The slopes at Red Lodge Mountain ski area seem a little empty for some folks this winter. Longtime ski patroller Otto Dringman has retired.
“We miss him up here,” said Anne Kosorok, ski patrol director.
In honor of his more than 50 years of service the ski area renamed the Autobahn run Otto-Bahn.
Even though he’s now 79, Otto will keep skiing. After all, two different ski area managers each awarded him a lifetime pass. But he won’t be tending to injured skiers, towing a toboggan or pulling tickets from those who violate mountain regulations. Instead, for the first time in decades, he’ll be just another skier.
“I like skiing the bumps,” he said, a wide grin spread out below his snowy white mustache.
King of the hills
Otto started skiing at what was then King’s Hill, now Showdown Montana, when he was a high school student in Great Falls. That’s also where he met his wife, Jody. The couple honeymooned in Red Lodge 55 years ago, not realizing the town tucked next to the base of the Beartooth Mountains would end up being a second home for them in the winter as they raised a ski-racing family of four: Heidi, Wendy, Eric and Patrick.
“To look back on it now, we were in this little shacky place with no phone and no television,” Jody said. “We spent every weekend with our kids. That’s something you can’t buy.”
A lot of other youngsters helped fill the shack, too, she noted. Even a troublesome kid named Tommy Moe, who would grow up to be a U.S. Olympic gold medalist in the downhill and the first U.S. skier to win two medals in the same Olympics.
“He was wild,” Otto said.
“He was a sweet kid, but he was into everything,” Jody added.
Patrolling for a pass
Funding a family ski racing team was no easy task, so Otto got into ski patrolling. Volunteer patrollers who worked 10 days received a free season pass. When Jody volunteered, too, they received a free family pass.
“I don’t think we could have skied otherwise,” Jody said, noting she was a stay-at-home mom until the children grew up.
Otto was so thrifty that he managed to keep using his ski boots years after they were past their prime by binding them together with duct tape. Jody referred to them as his “funny black boots.”
Somehow the boots were strong enough to help him control his 6-foot-9-inch long Head Standard skis, the first to feature aluminum skins in their construction. On the skis he had Cubco bindings, one of the first modern heel and toe bindings.
“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven” when he first rode the skis, said Otto, whose average height seems too small to be able to control such long skis.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate Otto’s strength based on his size. His friend and fellow ski patroller, Charles Jerabek, said he and Otto once pulled a toboggan through 3 feet of snow down a service road to reach an injured skier, a struggle that took about a half an hour.
“He’s a very good gentleman and a great patroller,” Jerabek said.
What’s more, he’s a reliable friend with a great sense of humor.
“He would go many miles out of his way to give you assistance if your car broke down,” Jerabek said.
Jerabek was one of the friends that Otto went helicopter skiing in Canada with, an excursion that was close to heaven for Otto, although one trip did become temporarily a bit hellish. Otto was skiing waist-deep snow when an avalanche released around him. Realizing the danger and seeing a tree in the middle of the mountain, he aimed for it, skiing into the hole underneath the tree while waving his hands overhead to try and ensure he wasn’t buried alive.
“For the rest of the trip they called him Trigger,” Jody said, since he triggered the avalanche.
He once found a skier dead in a similar tree well, an incident that soured his disposition for the rest of that day prompting him to pull tickets from skiers speeding down the mountain.
“A kid gave him the finger and took off one time,” Jody said, figuring that the gray-haired patroller wouldn’t be able to catch him. His fellow patrollers reckoned differently and placed bets on whether Otto would run down the violator.
In 1995 he gained a bit of outside fame when his photo appeared with other Red Lodge-area skiers in the November edition of Ski magazine in a fashion shoot titled “Masters of the game.” Otto was the guy in the cowboy hat who farmed in the summer so he could ski in the winter.
His neighbor and family friend, Cindy Holtz, said she’s been “astounded” by Otto’s abilities off the ski hill, like his talent for coming up with inventive ways to repair things and by his “boundless energy.” As examples she pointed to the large woodpile he chops and stacks at the family’s Swan Lake summer cabin, as well as his invention that live traps squirrels to keep them from throwing pine cones on his cabin’s deck.
“He’s a devoted family man,” Holtz added.
Across all of the years of skiing and patrolling, Otto has seen radical changes in ski equipment and patrol gear. When he first started patrollers didn’t carry walkie-talkies, instead relying on phones placed strategically across the mountain to call in injuries. He’s also seen the medical training increase in intensity and specificity.
“Early on we just threw them on the sled and took them down,” he said.
One time he even had to help his own son, Eric, downhill after he fell and broke his leg while skiing. Otto felt bad at the time because his son had fallen several times before, losing his ski and forcing Otto to hike uphill and retrieve it. The last time his son fell, not knowing he had broken his leg, Otto yelled at him to get his own ski.
“It was right under the dang lift,” Otto said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Yet in all of the years of cold weather, skiing and racking up thousands of vertical feet, Otto never once injured himself, he said, knocking on his wooden dining room table for luck, even when he gave snowboarding a try about 10 years ago.
“Otto is an icon up here,” said Kosorok, the ski patrol director who worked with him for 12 seasons, three as his boss.
“To see someone who loves the job so much that he put in that much time proves that he had a lot of heart for the line of work.”
Otto shrugged when asked what kept him going back to the ski hill year after cold, snowy year.
“Being outdoors, just having big fun, I guess.”