“He is an all-American professional badass.”
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
PHOTOS BY WES OVERVOLD
It’s been said that ski patrollers work long hours; that they ride chairlifts before dawn, in snowstorms pushed by 80-mph winds; that avalanche control and the term “blaster” are listed in the job description; that a safe return isn’t guaranteed.
Phil Capy doesn’t know for sure, but people have told him he’s the oldest professional ski patroller in the country. This winter marks Capy’s 20th season at Montana’s Big Sky Resort, and he’s been patrolling on and off for the last 54 years. He’s 87.
When Phil Capy was born in April 1928, St. Moritz, Switzerland had just hosted the second Winter Olympic Games – without alpine events. That same year metal edges were first introduced to skis. And Herbert Hoover was elected president.
In 1961 Capy, a Texas native, began his ski patrol career in Vermont at Mount Snow and then at Haystack Mountain. After a decade writing in Hollywood, he moved to Oregon in 1978 and worked as a pro patroller and lead medic at Mt. Bachelor for 17 years. Then he found Montana.
“I love the mountains here,” Capy says. “I can hike and I can ski, and I like looking at them. That drive from Big Sky up to [Bozeman], when you look at Castle Rock, that’s the same beauty you get in Yellowstone. I don’t get tired of looking at that.”
“I just do what I like to do, and try not to fall.”
Big Sky Resort employs roughly 105 paid patrollers and 140 volunteers, and this season will again find Capy along-side his comrades patrolling the slopes of Lone Mountain. Capy no longer runs avalanche routes but still patrols the ski area as a rover, checking sleds and rope lines, responding to incidents, and tracking medical supplies. He teaches mass casualty incident training at the resort, and helped write MCI plans for Oregon’s Deschutes County and Gallatin County here in Montana.
While Capy hasn’t dropped into the resort’s famed Big Couloir since 2007, he’s committed to the patrol at least through the 2015-2016 season. “It’s year to year now,” he says. “I just do what I like to do, [and] try not to fall. I’m getting too old for that.”
As a measure of his calculated approach to skiing and life these days, Capy’s only injury in more than 65 years of skiing was a torn thumb ligament after he was knocked over by another skier in 1990.
“Phil is just a legend,” said Big Sky Ski Patrol Director Bob Dixon, who hired Capy in ’95, the same year the Lone Peak Tram began hauling skiers to the summit. “He’s very focused and very knowledgeable, and extremely experienced – a great role model for the ski patrollers coming up. He should probably be nominated for the [National] Ski Hall of Fame.”
It’s safe to say Capy has squeezed the most out of the last 87 years. He’s been shot down while flying an Army plane in the Korean War; sang in a traveling jazz trio; sailed on the Navy’s first Arctic Ocean icebreaker ship; wrote pilots for TV shows including “Gunsmoke”; and trekked to Everest base camp.
Capy claims he’s no adrenaline junkie, but he still rides his 1976 BMW motorcycle to work in Big Sky Resort’s maintenance department during the summer. He sometimes rides it to the patrol locker room in winter, affixing a studded rear tire to the bike.
“He’s an all-American, professional badass,” mused fellow Big Sky patroller Patrick Robbins.
“What keeps me around is the family. Everybody looks forward to getting back to the ski area just because we get to see each other again.”
Phil Capy answers the front door of his Bozeman home with a grandfatherly smile and a well-kempt white beard. Balding on top, Capy’s snow-white hair is slicked back, feathery wisps peeking out from behind his ears. He stands 5-feet-6-inches tall, but claims he was once 5-foot-8. “I keep shrinking every year,” he says, gripping my hand firmly.
At home, Capy is more prudent than daredevil. He reads spy novels and history books, and listens to jazz and folk music with his partner of nearly 30 years, Linda Herrick. “He likes to cook and bake bread, and if he has enough time he likes to make his own yogurt,” says Herrick, who met Capy in Oregon in 1987. “He’s a very kind and caring person [and] very generous with his laughter. He laughs at all my jokes even if they aren’t very funny.”
Ornate knives and ivory statuettes of Ganesh from India and Nepal decorate a wooden shelf along one wall of the house. Capy, a 50-plus-year Hindu convert, has visited the region five times. He practices yoga. He’s a vegetarian.
Photos of Nepal treks adorn Capy’s walls – of trips to Annapurna and Everest base camps – along with ski patrol plaques marking 35 years of National Ski Patrol service, and 17 seasons as lead medic and patroller at Mt. Bachelor. A framed image of Lone Mountain, signed by the entire Big Sky patrol at Capy’s 80th birthday celebration in 2008, hangs in his bedroom. In red marker across the top is written, “Phil, you inspire us all.”
Capy had enlisted in the Navy after high school, with hopes of becoming an air crewman at the tail end of World War II. But in 1948, after serving as an engineer and member of the Scouts and underwater demolition team – precursors to the SEALS known as frogmen – Capy completed his service and returned stateside.
“Phil is just a legend,” said Big Sky Ski Patrol Director Bob Dixon, who hired Capy in 1995, the same year the Lone Peak Tram began hauling skiers to the summit.
In 1950, Capy learned to ski at Vermont’s Bromley Mountain at the age of 21. The Korean War started in June of that year. Capy had earned a pilot’s license on his own, and with the hastiness of U.S. involvement in Korea, the Army was looking for every good man it could get.
During the war, Capy’s Piper J-3 Cub fixed-wing was shot down mid-air. “I could hear the thump, thump, thump on the plate,” he said, referring to enemy fire hitting armored plates retrofitted under the plane to protect the pilot. But as the bullet thumps moved forward, they began piercing the fuel tank and one hit Capy in the wrist. Luckily, he says, it only grazed him.
“I just said, ‘I’m gonna die,'” Capy told me. “It was that serious. We were behind enemy lines.”
As fuel poured out of the tank, Capy thought back on his extensive training in forced landings. He steered the craft back toward the battle line and landed safely in a South Korea field. “I was back flying the next day,” Capy says, running an index finger over the scar on his right wrist. “It taught me an appreciation for life. I’m still alive; friends aren’t. If you can walk away and nobody gets hurt, that’s a good landing.”
Camaraderie runs deep in the military. It’s critical, as well, on any emergency response team. Capy sees these similarities in ski patrol. “What keeps me around is the family. Everybody looks forward to getting back to the ski area just because we get to see each other again.”
It’s 8:30 a.m. at Big Sky Resort, and the blowing snow from a rogue April storm stings the face. Phil Capy peers through yellow lenses and wipes melting snow from his goggles. “PHIL” is scrawled in black Sharpie on the index finger of his worn Kinco work gloves.
“This is what it’s all about,” he says, and, looking over his shoulder, shoves off down the fall line. “Public can’t even get on the lift until 9 a.m.”
With arms akimbo, and balanced on still-steady legs, Capy makes deliberate turns in the fresh snow, and disappears into the storm. He has sleds to check.
Joseph T. O’Connor is the Outlaw Partners’ Executive Director of Media, and Editor for Mountain Outlaw magazine, the Explore Yellowstone guide and the Explore Big Sky newspaper.