are.”

They want to make the slopes as comfortable and friendly as possible during their daily tours that take off at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. so guests can relax and fully enjoy themselves. They’re so effective and enthusiastic in their roles that those who rush over to chat or who wave down at the Mountain Friends from the chairlifts are effusive with their praise.

So is Steve Paccagnan, Panorama Mountain Resort’s president and CEO.

“Our Mountain Friends are great ambassadors for Panorama and the greater Valley community. Their passion for the mountains enhances the experience of our guests who are coming from all around the globe,” he says. “I am very proud and thankful for our volunteers and the energy they bring to the resort every day.”

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