Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A star is born on our mountain passes

By Mike Allende

When Mazama signed on to be a part of our avalanche control team, she knew she'd work hard, have great teammates and see some amazing sights.

But the fame, well, that came as a surprise.
Mazama opened up about her life and work in a rare interview on the North Cascades Highway.

Bursting onto the scene last winter season, Mazama the Avalanche Rescue Goat has become the furry face of our northern snow and ice program. She may pop up on SR 20 North Cascades Highway helping assess conditions at Washington Pass, or could appear on US 2 Stevens Pass keeping an eye on avalanche danger for crews clearing the highway. And wherever she shows up, fans follow.
Mazama, looking good in her safety gear, says
one of her favorite parts of her job are
the amazing views like this on SR 20's
Washington Pass overlook.

Can a goat really have fans? Oh yes, Mazama's debut last year was nothing short of a fan frenzy. "Mazama is the hero we all need," one person said on social media, where she regularly racks up among our most likes, comments and questions of any of our content.

"All the attention I've gotten, it's humbling," Mazama said during a recent exclusive interview. "It's nice that I can bring attention to the great work our avalanche teams do, because they're the true stars. The fans, I love them, but it's not something I ever expected."

It's been a long road to our agency for Mazama. Born in the deserts of Patagonia, her wanderlust led her to Mount Hood in Oregon, where a chance meeting with a ski area worker brought her to WSDOT. That worker was the son of Mike Stanford, our North Central Region Avalanche Forecast and Control Supervisor. Knowing we're always on the lookout for great employees, Stanford recruited Mazama on the spot and she made her way to our neck of the woods.

"And the rest is history," she said. "It was really meant to be."

Stanford, who leads avalanche control work on some of our busiest mountain passes, including US 2 and SR 20, said Mazama hit the ground – with all four legs – running.

"She's really a perfect employee," he said. "She follows directions, she never complains and she does what we need her to do. Plus, she's got a pretty good sense of humor."

But just what does an Avalanche Rescue Goat do? While she jokes that she does "whatever I want," there's more to it. Her primary job is to assist our crews in relaying safety information. She helps keep the public up to date as the team watches forecasts, checks snow depth, helps set equipment up and clears snow and debris off the road. (Mazama always tags along with her team members when making her reports, so there are no goat-specific trips involved in her work.)
The snow was falling hard on the SR 20 North Cascades Highway when
Mazama was up checking conditions in late November.

How about setting off explosives to trigger controlled avalanches to clear out avalanche chutes?

"It's a little loud for me, and I've got pretty amazing hearing," she said. "So I keep my distance in those situations."

Fortunately, she's never had to actually make a rescue. We have safety precautions and policies in place to try to keep everyone – the public and our crews – safe in potential avalanche situations. But she does train for it, and carries a whistle and avalanche beacon just in case. Being prepared is key for any team member, human or goat, and that goes for travelers as well.

"You really have to take safety seriously," Mazama said. "Yes, I know I look good in my gear – really good – but it's first and foremost about safety. We train hard so that we're ready, but the goal is never to have to use our training."
Wearing her trusty whistle and avalanche beacon are important parts of Mazama's
safety preparation as she assists crews in measuring snow depth.

Off of work, Mazama is like any other goat. She likes to eat, spend time with Stanford and her adopted family and, not surprising given her locale, enjoys winter sports.

"I've tried skiing but I'm more into snowshoeing," she said. "I find they fit better on my hooves. I just throw some dark chocolate in my pouch and head out to enjoy the winter fun."

She lives with Stanford and his wife, along with her twin sister Maya, who is not involved in our avalanche program.

"Oh, she's the wild one," Mazama said. "Like any family, we are total opposites. I love Maya, but she's a little unpredictable and really not a good fit for our team. But she's hilarious, I'll give her that."

After taking some of the warmer months off after a busy first season with our team, Mazama is back hard at work. Soon she'll be helping close the SR 20 North Cascades Highway for the winter, while turning her attention to keeping highways like Stevens Pass safe and open over the long winter. It's no easy task but she wouldn't have it any other way.
A key part of Mazama's work is helping with the winter closure of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway
and then, come spring, helping get the road reopened.

"I just love being a part of this, it's really fun," Mazama said. "It's hard work, but very rewarding keeping people informed and letting them know what all goes into keeping roads open and travelers safe."

In fact, you could say the job is tailor-made for Mazama.

"I get to do what most goats couldn't even dream of," she said, gazing up at the mountains that have become her second home. "I get to be a part of a great team, see beautiful scenery and help share some great messages. And play in the snow. I'm one happy goat."