Tag Archives: ski patrol

Meet Moose the Avalanche Dog


Crested Butte recently released this awesome video about the life of Moose, an avalanche dog. His handler, Dustin, talks about Moose’s job, his love of the mountains and how he lives to find people buried in the snow.

Avalanche dogs use their noses to find buried avalanche victims. Dogs also make the best ski patrollers–they’re enthusiastic about hard work, love to dig in the snow, and know how to party after a job well done.

Moose the avalanche dog

Colin Sutton Avalanche Fatality: A father seeks justice


Jonathan Thompson penned a recent article about the death of Wolf Creek ski patroller Colin Sutton. It’s a fascinating read. Last year Colin was digging a snow profile pit in a backcountry area near Wolf Creek when he was swept away by an avalanche. He was on the clock and working without a permit outside of the ski area boundaries. Wolf Creek CEO Davey Pitcher has been charged with unauthorized use within a Forest Service area. OSHA charged the ski area $14,000 in connection with Sutton’s death. Colin’s father wants justice. Click on the link below to read the article in Pique Magazine.Johnathon Thompson_Ski Patroller Article

The Four W’s: When Winter Packs a Punch


Winter finally arrived last week and so did the four w’s: wild, windy, wet and wacky. Really, it’s the three w’s but we like to throw the wacky in there because you just never know. This is Crystal and things can get pretty crazy sometimes. On Saturday the Crystal telemetry recorded a spike to 111 mph at the top of Rainier Express. That’s a Category 3 hurricane.

By Sunday morning we’d picked up 24 inches of snow in 24 hours according to the human observation at the Green Valley weather station. From 5am to 8am Sunday morning it snowed 10″. That’s more than 3″ an hour. This fluffy “bonus snow” caused quite a bit of chaos in the parking lot as the plowing crews had to re-plow at the exact time that everyone was arriving. It made for a long drive and an even longer time parking.

It also made for some excellent skiing.

Speaking of wind, check out this video taken recently at Bridger Bowl. The winds were in the 70s this day. Just imagine what Rex looked like on Saturday with those spikes in the Category 3 range. Makes me shiver.

Hopefully most of you were able to partake in the Sunday morning goods. It doesn’t get like that very often in the PNW and when it happens on a weekend, the untracked snow goes fast. We opened Northway for the first time this season at 1:30 on Sunday, and those that stuck around got some good skiing there too.

We are implementing a new program at the Northway gates on big days. Skiers and riders with beacons and partners get to come to the front of the line and go through the gates first. Even though we use explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard, Northway and Southback are still avalanche prone areas. They simply do not see the same skier compaction as our “in area” terrain. Thus, we recommend skiing with a partner and carrying a beacon and shovel. We are also tweeting our openings, and giving our followers an early heads up. So follow us at @crystalmtpatrol and help us spread the message by retweeting.

The forecast is now calling for a return to high pressure. This should give the snowpack a chance to settle out. While doing avalanche control in Southback this morning, we saw evidence of some big natural avalanches in the backcountry. So giving the layers a chance to bond and the snowpack an opportunity to find some equilibrium is a good thing. Let’s just hope this return to spring doesn’t last too long. I’m kind of partial to winter.

Who’s Ready For Winter?


Ready for snow

Ski Patrol training week starts tomorrow, and yesterday a patroller friend of mine told me she wasn’t ready for the season to start. Not ready? I was dumbfounded. Granted, she just returned from her “summer” job fighting wildland fires. It was a long season for her. Usually she has a quiet shoulder season to prepare for winter. But still. A part of me wonders if Ullr was listening. I certainly hope not.

Perhaps it was our early season snow that kindled my enthusiasm. The ski season was in our grasp. Just a few more inches (well, more like 15″, I’m exaggerating) and we’d be open.

Crystal Avi Dogs, Ari and Kayla, are ready for ski season

In case we forgot, this is what “significant snowfall” looks like

Now, after some warm rain all that snow has melted. It’s a bummer, but I tell myself that it’s still early. Thanksgiving is still weeks away. Besides, I have a book proposal to work on and several articles to write. I’m busy, for God’s sake. I should be using this time to frantically finish all these projects.

