All I wanted to do was ski

Cover shot @Ben Dann.

Brenden Cronin is a skier and a blackcrows ambassador. A skier with a lot of responsibility, since he’s an Highway Avalanche Forecaster on State Highway 22, which crosses the Teton Pass between Jackson Hole Valley in Wyoming and the Teton Valley in Idaho. At an altitude of 2,570 meters, the pass is often invaded by snow or submerged by avalanches. That’s when Brenden and his team spring into action, working night and day so that everyone can get on with their daily lives, looking out from the safety of their cars at the tons of snow piled up on the side of the road.

Brenden at the wheel of the new 755hp Caterpillar. – ©Ben Dann

I drove a 91’ Toyota Camry that burned a quart of oil every 200 miles across the county, damn thing wouldn’t go more than 60mph. I remember stopping in Ohio and some older folks asking me about the water skis on my roof, they were Dynastar 4x4s…I’d purchased them at a ski swap in Sugarloaf Maine before my first ski trip west of New Hampshire. I was 21 and I thought they weren’t big enough.

I moved out West in the fall of 2005. My last dinner with my parents before I made the move, my mom asked, “what are you going to do?” I said, “I’m going to be a skier” I’m pretty sure she shed a tear whereas my dad simply said, “go for it!” It wasn’t a huge leap; I was going to live in my aunt and uncles’ extra room in Salt Lake City that first winter while I “figured it out.” My first winter I worked as ski patroller, and I had no idea that we even used explosives for avalanche hazard mitigation. All I knew was that I wanted to ski, that’s it, plain and simple and I’d figure out the rest, it was my dream, to be a skier.

What else ? @Brenden Cronin

0030 hrs., dark, cold, windy with 1-2” snow per hr. The espresso machine hums along making the liquid gold that will get this day moving, I only went to bed 4 hours ago. Excellent mindset and conditions for an alpine start that involves a 755hp Caterpillar diesel pushing the head of a snowblower that can move that can move 5000 tons of snow per hour.

If I do it right, despite the noise of that machine, you shouldn’t know I’m there. The road closes, at 0300 hrs, we address the problem, clean up the mess if the avalanche debris makes it to the road and re-open the road. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones skiing from the highway later that day, you get some snow in the face, hoot, and holler with your crew (Kah Kaw!) and hike for another lap…or two!

Everything is under control. @Brenden Cronin

Heavy responsibility @Brenden Cronin

Brenden at the wheel of the old and “only” 600hp 12.5-liter John Deer diesel pushing the head of a snowblower that can move 3000 tons of snow per hour. @Brenden Cronin

Closing in the dark while the world is still in bed is not always the case. Sometimes it’s the middle of the day and the storm brings more than anticipated, vehicles slide off the road and suddenly the road is closed. Sometimes it’s way out of my hands and the road just seems to close itself for any number of reasons.

You don’t know what I do. But I know what I must do, to keep the machine moving forward and keep the road safe. Looking at weather models, listening to the wind, watching the snow build upon the road, starting zones begin to slowly change shape, moving through the mountains I feel the snow under my feet. I take in all that information and use it to make the tough calls from my office. My real office is on the mountain, in a truck on the side of a highway and in various metal boxes.

Some of the avalanche mitigation infrastructure is in a large metal box 500 meters above the highway and to get there we hike uphill. In the winter, we ski down as it’s safer and it’s our time to analyze and record what we see when we get into the snow. Other pieces of infrastructure are elsewhere on the mountain and from time to time we need to work on them in the winter. Fortunately for us traveling to them in winter it’s easiest and safer to ski.

Not the best day, the best job. @Bobby Griffith

No smoking. @Brenden Cronin

I love my job, it’s the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had as an avalanche professional and at times the most stressful. It keeps me up at night, leaves a pit in my stomach and some days it’s hard to breathe. Snow in my face that’s so light that you choke on it, need a neck tube over my mouth just so I can breathe. I hate my job; I love my job. I keep saying “me” as if I’m the only one but it’s a very small, focused and passionate crew that I am fortunate to work with when the tough calls are made.

People text to ask when the road will open, if I know why it closed and we really need to close it. All of it makes me laugh because they are sitting at home warm in bed, perhaps at the local bar bitching about how they don’t want to drive the other way home because it takes longer. On our side, we have a heavy burden, because the slightest error in our decisions will affect thousands of people. It’s these tough decisions that keep me awake at night.

The lucky ones skiing from the highway on a big day. @Brenden Cronin

Desperate ills need desperate remedies. The 105 Howitzer in action. @Brenden Cronin

Working through the tough calls, the problems, the process is what makes the job special. Sometimes it’s really easy, with very straight forward data, other times it’s a horrendous shade of grey and nothing seems to stand out and getting to the decision is a painfully slow process. Working towards a solution while everyone else is home in bed, safe, warm…easy.

To step outside and feel the wind ripping across your face, that beautiful powerful burn that shreds you to the core. I’m lucky, I love it.

What I get to do fascinates me, and how I got here fascinates me as well.

I chased a dream.

All I wanted to do was ski.

Brenden Cronin, @brenden.f.cronin

Easy there, beast. @ Ben Dann.

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