By Emily Stifler Wolfe
Big Sky ski patrol director Bob Dixon is buried up to his waist in avalanche debris. “Let’s go find my friend,” he says to the patroller digging him out, adamant. “Let’s go. Let’s get moving.”
It’s the last week of the 2018-2019 ski season, and Dixon, 69, wasn’t actually involved in an avalanche accident. Instead, he’s starring in a training video to help next year’s rookie patrollers learn how to respond to an avalanche. His role in the film was as a poacher who skied into closed terrain, and is now acting as a witness.
Wearing an old purple coat and grinning in the sun, it’s not hard to imagine Dixon when he first came to Big Sky in 1982 at age 33. His wavy red and gray hair is thick and bushy over the goggles he’s wearing backwards. Dixon is retiring this year after 37 years, and if the 10 patrollers helping with the film project are any indication, his team is going to miss him.
“Bob, you’ll be immortalized next year at the refresher,” says Bart Mitchell, the longtime patroller who’s organizing the film project. “As if you’re not already famous enough.”
Indeed, Dixon is famous on Lone Peak: For his Mr. Spock-like calm under pressure; for patrolling six days a week during most of his career; for his tall tales about surviving the 1960s; and for wearing only sunglasses until the temperature is below negative 10.
“He looked like he had his head stuck in the spark plug cleaner in auto class,” said Eddie Garcia, who patrolled with Dixon for 18 years starting in 1989, recalling a particularly cold avalanche control morning in the Gullies with Dixon. “The conditions were so punishing. He’s dressed warmly, mind you, but no hat, no goggles. When everybody else—like everyone who’s not crazy—had no exposed flesh. … He was frosted … like an ice cream cone with sugar on top.”
He’s also known for his quirky habit of saying “sit there” as a filler word when others might say “like” or “um.” For example: “When I was in Alaska, I held a carrot in my mouth and fed it to a moose in a wildlife refuge, sit there, so it looked like I was kissing the moose.” Perhaps the most famous Dixonism, it’s become part of the patrol lexicon. (And yes, that’s a true story about the moose.)
Dixon’s first season at the resort, Dixon was one of seven patrollers. With three years of experience patrolling in Utah and 30 years of skiing (he grew up in Colorado), he became assistant patrol director a couple months into that season and held that position until taking the helm 10 years later. He remembers a time when Big Sky was so quiet, patrollers competed to see how many times they could ski the Big Couloir in a weekend—and that was before the tram, so they had to hike up it every time they wanted to ski it. Since 2013, when Big Sky merged with neighboring Moonlight Basin, he’s managed 105 professional patrollers and 145 volunteers. Dixon is passionate about patrolling and is proud of his team’s professionalism.
With only a few days left in the ski season, I ride the Six Shooter Lift with Dixon after they wrap up filming for the avalanche training video project.
“This season has been awesome,” he says. “A lot of good snow. Good avalanche control. Good comradery. A lot of really good ski patrolmen doing a great job, which makes my job easier. … It’s all about the patrol. It’s not one person, by any means.”
Big Sky Ski Patrol is renowned for its skills in medical care and avalanche control. It’s no wonder there is a long list of applicants for these coveted positions every year. Bob Dixon helped build that reputation.
“I went to the medical directors’ board in Helena a few years ago, and they said we’re one of the best—if not the best—in the country,” Dixon said. And although he had a large hand in building that reputation, he of course credited the patrol. Creating this team of strong, independent thinkers and giving them the reins to do their job has clearly been one of his favorite parts of the job, and it’s the people he’ll miss most.
“So many people think it’s just some goof off thing, and Bob’s made a life of it,” said Mike Buotte, Big Sky’s snow safety director. “He believes it’s important work that we do, and I think that does trickle down to the crew.”
Dixon isn’t sure what’s next, although he has no lack of ideas. He’s considering helping manage a helicopter skiing operation in Alaska next year, doing some software programming, or even becoming an environmental lobbyist.
“You never know. Karma takes you where it’s going to take you.”
In the meantime, he has tickets to Costa Rica for a solo surf trip. And having earned a lifetime pass at Big Sky, you can bet you’ll see him on the hill next winter.
“I am starting to realize how lucky I’ve been to basically live the dream,” he said. “It’s gonna be painful. It’s been a good career and I’m proud of it, and it is time. Time for younger people to take it to even a higher height.”
Emily Stifler Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Bozeman and a former ski patroller in Big Sky.