This morning, in the NOAA forecast discussion, the meteorologists mentioned some magical words in the long-term forecast:  “significant snowfall in the mountains.” Can there be any words sweeter than these? I love the way the words

A girl can dream



“significant snowfall” feel in my mouth–the alliteration is poetic, the image is pure bliss. Significant snowfall means large flakes the size of ten-year-olds falling from a steel gray sky. It means a white duvet covering the browning grass and jagged rocks. It means pointing skis downhill, picking up speed and leaning into the turns, one after the next until your smile freezes in place.

Next week could be the week folks. I know its a long ways out. Long-term forecasts are more about hope than facts. But right now, that’s all we’ve got.

Weekly High-Five Report: Ari the Certified Avalanche Dog



Ari and Anna DeArrieta find their quarry

The Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol gained a fully certified avalanche rescue dog when Ari and Dylan (his human handler) passed their certification test this weekend. Crystal uses the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association validation protocol for certifying rescue dogs. A validated team–one that can be used and trusted in rescues–must be able to find two buried human victims and buried two articles of clothing or gear in 40 minutes. Ari and Dylan found them all in just over 20 minutes.

Ari is a 5-year-old Black Labrador Retriever. He is owned by Lisa Poncelet and Steve Vaughn. As a puppy, Ari was trained to be a “Seeing Eye” dog, and learned very well how to stay close to his humans and not stray. But Ari wanted to be a mountain dog, and when he met Lisa, it was love at first sight. During Ari’s first year as a ski patrol dog Lisa helped him flip his “city life” to a “mountain life” in which Ari learned to heal without a leash, to love hiking trails and snow, how to load a chairlift, and the importance of staying away from skiers and snowboarders with sharp edges.

Ari with handler Dylan Cembalski

Anna DeArrieta and Ari teamed up two seasons ago, and Anna is credited with helping Ari become an “Operational” rescue dog. Ari’s instincts to stay close to his humans hampered his progress while searching, when its important for the dogs to range across large areas in order to follow the human scent coming from the snow. In some ways, Ari was almost too obedient, looking at his handler for directions and waiting to be told what to do.

Both Ari and his humans wanted him to be a Fully Certified Avalanche Dog, one that could be used in a real avalanche and one his human team could trust. When Anna adopted her own dog, Luna, it was time for patroller Dylan Cembalski to step in as Ari’s human handler.

Most avalanche dogs have one or maybe two handlers in their patrol lifetimes. Ari has had three. But it hasn’t seemed to alter his personality–he’s as friendly and loving to Lisa and Anna as he is with Dylan. Ari is definitely not a “one-person” dog, and will trust any patroller in a red coat.

Ari’s breakthrough came this year when he and Dylan attended the Swiss Avalanche Dog School at Stevens Pass. Unlike most North American dog programs, the Swiss handlers often use food as a reward. The “victim” gets buried in a hole with a piece of sausage. Instead of working to find the victim and play with their toy, Swiss handlers use the reward that dogs (and most humans) find pretty darn motivating–good old fashioned dried meat.

Ari, Certified Avalanche Rescue Dog

Once Ari realized that there was sausage buried under the surface of the snow, he changed. His searching became more keen and his search times decreased. After several years of training and numerous humans that have loved Ari and helped his move along towards his goal, he’s finally become a legitimate Fully Certified Avalanche Rescue Dog.

Congratulations Ari, and high-five Dylan, Anna and Lisa. Your hard work and dedication has paid off. Now let’s just hope we never have to use Ari’s skills for anything but practice.

Paul Melby, Rest in Peace


A Tribute to Paul

It has been a year since Paul Melby disappeared at Crystal. As I spoke to his mother this weekend at a memorial party held in Melby’s honor at the patrol shack on Campbell after sweep, I realized how elusive life can be sometimes.

