A Changing of the Guard at Big Mountain

New leadership taking over mountain operations, ski patrol and more at Whitefish Mountain Resort

Hauling rope bags and racks of carabiners, an array of straps and slings falling in orderly arcs over their familiar red-and-black GoreTex garb, the ski patrollers at Whitefish Mountain Resort worked with a silent efficiency as they executed a recent chair lift-evacuation exercise that’s part of a regular regimen of training drills on Big Mountain.

Despite it being a routine procedure, this particular simulation felt a bit more animated for the seasoned patrollers who recall last ski season, when a mechanical failure on the resort’s vertiginous Chair 5 necessitated an actual lift evacuation of around 140 passengers, some of them suspended above the sheer cliff bands known as East Rim.

The patrol’s execution was flawless, and in the days leading up to the 2019-2020 ski season they appeared at ease, even as they casually referenced last year’s excitement, describing a massive and unprecedented operation that could have had high consequences if something had gone wrong.

Adding further testament to the team’s degree of professionalism is the fact that their calm prevails amid significant leadership changes heading into winter, with new personnel stepping into top-tier positions, including at the helm of mountain operations and ski patrol.

Keagan Zoellner of the Whitefish Mountain Resort ski patrol gears up for a training session on Nov. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

To a non-patroller observing the recent training run, during which the ski area’s new top ranks literally hung suspended by cables, it would be deceptively easy to employ a metaphor about a cadre of rookie leaders “learning the ropes.”

But that worn-to-the nub trope wouldn’t afford any justice to the resumes of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s new guard, who will help lead the beloved local ski area into the next decade.

The 2019-2020 season kicks off Dec. 6 and indeed marks big changes for Big Mountain’s senior management team, including the first full season for Bill Cubbage in his new role as director of mountain operations — a top-rung, jack-of-all-trades position historically dubbed “mountain manager.”

Cubbage follows on the heels of Chester “Chet” Powell, whose career on Big Mountain dates back to 1976, when his evolution toward becoming the institution’s omniscient man behind the curtain began. Powell stepped down from the senior management team last year and into his current part-time position as director of special projects, which included offering guidance to Cubbage.

The transition allowed Cubbage, formerly director of snow sports, to ease into his new position, spending the final two months of last winter season assisting Powell in order to understand the various requirements of the job.

Meanwhile, veteran patroller Keagan Zoellner this season takes over as ski patrol manager after a half-decade working on the mountain, both as a patroller and at the head of the resort’s avalanche rescue dog program, which has added a second pup to its canine crew.

Both Cubbage and Zoellner acknowledge the weight of their new responsibilities, but working alongside a crack team of veterans means that even with the shifting sands — er… snow — most of the changes will be imperceptible to the average skier or snowboarder.

“Chester brought 40 years of institutional knowledge to this position,” Cubbage said of his predecessor. “That goes a long way. And to his credit, he’s let me do the job, make mistakes and learn on my own. We have a really strong team in place to help build on his legacy.”

Cubbage has been an integral part of the resort’s success since 2009, developing the resort’s snow sports into a world-class program while stewarding significant increases in lesson participation in all areas, with particular focus on the Learn-To-Ski/Ride offering and multi-week children’s lesson programs. He also played an integral role in the development of the resort’s summer activities, including zip line tours, the aerial adventure park, downhill bike school, and most recently summer tubing.

Jamie Burkholder training coordinator for the Whitefish Mountain Resort ski patrol practices a chairlift rescue during a training session on Nov. 26, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

According to Whitefish Mountain Resort CEO Dan Graves, Cubbage is a proven entity in his ability to manage large departments and his crossover into mountain operations has been seamless.

As Whitefish Mountain Resort prepares to start spinning chairs for opening day, Cubbage said he’s confident that a summer’s worth of work sculpting terrain will maximize skiers’ enjoyment on the runs, while the snow stacks up nicely on the slopes with the aid of a fleet of new snow-making machines.

“I’m feeling great about this season,” Cubbage said. “While I will never, ever say we have enough snow — we’re in the snow business and we can always use more snow — I’m liking how this is shaping up.”

While Cubbage will remain a visible presence on the mountain, the red coats of the ski patrol can’t help but command attention as they rocket off to far corners of the resort’s terrain to assist skiers, mitigate avalanche risk and promote all things safety.

This year, following the retirement of former patrol manager Dave Stephens, the Whitefish Mountain Resort Ski Patrol will be led by a female administrative team with Zoellner as ski patrol manager and Assistant Manager Kate Atha returning in her role.

Zoellner said she’s elated to start her new position as the head of patrol, but emphasized that the success of her job corresponds directly to the success of the entire unit.

“What can I say, it’s the greatest job in the world, but this isn’t a feather in my cap,” Zoellner said. “I’m an advocate for this crew and if I look good it’s only because everyone on this patrol is so talented and has unparalleled skills. It’s an amazing team.”