By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor
BIG SKY – Sometimes, tragedy begets positive change.
Erika Pankow’s death in a 1996 explosives accident rocked the Big Sky Ski Patrol community. Pankow, a second year patroller, was doing avalanche control work on a serious storm day. She never came home.
With great enthusiasm for life and helping others, Pankow had made many friends in the ski community.
“She was really a special lady,” said friend and fellow patroller Jay “Magnum” Frisque. “She was somebody who worked from the heart. She always had a big smile.”
Many locals and businesses wanted to donate in her honor, and Frisque, together with the Big Sky Ski Patrol, founded memorial and scholarship funds in her name.
“Everybody stepped up. Everybody offered to help,” Frisque said.
More than 100 donors pitched in, including at least 20 ski patrols from around the West.
The memorial fund was used to create a plaque for Pankow, which is in Erika’s glades in Big Sky’s Bavarian Forest, and also a plaque for another Big Sky patroller killed in an avalanche accident, Dave Stutzman. One final plaque—for Big Sky’s first ski patrol director Jim Kanzler—is still in the making.
After the accident, many ski patrols across the Western U.S. created more intensive training and documentation programs for avalanche control work, said Larry Heywood, an avalanche expert who investigated the accident. Heywood also had a hand in revamping the National Ski Area Association’s avalanche control guidelines and said the accident was a driving force to make the guidelines much stricter.
The scholarship fund initially went toward avalanche and medical education for locals, but with no follow up fundraisers the money eventually ran out and the fund was all but forgotten.
But the ski patrol community and those who knew Erika didn’t forget. And over the past year, Big Sky patroller Ody Loomis and Frisque worked together to bring the scholarship fund back.
“I thought it was such a great thing for the community, and it shouldn’t just be sitting there dormant,” Loomis said. Plus, she said, she’s thankful she’s not afraid to do her job and that today’s “policies and management help make it safe for us to be out there.”
Spearheading the project, Loomis contracted local photographer Ryan Turner to shoot photos for an 18-month calendar “Women of Big Sky.”
A different local business sponsored each month of the calendar, and Turner, graphic designer Lisa Ankeny, and web designer Lindsay Pruett did much of their work in-kind.
The calendar is a mixture of black-and-white and color photography, a combination of happy, fun, sexy, whimsical and badass. The women featured are ski patrollers, snowmakers, snow cat drivers, chairlift operators and maintenance crews, and Dirtbag queens.
Turner’s photography skills are evident, and the images, many of which feature the women in bikini tops, are all in good taste: working on the tram, skiing the south face, posing on a snowmobile, riding the Triple chair, and standing with snowboards and snow cats.
And the scenery isn’t half bad either.
“I love this one,” Loomis says, pointing at a black and white shot at the top of Lone Mountain. “I love the skyline, you can see through the Spanish Peaks, all the way to the Tobacco Roots.”
That particular day was cold, and the wind was blowing about 35 miles and hour, Turner recalls. The crew—two lift ops, three patrollers and Turner—would get psyched up inside the Tram top shack, and then run outside to shoot photos.
“It was like being sandblasted,” Turner said, adding that the girls were so tough that they didn’t even race back inside right away. “They seemed to really have a lot of fun when they were doing it as a group.”
The calendars go on sale this summer, and proceeds will benefit the scholarship fund.
And as it did at its inception, the fund’s board will have representation from Big Sky Search and Rescue, Gallatin Canyon Volunteer Fire Department, and Big Sky Ski Patrol. Pankow was a member of each organization.
The fund will provide financial support to individuals interested in advancing medical, search and rescue or avalanche related skills and will also help acquire equipment like sit skis, outriggers or prosthetics.
Full or partial scholarships will be given out twice a year, in November and April, and will depend on availability of funds in the scholarship account. Preference will be given to residents of the greater Gallatin Valley area and to high school students.
“The more people that get avalanche training, the better for all of us,” Frisque said. “Erika would approve of that. She would approve of the calendar. You don’t have to be a patroller to be part of the skiing community.”
Visit erikapankowscholarshipfund.org mid summer to buy a calendar or download a scholarship application.