Powder Chaser to Avalanche Forecaster
by Lauren Swanson
Like most mountain folks, Mark Mueller fell in love with snow culture at a young age. He had his first taste of the ski industry in high school, while working at local ski shops. After graduation, Mark headed to Alpine Meadows in northern California to chase the post high school powder. After a few years of working as a cook and in the rental/ repair shops, he recognized he needed knowledge and skills to grow his passion for powder into a rewarding career. It was in the early 1970’s when Mark learned about Colorado Mountain College’s Ski Area Technology program (now known as Ski Area Operations), and he knew education was the missing link.
“I loved the atmosphere, like-minded friends, and culture around the ski area,” says Mark, who is originally from San Carlos, CA, “After a few years working as a cook and rental technician, I was at a bit of a dead end. I knew I wanted to do something ski area related. I read about Colorado Mountain College in Ski magazine and it sounded cool!”
Ski Industry Skills
Mark attended Colorado Mountain College Leadville from 1974 – 1976 and immersed himself in all things ski industry. At the time, Leadville was experiencing a boom in the mining industry and was an exciting place to live and learn. His instructors, CK Lukow and Ken Host, taught him about lift maintenance, equipment operations, welding, and avalanche safety.
“Before I started at Colorado Mountain College I knew I was interested in ski patrolling and avalanches,” says Mark, “I had been caught and injured in a serious avalanche when I was at Alpine Meadows. Ken Host was very encouraging about my interest.”
The winter after Mark graduated from Colorado Mountain College was a serious drought year on the west coast. After bouncing around for a bit, Mark ended up as a lift operator at Squaw Valley, quickly moving up to ski patrol the following season. He spent 15 winters at Squaw Valley, including 12 years as Ski Patrol Director from 1980-1992.
“It was awesome! Great area, tons of avalanche control, and great skiing. I worked year round doing aerial tramway ops, general construction, lift construction, equipment operating, and whatever else they threw my way. That’s a ski area for you — be prepared for a lot of whatever!”
Life as an Avalanche Forecaster
In 1992, Mark made the familiar migration back to the Colorado Rockies to pursue a career with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). He spent his first winter back in Colorado patrolling for Wolf Creek Ski Area, and started with CAIC in the fall of 1993 working on a new highway avalanche forecasting program with CDOT. In 2015, Mark was promoted to Lead Avalanche Forecaster at the Pagosa Springs Office.
“I love my job! It is super interesting and very challenging, ” says Mark, who has been with the CAIC for 24 years, “Each winter is unique and the learning never ends. I work with great people at CAIC and in CDOT and I get to spend a lot of time on skis out in the snow.”
A day in the life of an Avalanche Forecaster begins at 5AM, with weather data collection and statewide hazard forecast coordination on Skype. Mark’s responsible for the hazard forecast for three highway passes; Wolf Creek, Cumbres/ La Manga, and Slumgullion. Though the job of an Avalanche Forecaster may be demanding in season, the powder perks are worth the challenges.
“After that it’s out on skis to check the snow, confirm the forecast, gather data, and of course get some turns,” says Mark, “Repeat that daily throughout the winter. Stormy periods can be intense, but putting your skills and experience to the test is very satisfying and rewarding.”
Ski the World
In his downtime, Mark and his wife Sandy Kobrock, another local avalanche professional, love to ski. Their favorite ski areas are Squaw Valley and they love to explore the backcountry around Wolf Creek Pass. Sandy operates, Wolf Creek Backcountry, a yurt-based ski operation and avalanche education business. Upon retirement they hope to use their expertise and experience to explore different ski resorts and backcountry areas.
Although professional upward mobility in the ski industry can be challenging terrain to navigate, it is possible to achieve your dreams. With the help of Colorado Mountain College’s Ski Area Operations program, Mark Mueller was able to gain the skills necessary to turn his passion for powder chasing from a part-time job to fulfilling career with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Today, CMC offers specialized training specific to the industry through the Avalanche Science Program.
“My advice to students or anyone who wants to work in the ski industry,” says Mark, “Is to dream your life and live your dream. Make it happen.”