(CNN) -- The cold Colorado winter forces many people inside. But not Sheriff's Deputy Ted Eichholz.
He's usually out on the beat, patrolling the snowy streets of Eagle County, looking for the usual suspects. But today is his day off and Eichholz is enjoying an afternoon skiing the slopes of one of Colorado's best-known mountain resorts. He's relaxing, laughing -- and keeping an eye out for speeders.
Off-duty deputies acting as "ski cops" have been working to keep the runs safe at Vail for the past five years' ski seasons, from morning to night, November to April. Eichholz, 27, is one of eight skiing county sheriff's officers who regularly patrol the slopes.
Although most of us like to think of skiing as a fun and relaxing sport, the slopes can be deadly. The Denver Rocky Mountain News reports that when 19-year-old snowboarder Alexander Williams of Fayetteville, Georgia, died Friday after hitting a tree on the Paymaster intermediate run at Keystone, he became the seventh person to die on Colorado slopes this year.
And a state jury there recently convicted a skier of criminally negligent homicide for colliding with and killing another skier in 1997. Eichholz says those are the type downhillers he and his fellow slope officers are on the lookout for.
"We're out looking for safety violations," Eichholz says, "like skiing out of bounds, skiing too fast in an area marked 'slow,' blind jumping -- where you can't see what's underneath -- skiing out of control or deceptive use of a ski pass. We also help out the ski patrol with accidents whenever we can, and take care of the criminal side."
The ski cops are equipped to handle a variety of situations that might arise on the mountainside. They carry everything a road sheriff traditionally has on his or her belt -- a firearm, pepper spray, handcuffs, ticket book, flashlight.
Eichholz says he has arrested two people so far this year, but for improper use of ski passes, not recklessness. He caught a nephew using his uncle's pass and a friend using a buddy's pass.
Frequently, skiiers lend their passes to others so they can ski free. But ski passes have photographs of their rightful owners on them. And when a ski cop discovers fraudulent use of a pass, it's treated as theft.
"I tell them they're now going to be charged with misdemeanor theft," Eichholz says. "It's a $63 fine, the price of a full-day lift pass." If the owner of that pass is found to have lent it to someone, he or she can lose it for the remainder of the season.
He's quick to point out that there's a big difference between ski cops and the ski patrol sometimes seen rushing to the scenes of accidents with snowmobiles and a stretcher.
The patrol is made up of medically trained personnel, paramedics like those who work regular ambulances. "We're not," says Eichholz. "They (the ski patrol) take care of the medical side. If there's some sort of regulation or safety violation then we take care of that side."
Ski cops issue citations for safety violations and if a skier is considered to be showing extremely reckless behavior, she or he could end up in jail.
"First we give them a warning, take down their name," says Eichholz -- who looks the part in his black snow pants and a blue sheriff's office jacket. "Unless it's too severe. If they're going fast and hit a beginner, they're cited for a Skier Safety Act violation and they could go to jail."
Taking it easy
This ski cop has some good advice about where to keep an eye on speed while shredding the mountain. According to Eichholz, you should watch your speed primarily on the beginner run. Most collisions occur when experienced skiers who know how to ski mix it up with beginners who are just learning to ski.
Eichholz laughs when asked if he carries a radar gun in addition to a pistol (a Beretta 9-millimeter). But really, how does a ski cop determine the speed limit on the slope? "You can tell just by their actions," he says.
Pooling an expert hot-dogger doing a 360-degree cigarette-roll "landy fakey" -- a ski jump in which you land backward -- on the bunny slope with beginners just learning the basics of the snowplow could result in a crash course not soon forgotten.
You aren't likely to see ski cops in high-speed chases down mountains, though, for obvious safety reasons. "First you yell at them to stop," says Eichholz. "If that doesn't work and they're going too fast, then we radio down to ski patrol and have them detain the person at the ski lift area."
Punishment for reckless skiing ranges from the basic warning, to losing a ski pass for a day and more serious measures for citations. Eichholz says he and his cohorts issued around 15 citations last year.
Ski cops may not set speed traps and lie in wait for an innocent skier going a little too fast, but they do direct traffic on the mountain like their roadway counterparts. Up on Vail, two runs form a Y -- and at the end of the day, a traffic jam often occurs.
"They're herding in like cattle. Everyone is trying to leave the mountain for the last run of the day," Eichholz says. "You have the experienced skiers coming in from the back and mixing in with the beginners on the lower runs."
He's so unusual
"Most people have never seen a cop on the mountain before. They say, 'Can I take your picture?'"
The salary starts around $13,000, but the real beauty for these ski cops is getting paid to ski. For Eichholz, an avid skier, it's like a dream come true.
He grew up in Ft. Collins, Colorado, and has been skiing for the past 16 years. A year-and-a-half ago, he joined the Eagle County Sheriff's Department after serving as an officer in the Navy.
"My grandfather was a (police) officer in Illinois. Just listening to his stories sparked my interest in doing this," he says. While in the Navy, his tour of duty sent him to warm locations overseas -- the Persian Gulf, Greece and Naples, Italy.
"I didn't get too much of a chance to ski in the military and I've always enjoyed skiing," says Eichholz.
The first requirement for his current career track is to be a road officer, with six months of experience on the force and all training elements completed. The second requirement is that you have to be an expert skier.
"There's no official test. It's on the honor system. If you say you know how to ski, they pretty much take your word for it." After volunteering for the job, most rookie ski cops go up with a veteran to learn the ropes of "working" the slopes. Because this isn't part of their regular beat, ski cops go up on their off-duty hours and receive extra pay.
Ski cops like Eichholz are becoming the norm on slopes in many places, not just Vail. In the past few years, major resorts have tried to crack down on reckless skiing.
"Everybody enjoys seeing us up on the mountain, even the experienced skiers. They get a sense of security I guess, knowing that if something goes wrong there's someone there who can handle the situation," says Eichholz.
"You have to enjoy being outdoors and also the law-enforcement side of it. The job has become my life, so even when I'm not working, I'm working."
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