A Day in the Life of an Alta Ski Patroller
We caught up with Jonathan Morgan, ski patroller and Assistant Director of the Alta Avalanche Office, to catch a glimpse of what life is like day to day for someone as elemental to Alta as Jonathan, a pure skier and 16 year veteran of the Alta Ski Patrol.
ACVB: So you’re a ski patroller at Alta. How long have you been on the patrol?
Jonathan: So, I got here in 2002. My then future wife and I had been together for about a year at that point. I’d been out to visit my friend MJ the previous winter when he was working as a liftie, living in the Buckhorn (Alta Ski Area employee quarters), and I knew immediately that I wanted to be immersed in this place during that visit–that it was the only place I could have such a pure skiing experience.
ACVB: So you followed a friend, basically?
Jonathan: Yeah, I followed MJ. But actually, the first time was when MJ, another friend and I stopped in 1999 on our way to California, where I spent two winters. We had such an incredible day…we got off the Germania Lift on the first run and straight-lined into glory hole, which we’d never seen before dropping in. We found some big rocks and jumped off them, ate a bucket of fries at Alf’s…and then we spent the whole afternoon searching for the Regal Chute because we’d seen a picture of it in a Lee Cohen photo spread. It was a deep powder day.
ACVB: We’re chatting on a random Thursday afternoon in December. It hasn’t snowed in a few days, and it is clear and calm, somewhat cool. What have you been up to today? Like, start when you woke up for the day…
Jonathan: Well today was a pretty casual day; I was off the past two days, so when I went to the office around 5 AM I had some coffee and checked some snow and weather data, some avalanche control results… Grom (Director of the Avalanche Office) and I chatted about our plan for the day; we’ve been working on getting Devil’s Castle open for the first time this season, so the first thing we did when the sun started to come up was fly up to the ridge above the Castle in a Helicopter and drop off a patrol toboggan. And it was a beautiful morning…
On a busier day, it might be a 3:30 AM wake up, and then I start with a trip to the base snow study plot. Those days can seem hectic. But lately, I’ve really enjoyed driving the snowmobile up to the mid-mountain study plot at 4 AM and chatting with the cat crew out working the runs as they finish the night shift. There’s something really cool about observing this place transition from the diligent, meditative nighttime work to the bustle of a big powder day at Alta that I’m digging right now.
And then, after we take the 4 AM snow observations, we make our plan for the day–we decide how many explosives to assemble, when to call in the rest of the ski patrol, and we assign avalanche control routes.
And then…breakfast in the Buckhorn really is a key part of the day. It’s such a cool thing that Alta Ski Area does by feeding breakfast to our early morning crews on big days.
So back to today…we’ve been working the Castle pretty hard the last few days, starting with dropping 5-pound shots out of the heli. Yesterday we did a full day of hand routes (when ski patrollers travel through avalanche terrain on skis to observe the snowpack and deliberately trigger avalanches). Today we are headed back to key areas where we wanted to use a few more shots just to get that extra level of certainty about the snow stability before opening.
Chris: And you opened the Castle, right? Was there a line when you opened the gate?
Jonathan: No! Not really. We finished our work, skied out, and rode Sugarloaf Lift back to the top, and we were chatting about whether we were ready to open when Farmer Dave skied up to the gate with a couple of other people and we knew it was time to go. The skiing out there was awesome for mid-December! Like velvet.
ACVB: So you really do live the Alta dream in some ways…you live here right at the bottom of Collins Lift, with your wife, with an Alta Ski Patrol avalanche dog; you are a department supervisor in possibly the coolest department at the coolest ski area in the world…not many people can say they live the Alta life at the level you do. Can you talk about that?
Jonathan: Yeah…never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d get to the spot I’m in now. I have a career at Alta, I’ve lived with my wife Elise, who works in accounting for Alta Ski Area, and in employee housing here for 17 years. Now we live in a choice employee apartment two towers above the bottom of Wildcat Lift, with our avalanche dog Banjo and our cat. I put in my time as a ski patroller and was selected to fill one of the first positions in the Avalanche Office to open in decades. Howie and Titus (legendary Alta Ski Patrol Avalanche Program Directors) retired from full-time work a couple of years ago and now I’m the assistant director of the Avalanche Office alongside my counterparts Grom and Pete.
And Elise…Elise started in ticket sales, she’s worked in ski school sales, and now she’s the Back Office Manager. She had some brief stints working outside of Alta as well. But now she’s in a year-round position with a lot of responsibility. She took over that role from Barb Altum who’d been in that position since the 1960s. She loves her job just as much as I love mine. We usually get to have lunch or take a run or two every day.
ACVB: What advice can you give a visitor about having the kind of Alta experience that you love—that keeps you here and keeps you getting up early every day to work on the hill?
Jonathan: Pay attention to the people you’re surrounded by. Chat up the ski area employees. We love this place, and the mountain shapes us. Observe what the locals are doing–folks waiting for first chair, or coming up from the valley for a few runs, sniffing out the best turns on a high-pressure day. Some of my favorite pure ski days are the quiet, sunny early-season days when the hill is pretty skied out, but the snow is cold and chalky and Alta people are getting back into skiing for the season; getting strong, getting tired out by the laps, feeling the rhythm, and seeing each other again after a long summer.
Some of our locals are pretty inspirational. On my days off, I used to sit around in my employee room waiting to see the skiers I looked up to, ski by–guys like Hardcore, Farmer Dave…and then I’d know it was time to put my boots on and head out! Just sitting here chatting with you, we’re watching Alta happen in front of our eyes, with families out enjoying a quiet day and skiers lapping cold snow on High Rustler. So yeah, take a minute to step back and observe the community here; you’ll appreciate it even more.
Check back monthly for our Day in the Life series as we highlight different people working around Alta, Utah.