• Heather Mills Messner

How I Landed My Dream Job

I started working as a professional river guide the summer that I turned 18. My parents had sold the horse ranch where I had been working through high school, and I needed a summer job. My ultimate intent was to go to college to play ice hockey, so river guiding was a short-term plan. The universe must have had another idea for me.

By the time I reached my third year guiding, I was hooked but no longer had any kind of a winter plan. This tends to be the biggest challenge of working seasonally. Through guiding, I had made many friends who were enrolled at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, Colorado, and spending a season as a ski bum seemed like as good a plan as any.

I moved to Gunnison with my sister, who was working for a rancher in the valley. Looking back, I was fairly naïve about the lifestyle. I set up a few interviews for jobs working for the local ski area, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, thirty miles up the road from Gunnison in nearby Crested Butte.

I was hoping to land a job at a restaurant at the base area of the resort because that’s where my friends were working. I ended up not getting that job but was hired on as a lift operator, something I was not very excited about.

I had tentatively set up a job as a river guide in Costa Rica for the winter. Disappointed about the job situation in Crested Butte, I bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica and decided to blow off Colorado. I only had $100 in my bank account, and as it turns out, Costa Rican wages won’t really pay US bills. While an amazing experience, I was not able to stay in Costa Rica for the whole winter and flew back to the United States around Christmas time.

Once again, I was without a job or a plan but really wanted to stay in the Gunnison Valley. I started on the job hunt, but it was after Christmas break, and no one was hiring. I had also lost my place to live as my sister had left town. So, I was poor and homeless, couch surfing in Gunnison, when things started to fall apart with the guy I had been seeing even before I left for Costa Rica.

That was the final straw.

I gave in and moved back to my mom’s house in Utah. As soon as I walked in the door, I broke down and cried. Everything was ruined! What was I going to do with my life? I have experienced lows and highs since that day, but at the time, that was my all-time low.

Back in Utah, there were plenty of opportunities to work in the oilfields. We had a family friend who owned and operated an oil field construction company, and he was kind enough to give me a job as a roustabout. Eventually, I started operating heavy equipment, starting with skid steers and backhoes and ultimately operating a D8 bulldozer on a regular basis.

During the Bush administration the oilfields were booming, and my boss always needed help, especially experienced help. It worked out well for me to work for him during the times when I wasn’t on the river and make a decent amount of money in the off season, all the while gaining experience operating heavy equipment.

After a few years, I was ready to give it a go in Crested Butte again. This was where a little bit of luck came into play. I had already arranged for a place to live with my best friend in Gunnison but hadn’t secured employment yet. I had the opportunity to go on a private trip in Grand Canyon that winter, launching in December and taking out in January. Once again, I was looking for a job in CB after the Christmas season. As it turned out, this was the huge snow season of 2007-08 (still legendary in the minds of locals) and CBMR was hiring equipment operators for snow removal.

After a few phone interviews, I got a job running a front-end loader or backhoe plowing the parking lots for CBMR. I think my boss was a little surprised by my appearance when I showed up for my first day of work—perhaps not the big, burly woman he expected. I remember him saying, “So this is the new face of heavy equipment operation in Crested Butte.”

After a couple of seasons plowing the parking lots, I got hired to run the cat that delivers food to warming houses on the mountain. That was the best job, working good hours with another person and actually moving—not just sitting in a tractor. I skied every day and lived in poverty. I’d become the ultimate ski bum!

After a few seasons, rumors were popping up about the cat-skiing operation out at Irwin, an area east of Crested Butte popular with backcountry skiers, hiring snowcat drivers. I was obviously interested in the job. I knew the guy doing the hiring, Billy Rankin, from mutual friends and the river, and he was on the forefront of the operation.

One day in November, while returning to town after a tour of the backcountry, I ran into Rankin. I told him to let me know if he ever needed a driver, but I was heading to Chile to run rivers until February.

Billy started contacting me before I even got back, and when I returned, I went out for a couple of interview days in the cat. They ended up not needing me by that point in the season, but I was a shoo-in for the next winter. My first full season driving snowcats for CS Irwin was the winter of 2011-12.

The cat-skiing operation at Irwin has been steadily growing since I started, and I have seen many changes. There were four of us when I first started, who were expected to do two different jobs. We had days driving the cat and days working in the cabin as on-mountain hospitality, serving coffee and lunch and splitting firewood and shoveling snow and doing other odd jobs. We had a back-up team of two operators who ran the work cat, to buff out the roads and do any other grunt work we might need.

There were some growing pains initially. Only one of the people I worked with my first season is still driving. As the company grew, it was clear that we needed a change in the position surrounding the operation of the cats.

Eventually, the jobs were split, and on-mountain hospitality has since become a separate position from driving, and our supervisor, Brian Barry, went about hiring experienced drivers for the job. We now have a solid team of four female snowcat drivers and the same two male work cat drivers.

The transportation department, as we are called, is the most solid team on the mountain. We have great support from Brian, as well as a whole team of mechanics who make the world go round.

I come back every season because I love the people I work with, not just within my department but the whole operation. I have friends in the office, in the lodge, and, of course, in guiding roles. I get to spend my time outside in a beautiful place.

We get a lot of return guests, and I have been around long enough to establish a rapport with many of them. I don’t get to ski as much as I used to, or as often as I would like, but I do get the opportunity to go cat skiing occasionally, and I would be lying if I said that that didn’t factor into my enjoyment of the job.

I often reflect on how I got to where I am in my career, and some might deem it “a series of unfortunate events.” I will admit that at the time, it felt like the world was crashing down around me, but through struggle there is growth and change.

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