Employee Spotlight: Bob and Susie Nothnagel, Breckenridge Ski Patrol
They called it the storm of the century. Late last month, an epic blizzard dropped more than three feet of snow on the Colorado Rockies in as many days. Powderhounds near and far rejoiced and flocked to the resorts. For the ski patrollers managing the mountains’ in-bounds safety, the snow was welcome and exhilarating.
It was also a lot of work. Just ask Bob and Susie Nothnagel, veterans of the Breckenridge ski patrol.
“We love it when it snows that much, and we are as excited as anyone for all the great skiing,” says Susie, a patrol supervisor who’s been on staff for 16 years. “But we also pay a price for it.”
That “price” is intentionally trying to set off avalanches in the Breckenridge Ski Resort’s most slide-prone terrain—often in extremely cold and windy weather—before the resort opens. It also means unearthing buried tower pads, ropes, and signposts, digging out fences, and responding to injured guest. Granted, this is par for the course for a patroller, but the big dumps add an exponential level of intensity and pressure.
And the Nothnagels love it. After all, this is a life they chose, forgoing other opportunities, like becoming a physician assistant (Susie) or moving on to something else after a year or two of ski-bumming (Bob). His “one year” turned into 21 years on ski patrol, most recently as medical supervisor. The couple met on patrol when Susie joined as a rookie, and their bond came hard and fast.
“It’s nice to come home and talk about work and have there be a true understanding of what the other person experienced that day,” says Bob.
What exactly happens in the life of a ski patroller? It depends on the day, the hour, the minute.
Helping injured or lost skiers is always a top priority, right up there with avalanche control, which also involves making the explosives that are launched onto the slopes to set off slides. There’s the less desirable “ski cop” role of enforcing the rules and making speed freaks slow down in high-traffic zone. There’s sweeping the mountain at the end of the day to make sure no one is stranded. There’s the training of the avalanche dog (Loki, the Nothnagel’s mixed breed, is also part of the ski patrol family).
“Every day is different,” says Bob. “That keeps it a great job. On any typical day, any number of things can happen.”
That variety, along with the “office” (think cold temps, stunning views, chairlifts) and the lifestyle is what’s kept both Nothnagels at it for so long. Just don’t presume they’re out spinning laps when storms like the one in late January hit.
“Some people think all we do is ski all day,” says Susie. “A lot of days we’re lucky if we get to take one run. Sure, we’re skiing for work. But it’s not recreational skiing.”
When they’re not working, the pair loves to plan trips and travel, generally to destinations with big mountains and a lot of snow. They’ve been twice to Nepal, to Italy’s Dolomites and to the Swiss Alps, and more.
Yet no matter how impressive the geography, or how beautiful the snow, they always return to Breckenridge. Bob works ski patrol year round—the resort keeps a skeleton crew of patrollers through the busy summer month—and Susie manages a garden center in town when she’s not working patrol. They return, both say, because they cherish their jobs and the mountain life.
“We are a big family here,” says Bob. “We all support each other very well.”
– Rachel Walker