Nancy Sheil is currently an Assistant Ski Patrol Director at Big Sky Resort with over a decade of experience patrolling Lone Mountain. Nancy and her husband, Dan, live in Big Sky with their two children.
I love my job. My office is an undeniably awesome mountain; the camaraderie fostered by a shared passion for the work is unparalleled; and of course, there’s the skiing. This is a glimpse into a day in my life as a ski patroller at Big Sky Resort.
05:20 Time to get up. A winter storm arrived yesterday and was predicted to continue overnight with up to six more inches of snow. There’s no doubt that we’ll have avalanche mitigation work to do this morning.
05:55 I load up Juniper, my two-year old avalanche rescue dog in training, and I’m out the door.
06:10 Juniper and I walk up to the locker room from the parking lot. Well, I walk. Juniper is a yellow lab who is still plenty puppy; she bounds through the powder like a porpoise. Her excitement is contagious; I feel awake, alive, and ready for the day.
06:15 As patrollers filter into the locker room, conversations ensue: commentary over the morning music selection, leftover discussions from the commute, and planning for the day. Amid the conversation, I carry out my morning ritual of “slipping” into my boots, donning my kneepads, and changing into my uniform. I never count on making it back to the locker room before the end of the day, so I pack my backpack with my lunch, an extra layer, and a second pair of gloves.
06:40 In the morning meeting, the lead avalanche forecaster reviews the weather data: temperature, new snow, wind speed, and wind direction. His summary paints the picture of the conditions and avalanche mitigation work ahead of us. In this job, we get lots of experience with the nuances of “cold,” “snow,” and “wind.” Today’s combination is prime for mitigation and for great skiing.
07:00 First lift ride of the day. The lingering darkness adds to the adventure of the morning. On the ride up, my route partner and I discuss our morning routine based on the weather summary from the morning meeting. By the time we reach the top, the sky is brightening as the sun emerges from behind the Gallatin Range.
07:15 I pause to take in the view of the sunrise before turning to take my first look at Lone Mountain and the area where I’m headed for route. Although snow stopped falling two hours ago, clouds are still clinging to the upper mountain, obscuring the view of the peak.
08:00 Fifteen of us pack into the tram cabin. We represent about half of the team headed up to the summit. Most of us have been working together for 10 or more years, and the first tram ride provides some of the best, funniest, convivial dialogue of the day. We exchange laughs over inside jokes before our attention turns to the seriousness of our mitigation work.
08:10 On a clear day, the view from the Summit is endless. But not today. The peak is holding onto the clouds and visibility is only 30 feet. My route partner and I travel one at a time, assessing conditions as we go. By the time we get to Alto Ridge, we’ve emerged from the clouds. The visibility is better at this elevation; however the wind remains relentless. We continue working down the mountain, using our explosive charges to trigger unstable snow from the ridge.
09:00 The ski area is now officially open. In nine minutes, the first chair contingency will arrive at the base of Powder Seeker, vying for chances at first tracks in the fresh powder on the upper mountain. While our route is complete, there are still patrol teams working in the area, so the upper mountain will remain closed for now.
09:35 All routes are now complete. While the avalanche forecasters and area supervisor discuss the planned terrain openings in the shack, the rest of us head out the door for morning trail checks. The winds on the upper mountain constantly redistribute the snow, transforming areas that were open and clear the previous day into completely new scenes. It’s one of the reasons the skiing on Lone Mountain is so good. It’s also the reason we commonly arrive to find rope lines buried in drifted snow and signs that have apparently disappeared. I’m out the door to ski check the ski area boundary rope line.
09:40 The Tram is open to public. I can hear the hoots and hollers of skiers and riders dancing their way down through the fresh powder. The stoke is high. It’s going to be a good day.
11:30 With the early morning mitigation complete, the mountain open, and our morning chores finished, I have time to train with Juniper. She is resting in a kennel alongside Hank, another puppy in training. Hank’s handler and I meet at the top of the Bowl to set up training drills for each other using small snow caves. By the time we are done preparing the site, my gloves are soaking wet and snow has found its way down the back of my pants. Each pup has a turn running the drill and quickly recovers the quarry—another patroller that we “buried” in the snow cave. We reward the dogs with high-pitched squeals and tug-of-war with their favorite toys. The dogs are so enraptured by the play that they are oblivious to the small crowd that has gathered to watch them work.
13:30 I take Juniper back to her kennel and leave her there to rest until the end of the day. I head back to the summit to eat my lunch and take a turn sitting in the shack while other patrollers leave to work on projects and patrol the terrain.
14:40 The day is already starting to wind down; upper mountain trail closures will start in 30 minutes. I take a final patrol lap, making mental notes about the snow conditions as I ski. With more snow in the forecast, it’s likely that we’ll be back for avalanche mitigation routes again tomorrow morning.
15:15 The last guests left the summit ten minutes ago. It’s just us patrollers up here now. All of the excitement of the day starts to melt away in the stillness of the alpine. I take in the moment of solitude from the top of my assigned trail closure. The trail is clear below me, and for a moment, I forget that I am at work and enjoy the simplicity of just skiing.
16:00 I catch last chair on Powder Seeker and I’m greeted by Juniper at the top. Juniper runs next to me as I ski, looking up from time to time with an unmistakable smile. She loves this job too.
17:00 Amidst sighs of relief as boots come off in the locker room, conversations pick up—inquiries about each other’s days, friendly teasing, and professional exchange. All of the great moments of the day are amplified by the camaraderie of the patrol team.
17:30 Time for me to head home to my real job: Mom.
21:00 I’m tired. Time to go to bed and get ready to do all over again tomorrow.