Alum of the Month

The Hotchkiss School | Brandon Levy '99

Photos (left to right): Retired avalanche rescue dog, Kenya; Brandon, Jaime, and Ayla on Vail Mountain in an area called Golden Peak; A M101A1 105mm Howitzer and ammunition on Washington Pass in the North Cascades on State Route 20

Brandon Levy '99 is a trained geologist and an avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), based in Carbondale, CO, and covering the mountain passes and highway corridors of the Western Slope, a position he has held since 2017. Before his current job, Levy worked for eight years as a highway avalanche forecaster in the State of Washington.

Levy grew up in scenic Vail, CO, a gateway for winter sports and a summer destination for golfing, hiking, and cultural festivals. He attended Vail Mountain School from elementary through high school. "I applied to Bowdoin College and was accepted; however, I chose to defer for a year and decided on a postgraduate year. This decision was driven by my time at Vail Mountain School, where the classes were very small, and for 13 years I was with the same friends and fellow students I'd known since kindergarten. Though I enjoyed the family atmosphere (our class of 20 or so was one of the bigger classes in the school at that time), I wanted to broaden my experiences and to face the challenges and rewards of meeting new classmates in a larger school setting. I chose Hotchkiss for a postgraduate year."

Coming into any school as a postgraduate can be trying at times, and Levy found that to be true. "My time at Hotchkiss was challenging now and then, because I had already been accepted to Bowdoin. I shifted my academic focus to more varied and artistic pursuits, all of which I enjoyed. I remember studying the films of Hitchcock, exploring photography, and struggling to learn to play the guitar. I participated in soccer and hockey, and enjoyed being out on the golf course and just walking around and exploring the Hotchkiss woods. I also had the opportunity to spend a few days on the Appalachian Trail, which passes very near to the Hotchkiss campus and found it to be very beautiful. Every interaction I had with the faculty and staff members at Hotchkiss was a positive one."

After Hotchkiss, Levy matriculated at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME, where he was the recipient of the Arthur M. Hussey Award for Geology. He also chose to study abroad at both the University of Granada in Granada, Spain and at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. Levy was graduated in 2003 with a B.S. in Geology (Cum Laude) and a B.A. in English.

Over the next several years, Levy lived his passion, working as a ski patroller in Colorado at Beaver Creek (Rookie of the Year 2004-2005) and in France at La Plagne as a member of the La Plagne Ski Patrol French Alps. His summers were equally busy; he was an alternate for the U.S. Men's Whitewater Raft Team for several years, receiving a 3rd place in the World Championship in Ecuador in 2006. Additionally, he worked for a time as a New Zealand Snow Safety Officer at Craigieburn Valley Ski Area, an experience that helped to prepare him for his future work in the mountains of the Cascades and the Rockies.

Levy took his professional pursuit of snow science and avalanche forecasting to Washington State in 2009. Working for the Washington State Department of Transportation, he covered US Highway 2 and Washington State Route 20 for eight seasons. "I was captivated by the work I was learning and the ruggedness of the Cascades. In Washington, we dealt with rain on snow quite often, as warm marine air would push inland. The scenario where you have rain on fresh new snow creates obvious avalanche concerns and oftentimes results in avalanches almost right at the onset of the rain event."  

Two years ago, Levy returned to the mountains of Colorado to work and raise a family, which includes his wife, daughter, and yellow Lab. "I loved my time in the Cascades, but I always felt a pull back to Colorado. In the fall of 2017, I began a new opportunity as a highway avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, whose mission is to provide avalanche information and education, and promote research for the protection of life and property, and the enhancement of the state's economy. It has been a positive return to my home in Colorado, and we are happy to raise our daughter, Ayla (2), in the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley."

While the scenario of rain on snow is commonplace in the maritime climate of Washington, it is rarer in Colorado, although there are now more exceptions. "This season in early March, one mountain pass where I forecast, McClure Pass, experienced a rain event, and I decided to close the pass overnight. There were a few small avalanches on the road the next morning. I am fortunate to have the experience with rain on snow and dense, heavier snow that I gained in Washington, because it seems that this type of situation is pushing into uncharted territory with more rain events or dense snow scenarios an increasing possibility in Colorado. I was asked to speak at Colorado's yearly snow and avalanche conference last fall about some of these topics in order to anticipate these types of situations in Colorado. Oftentimes these conditions are the result of an atmospheric river event, of which the classic 'Pineapple Express' is one version."

Though Levy has a few tools in his arsenal to deal with avalanches, one of his favorites is now retired. "I was fortunate enough to be given Kenya, who is now our family dog. She is a yellow Labrador Retriever and is very food-motivated. Kenya was a seeing-eye dog who was dropped from that program due to her propensity to play. The woman who gave us Kenya indicated that she was a gift if we agreed to train her as an avalanche rescue dog. I was excited about the opportunity and had some experience working with avalanche rescue dogs through the CRAD program in Colorado when I was a ski patroller at Beaver Creek. I tied in with the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol and began to train Kenya in the Swiss Four Phase System." In the first season, puppies between seven weeks and seven-eight months are taught the standard commands of sit, come, stay, and heel. They learn to acclimate to life at ski areas with crowds, chair lifts, and snowmobiles. In their second season, the dogs are trained in the intensive Swiss Four Phase program.

Eventually, Kenya became very good at finding live humans buried in the snow during their training. "Avalanche rescue dogs are trained to find victims buried under avalanche debris. Dogs can cover a large area much faster than humans could if they were searching for a victim who did not have an avalanche transceiver with probes. Now Kenya is just our family dog and is retired, but she got a few helicopter rides and had a lot of fun from our training with Stevens Pass Ski Patrol."

Levy's passion really lies in his work and the ultimate goal of keeping the traveling public safe from avalanches impacting the highways of the Western Slope of Colorado. "The fact that I get to travel on skis for my job is an added bonus, though when I am skiing for work it is a very different day than when I choose to ski for recreation. What I am most excited about as far as skiing goes are the days when I get to ski with Ayla. This was her first season, and we used a hula hoop to ski with her, which saved my back a bit. Riding the beginner chairlift with her and skiing down were my most fun turns this entire season.

"In retrospect, growing up in Vail gave me plenty of opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities and connect with the natural world. When I was young, skiing and biking or even playing soccer at the foot of the Gore Range in Vail seemed very normal. It wasn't until after other life experience that I fully appreciated those opportunities and the places where I spent my early formative years."