Keagan Zoellner buried a tired green and brown sweater a foot deep in the snow, using a shovel to rough up the top layer in a wide swath surrounding the scent article. Waiting somewhat patiently about 50 yards away sat Cleo — Whitefish Mountain Resort’s newest avalanche dog in training. With the sweater sufficiently hidden, Zoellner retrieved her canine companion, kneeled beside Cleo and released her to search the area.
Dogs are highly efficient in avalanche situations and can clear an acre-by-acre parcel in as little as 20 minutes. By comparison, it would take a crew of some 40 to 50 people roughly four hours, Zoellner said.
Cleo wandered through the snow, pausing every so often to bury her nose in the snow in pursuit of the scent article. After only a few moments, she thrust her face into the powder and began digging rapidly — success! Cleo had located the sweater.
To reward her good work, Zoellner engaged in a game of tug of war with her canine companion. For Cleo, what might one day be a very serious situation, was a kind of game — one that Zoellner was training her to be very, very good at. But her work with Cleo is just a part of her job on the mountain.
Zoellner, of West Glacier, is the Ski Patrol manager on Whitefish Mountain, where she’s patrolled for the past six years. The Seattle native started skiing at a young age, and her dad’s job as an airline pilot gave her the opportunity to hone her skills abroad, specifically in France. But she didn’t follow a straight path to a career in the ski industry. Zoellner guided river boats out of high school, earned a degree in recreation management and went on to lead the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation as its executive director.
When Zoellner joined the crew at Whitefish Mountain, she found her place among a team — one that shared in the peaks and the valleys of a demanding profession.
There are the sunrise chairlift rides, the camaraderie among the 32 patrollers on staff, and conversely harrowing rescues and labor-intensive duties.
“It’s a fun job, but the people really make it and I think that’s what keeps us all coming back,” she said. “There’s tons of challenges, but there’s tons of rewards.”
ON DAYS when the mountain’s gotten snow, she’ll begin her day around 6 a.m. and snowmobile to the peak in the dark, stopping along the way to retrieve explosives. She and her team will disperse and deploy the charges, triggering avalanches in a controlled manner to reduce the risk of slides later on when the mountain is occupied. After those duties are complete, the crew will return to the patrol room to warm up and dry out before heading off to training.
“Then gravity usually starts happening to people and then we’re running toboggans,” she said.
What keeps Zoellner motivated after multiple seasons on the job is the opportunity to help others.
Last year, she recalled responding to a report of an injured woman in her mid-50s who had been skiing on the east side of the mountain with her grandson. The pair skied past the cliff warning signs and the woman ended up taking a fall off a small rock band. She complained of soreness in her neck so Zoellner took all the necessary precautions, stabilizing her neck in a C-collar and transporting her in a vacuum mattress, that formed around her body. When they got back inside, the woman said she wasn’t feeling as badly as she thought, but Zoellner was glad they had taken the injury seriously.
“She ended up with a C-4 fracture, which can be paralyzing for a lot of folks — or worse,” Zoellner recalled. “A lot of that stuff you don’t know — you can’t diagnose that in the field.”
The woman returned to Whitefish recently to offer her thanks to the patrollers who saved her. She even made a full recovery, Zoellner said.
“When they get hurt, they’re in a pretty scary and stressful time and they’re typically super thankful,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll get those folks that come back the next year when they’re all healed up and go ‘You saved my life.’”
WHEN SHE’S not busy patrolling, Zoellner spends time with her family. In the summer months, she lives an entirely different existence, in the remote backcountry of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It’s a two-day journey in on horseback and Zoellner, her husband and two children, ages 6 and 8, will go out for six weeks at a time, returning to the civilized world between trips to see family and buy groceries.
“It’s big and vast and you can be on the top of the mountains and you can’t see evidence of people in any direction,” she said. “It’s pretty phenomenal. We catch frogs and we go fishing, we float the river … hike around, play in the mud.”
And Cleo is part of these adventures, too.
She’s a working dog, but also a beloved family pet. When Zoellner’s kids sit down in their bean-bag chair to read in the evenings, Cleo will rush over at the sound and hop in their laps.
But when winter returns, her training ramps up again. For most avalanche dogs, it takes about two years to become certified, and Cleo is well on her way. She can identify multiple burials, and is working at locating articles and people buried at deeper levels.
“You’re certainly not guaranteed to have any opportunities to search them on an actual burial in their career — and if they never do that’s fine, too. On a daily basis they are a really great tool to raise avalanche awareness,” Zoellner said. “Everybody loves dogs. It’s a great conversation piece and a great education component.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss may be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.