Too often I’ve held my breath lately, trying to stave off that ominous feeling that’s becoming all too common. Oh no not again. Last year, when Paul went missing, when we couldn’t find him and knew he must be here, right here, I could feel it right under my breast bone. It starts as a tickle and grows into a heavy anvil resting on my chest.

On Saturday, as a large group of Paul’s friends, family, ski patrollers and those that searched for him celebrated his life, that heavy feeling in my chest subsided. I think Paul would have been surprised by how he touched so many others. He was always a bit of a loner, humble and okay with whatever label others found for him.

When Paul was on the ski patrol, he must have found the Brittany Spears stickers that adorned his locker by happenstance. He covered his locker with them (or perhaps someone else did it). But when we teased him about it, he just smiled and shrugged. It was no big deal one way or the other if we thought he adored the teen idol. As his locker neighbor, I was convinced he loved the young Brittany.

So when I talked to Paul’s mom, Bonnie, on Saturday I mentioned Brittany Spears and his apparent devotion to her. Bonnie set me straight. Paul’s computer had tens of thousands of songs on it, and she had recently given it to a friend of Paul’s. Bonnie had gone through the list of music.

There wasn’t one Brittany Spears song in the bunch.

I have to admit; I was a little relieved. Not that a devotion to the young Brittany wasn’t endearing, but the more recent Brittany is a pretty tarnished idol. Paul had probably just found a packet of stickers and covered his locker with them on a lark.

When Paul would answer the radio as a ski patroller, he would always respond, “Go for Melby”, as if he was a third party relaying the message. Even when we told him to just respond as himself, he continued to “go” for Melby. Sometimes when I’m out skiing I imagine myself “going” a few turns for him, and this makes me feel better.

This tree marks Paul's final resting place and the new official run at Crystal: Melby's

Paul Melby will always be a bit of an enigma to me. He was a man so loved and who touched so many lives, but he never seemed to fully realize that. Paul did not seek accolades; he didn’t even seem concerned if he was fully understood.

Paul sought the freedom of skiing. He loved the mountains and was devoted to Crystal. I recall our last conversation together. We stood at the top of the Gondola, and he dropped his skis on the snow. He told me his new job was keeping him from skiing as much as he liked. We discussed the upcoming forecast and the hope for fresh snow. We admitted that the conditions that day were “just okay” but “better than nothing”. He said he’d rather be skiing any day than not skiing, regardless of conditions. When he left, I smiled. It was a good reminder to be grateful.

Paul had a connection with animals, and he especially loved the Avalanche Rescue Dogs. His family has generously donated The Paul Melby Memorial Fund to Crystal Mountain’s Avalanche Dog Program. That money will be used for education and further training for the dogs and their handlers and is greatly appreciated.

Paul is deeply missed. He was one of us–a patroller, a ski bum, a Crystal local. He taught me a thing or two about gratitude and not sweating the small stuff. Rest in Peace my friend.

There will now be a new run at Crystal called “Melby’s” and will be printed on the new trail maps we just ordered. Melby’s is named for Paul’s final resting place, between Upper Bull and Middle Ferk’s.

Weekly High Five Report: Kate Middleton, future ski patroller


Ski patroller vs. General Manager

Kate Middleton tearing it up at Big Sky

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of getting to know Kate Middleton, Big Sky local and ripping skier. Kate is 12 years old and she already knows what she wants to do for a living. She wants to be a ski patroller. When I had dinner with Kate and her dad Taylor Middleton, the GM at Big Sky, we played my favorite game: Ski Patrol vs. General Manager.

Kate patiently explained to her father all the ways in which ski patrolling was better than being a general manager. To Kate and me the advantages are obvious. But Taylor toyed the line for his job. So we played “the game” with him. He got to say one reason why he loved his job; then Kate and I got to respond with one reason that patrolling was better.

Of course Kate and I won. No matter how good the job of G.M. might seem, Taylor could never beat out our final response: “On patrol you get to save people’s lives.”

Even Taylor had to bow his head to that one.

