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Q&A: Big Sky Ski Patrol

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Dan Skilling has been patrolling at Big Sky Resort for 12 years and he has been involved in the avalanche dog program for 11 of those years. Tela is Skilling’s second avalanche dog and he has had her since she was eight weeks old. PHOTO BY GABRIELLE GASSER

Patroller Dan Skilling and avy dog Tela weigh in

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – When was the last time you were booted up and ready to ski at 6:40 a.m.? For the members of the Big Sky Resort’s ski patrol, a daily 6:40 a.m. team meeting is just part of their standard routine. 

Ski patrollers—the mountain employees in red coats with white crosses—work hard daily to open the resort’s 5,850 acres of skiable terrain to the public. In addition to mitigating avalanche hazards and ensuring signage and ropes are up and in the right places, they also complete morning and evening sweeps of the mountain, and, during business hours, help skiers or riders who injure themselves on the mountain. 

Big Sky Resort has just over 100 professional ski patrollers as well as a volunteer staff that provides 10 to 20 extra people to help out on weekends. It takes 40 to 50 patrollers to open the mountain each morning and they all have to be certified avalanche blasters.

Dan Skilling is a Montana native who’s been patrolling at Big Sky for 12 seasons. He moved to Big Sky at 18 and started his resort career as a lift operator at the tram. After his first season in 2009, he got a job on ski patrol.

Today, Skilling is part of the avalanche dog program at Big Sky and has two avy dogs under his care. His first dog Pulver is 13 years old and happily retired. His second dog, Tela, will be 3 in March and patrols the mountain with his handler.

EBS sat down with Skilling to learn more about his ski patrol experience, his involvement in the avalanche dog program, and why he and Tela keep coming back.

Explore Big Sky: What made you want to be on Big Sky Resort’s patrol?

Dan Skilling: “That first year being up here seeing all the patrollers scan through the tram, watching their job and seeing what they do really inspired me to get out there and want to learn more about the snow. 

Growing up, I always had a passion for outdoor sports, winter stuff, snowmobiling, and I didn’t really know too much about snow dynamics or the EMS medical side of things and that really intrigued me as well. Every time I saw those guys and gals cruising through the tram everyone was so happy and it seemed like a very tight-knit kind of group of people that I really wanted to learn from and really wanted to be a part of. So that drove me to be a ski patroller.”

EBS: What training and certifications did you have to get?

DS: “The minimum requirement training for a ski patroller is you have to be 18 years old, and then you have to have an [Emergency Medical Technician] license. Those are about the only two things that we require per se, but there’s a lot of extra training that goes into it that we really like to see to make you a better candidate for ski patrol. Any sort of snow science degree, any sort of formal avalanche training, any guiding experience—that kind of thing is what we look for when we’re hiring. 

[You need] a very basic understanding of how to ski and then have that EMT license. They do a lot of the training here at Big Sky, so we’ve sent a lot of patrollers through Avalanche 1 Pro courses and Avalanche 2 Pro courses. We send our dog handlers to a bunch of dog training schools, and then throughout the years of experience this is one of the best mountains in the world to learn how to read snow and make big avalanches and figure that stuff out.”

EBS: What does an average day look like for you?

DS: “Each day is different whether we do avalanche control or not. Our day starts at our morning meeting which is at 6:40 a.m. down in the base area. [The] meeting consists of the plan for the day and then what happened overnight, what the snow quality is, how much snow we got, and what the plan is for our avalanche mitigation routes. Then we all gear up and head up Swift Current. This year is a little different, so we stagger our times going up Swifty. As we’re riding up Swifty with our route partner, we call up to ‘the fort’ where we keep all our explosives, and we ask the guys to get that ready. However many explosives we think we need for the day, we’ll call those in and by the time we get to the fort, they’ll all be in different little boxes for us. We’ll arm up, grab our shots and then … head up the Tram.

“Separate routes go out at staggered times just so we’re not all going out at the same time. We’re going out on avalanche control using our explosives, doing ski cuts, mitigating any hazards that we find out there and getting stuff open. Once we get all of our terrain open, that’s when we start to do our morning run checks. We’ll make sure that everything’s in place and looking good, and all our medical gear is where it needs to be, so we’ll do all those daily checks before we really get going. 

“Throughout the day we’ll be consistently doing ski-run checks on our avalanche terrain, doing ski cuts and mitigating any hazards that we find. Between mitigating avalanche hazard during the day, we’ll be running wrecks, taking toboggans down and facilitating transports through snowmobiles. We do random projects throughout the day, whether it’s rope lines, opening up more terrain or setting up different signage. So, our days really consist of making sure people are skiing safe, making sure the terrain stays safe [by] keeping an eye on our avalanche terrain, and running wrecks. Speckled in there, depending on the day, we will do a lot of training.”

EBS: What is your favorite part of being a patroller?

DS: “Well that’s easy, it’s the dogs. I love working with the dogs. Tela is my second avalanche dog. I ran Pulver up here for 10 years. He was another German shepherd and he retired three years ago at the age of 10. I’ve been a dog handler for 11 out of the 12 years, so I got lucky and there was an opening early in my career. My favorite part is definitely working with the dogs, being able to bring my dog to work, and use her as a tool and not just bring your pet to work. I like all the training that goes into it. Last year, I took over the role of training coordinator for the dog program so I’m in charge of facilitating all the training, getting people tested, getting people certified and I really liked that responsibility a lot, too.”

EBS: Tell me about the avalanche dog program at Big Sky?

DS: “We have seven certified dogs on the hill and 10 altogether, so three that are in training right now. That’s right at our minimum of what we need to operate up on the hill. We like to have at least two certified avalanche dogs up on the hill, one for the north side and one for the south side. They’re mainly here for the worst-case scenario. We do a really good job of mitigating our avalanche hazards, but should something happen, these dogs are going to be our No. 1 tool to find somebody that doesn’t have avalanche gear. 

We’re also here if something happens inbounds and we don’t know if somebody is caught. [The dogs] are going to clear that scene so that’s one more tool to be able to say, ‘Yep, there’s definitely nobody in here.’ We’re all certified through the county search and rescue so if anything happens anywhere in the county—Gallatin or Madison—we’re all on a call list so we’ll get called out and asked to come if we’re available.”

EBS: What do the dogs do on a standard day?

DS: “The dogs come up and ride the chairlift with us to the posting station. They stay there and we do obedience training and search training most days. They’re trained to find human scent under the snow. We bury people up to five feet deep in snow caves and have the dogs search for them. They alert by digging and barking when they pinpoint the scent. The dogs will ski behind us—we trained them to ski between our legs or ski on the side of us—and they’ll run down the hill. We try not to ski them too much, but they like to ride the snowmobiles. They ride on the snowcats from time to time, and we’ll even do training with the local search and rescue to do helicopter training, so they’ll ride in helicopters as well.” 

EBS: What is your best memory from patrolling at Big Sky?

DS: “When I got my first dog Pulver certified, I’ll never forget that feeling. We had a tough go the first time we tried we actually had to retest after that; it just wasn’t his day. The second time when I tested him again and we passed, that’s a memory that will definitely stick with me for the rest of my life. 

Every day we work we make memories. It sounds super cheesy, but all these guys and girls are like my family so being able to do cool stuff with them, go do avalanche control, make big avalanches, ski powder before the people get there, and watch the sunrise in the morning, that kind of stuff is what keeps me coming back every year. There’s a very big family aspect and that group mentality that goes along with ski patrol so that’s what keeps me coming back.”

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