Future Ski Patroller

Fortunately I had the chance to interview Kate. I wanted to know how a girl so young could be so jazzed about a mostly-male job. I see myself in Kate. I started patrolling when I was only a few years older than her. I also want to protect her a little–tell her which guys to steer clear of, which kinds of accidents to avoid, where to find the best powder and how to stay safe. But I have a feeling about Kate. She’s going to be fine. In fact, she will be better than fine. She rips, she knows what she wants, and she’s confident. She may share a name with a princess, but this Kate Middleton is a ripper chic; and the only kind of royalty she aligns with is of the Dirt Bag persuasion.

I admire this Kate Middleton, and you should too. Bravo Kate. Thanks for answering my questions. I especially like your answer to question #5 below. You kind of hit that nail on the head:

In her words

1) What interests you about ski patrolling?

Everything. I think everything a patroller does is amazing.

2) Do you have a role model in patrolling or something that first sparked your interest in the job?

I really want to train my puppy to be a ski patrol dog.  Then my dad said Bob Dixon (the head ski patroller) wanted to ski with me.

3) Can you tell me more about the day you spent with Bob Dixon and the other patrollers? You mentioned that you dug a pit. Did you find anything interested in the snow that day? Were there any scary layers you found?

We dug a snow pit and the snow conditions were good. Then we went and threw a bomb witch was super scary, ran an accident and finally swept CJ (Calamity Jane)

4) What did you think when Bob threw a bomb on the slope? Where was that? Did the snow slide due to the bomb? Did the noise surprise you?

I was scared when he threw it. On Crons the snow slid a little, but not too much. I was also scared when I heard it go off.

5) What do you think about patrollers? Are they interesting? Heroic? Exciting? Smelly? Weird?

Patrollers are exciting and interesting. When they aren’t working, they are really crazy. But when they are working they are serious.

6) What interests you most about the job? What scares you? What do you think would be the best part of the job? What would be the hardest part?

I think the hardest part would be helping the people that are wounded. I think the scariest part would be skiing lots of hard stuff to see if it is safe so you can get it open. I think the best part of the job would be doing your job, making sure people are safe and helping them when they are hurt.

7) Do you have any advice for other girls that might want to be ski patrollers or ski area employees someday? Why choose ski patrolling instead of some other job?

Patrollers get money to ski and have fun and at the same time save people. I think that makes it the coolest job in Big Sky.

8) Can you tell me a little bit about yourself that you would like to share? For example, how long have you lived at Big Sky? Do you like living at a resort? What are the pluses and minuses of it?

I’m 12 years old. I go to Ophir School. I’ve lived in Big Sky all my life. I love living at a resort because you can ski every single weekend and on Fridays with my school. There are no minuses.

She’s right. There really are no minuses. Bravo Kate. High five!


When do YOU think we’ll be skiing this season?


For those of you starting to place bets on the first day of skiing this year, I thought I should pass on some vital information. I’ve already posted Larry Schick’s awesome prediction for the winter (hint: he’s calling for another good one!) as well as NOAA’s official La Nina advisory.

This could be you

But there’s one more vital piece of information that you might not know about, especially if you live in the PNW. Crystal Mountain has a secret weapon. Snowmaking.

For those of you from anywhere else besides the PNW, this might seem a little ho-hum. Snowmaking, you say? So what.

Well, our new snowmaking system runs along the top of Green Valley, blowing hard, dense snow over the ridge. Since the GV ridge is often the achilles heel keeping us from opening, this blanket of early snow will allow us to open earlier. No one necessarily likes to ski on manmade snow. But it makes a killer base.

So, while we might only be offering a single ribbon of snow for the early season diehards, it will be skiing. And it could happen early. Some of the higher-ups at Crystal (including the one I’m married to) are saying we might be open by Halloween.


I, personally, would love to open before ski patrol training, which is the first week in November. Not that I don’t LOVE the week of training, but it’s always a very good sign if we’re open by then. Just saying.

I’m planning on doing an opening day contest over at www.blogcrystal.com, and I want to give you all the most information possible. Consider this your heads up.

Oh. And you might want to get those skis tuned up. Just in case.