Ann Marie Cooper
Ann Marie Cooper first saw Vail Mountain in 1983 when she stopped on her way out to a new job in La Jolla, Calif. She didn’t make it past Los Angeles before changing her mind. Within three days she was back in the Rockies.”I had a job as a water polo coach in La Jolla and I was driving out to take it,” Ann Marie says. “I got to L.A. and I went, ‘ewww, I don’t like this.'”Living in a ski resort and learning how to ski had been one of Ann Marie’s goals, unfortunately she had let her friends back home in Massachusetts talk her out of it, telling her that she’d never find a job in Vail, that too many people wanted that same life.They were wrong.Ann Marie filled out the application on a whim on her way to California. Upon her return to the Vail Associates office, they hired her immediately.”I looked at them and I said, ‘Do you know that I’ve never skied before?'”It was true, Ann Marie had never gotten the chance to ski, but she was a natural athlete and also had a teaching degree. They could easily teach her to ski.”I’d been swimming my whole life, I was head guard at Cape Cod National seashore and I had level two swim coaching, which means someone I coached swam at the Olympics,” Ann Marie says. “In a month I had a teaching certificate for skiing. I taught low-levels, little kids at first and then after that I just kept getting better and better.”Ann Marie clearly remembers those first two years up here. The same friends that had discouraged her about a job in a ski town were taking full advantage of her locale and her couch.”They all visited me that first and second year, I had everybody crashing in my living room,” Ann Marie laughs.Ann Marie had plenty of friends from her life growing up in Massachusetts, where she also spent six-years at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She has a chemical engineering undergraduate degree and two master degrees in education and exercise science. She used her chemical engineering degree for a short period of time before deciding to pursue other things.”I worked for a company that made sails for racing boats, designing the materials that would work best for racing boats,” Ann Marie says. “The company went under. And that’s what happens, companies go under or they decide they don’t want you.”That experience spoiled Ann Marie for the corporate world. She didn’t like the idea that you could put your heart on the line for a company that didn’t have the same loyalty towards an employee.Ann Marie taught ski school full-time for ten years, and part-time for another two. The only part she didn’t like about ski school? Getting a job in April. Her first couple of years in the Valley she was residing in Cape Cod during the summers being a guard and doing ski school every winter. It was during one of her years at ski school that she saw something about Vail Mountain Rescue in the paper and made a prophetic comment: “I’ve been trying to figure out how to apply for that job.”Bob Armour, former Vail mayor, ski instructor and the head of Vail Mountain Rescue (a local non-profit group that assists in backcountry rescues) was seated across from Ann Marie when she made that statement. He invited her to a meeting and as soon as Ann Marie saw that one of the guys had his search dog curled up under his chair, Ann Marie knew that she had a future with the crew.”I kept going to the meetings,” Ann Marie says. “In those days, I had three jobs just to make it in Vail, so it was tough volunteering hours, too.”Ann Marie was the first person in Colorado to be certified in all of the search and rescue disciplines, which include vertical rock rescue, ice and snow evacuation, whitewater rescue, cave rescue and dog handling. For Ann Marie, working with dogs is her favorite of all the fields.”Honestly, for Vail, it’s important (to be certified in everything),” Ann Marie says. “Our team here is small, there are probably about 50 names on the list but not everyone is active.”A year after Ann Marie’s first Vail Mountain Rescue meeting she got her first dog, a 85-pound yellow Labrador Retriever named Teal. It took a year for her to find Teal. What she didn’t realize going into it was that people in Colorado often times put money down on dogs before they’re even born. An advertisement in the paper doesn’t mean necessarily mean that they have dogs ready to take home right then, it’s more to let people know that they’re breeding. When Ann Marie showed up to look at Teal she knew he would hold a special place in her life and in her heart.”The woman’s little boy said, ‘This lady should have our boy dog, Mom.’ And so I took him home,” Ann Marie says.It usually takes a handler two years to get a dog ready for search and rescue certification. Teal was certified as an air scent dog and also for avalanche rescues. Ann Marie prefers labs because of their desire to please their owners. According to Ann Marie, some other dogs like to keep what they find for themselves and aren’t as quick to tell you when they’ve found something. Any dog can be trained for search and rescue, just as long as the dog and owner make a good working couple and the dog has the ability to endure the physical aspects of the job.Sadly, Teal died of brain cancer when he was just three-and-a-half-years old. Now Ann Marie has a black lab named Mallie, short for Mallard (like the duck). Next month Mallie will be taking the tests that will certify her for search and rescue missions in Eagle County. Ann Marie has no doubt that Mallie will pass with flying colors. She spends a minimum of 15-hours every week working just on dog training. Every morning and evening Ann Marie, at 43-years-old, runs up Vail Mountain with Mallie, making it above 12,000 feet twice daily.Over the years Ann Marie has assisted with many backcountry rescues, sometimes the search ends with the people being found alive, and sometimes not, but either way, a sense of closure is provided for the family and friends of the person that was lost. One of the best outcomes, Ann Marie remembers, was with Dr. Kathleen Kinderfather, a 67-year-old woman who was marooned for five days on Mount of the Holy Cross in July of 1997.”She just happened to be stuck between rocks and alive. She was drinking water out of the hood of her coat because it was raining every day,” remembers Ann Marie. “We were about to say, ‘Sorry, it’s done’ and then the helicopter saw her. After a few days people always say, ‘Well, she’s dead,’ but I kept insisting she was alive by what my dog was telling me.”Recently Ann Marie traveled to the Sangre de Cristo mountain range south of Salida. A man had gone to hike the Crestone Needle and failed to return.”People thought I was crazy; four days after he was missing, I was still asking people if they were Jason,” Ann Marie says. “Other searchers were laughing at me but if you give up hope, you’re done. And certainly maybe there’s a time to give up hope; I don’t know when you do four days nine days 15 days but you always need to have some kind of hope.”An Everest invitationDuring that last search mission a local woman who spotted her great athleticism approached Ann Marie.”She is organizing a team of women to climb Everest next spring and she invited me and another woman to go,” Ann Marie says. “People keep saying to me, ‘but you’ve been wanting to do this your whole life.’ But that doesn’t mean that this is the right time. There are lots of things to think about when you go (to Everest).”Ann Marie’s husband Jim is slightly hesitant when it comes to the subject of Everest, but supportive nonetheless, “I would say that I’m a little apprehensive since she’s my wife, but knowing the kind of mountaineer that Ann Marie is, makes me confident in her abilities to make the right decisions,” Jim says. “And who could stand in the way of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like that?”One of the issues to think about for Ann Marie and her husband of four years, Jim, is their wish to adopt a child, something they started thinking about last Easter. The expedition would also be going during the months of March, April and May, something that might conflict with Ann Marie’s job with Specialty Sports, where she’s worked for the past ten years.”That’s kind of a rough time because March is still a busy ski time and this is a ski town and I have a ski job.”Regardless of whether Ann Marie makes it to Everest next year or years from now, she intends to continue volunteering for Vail Mountain Rescue and searching for people that lose their way in Colorado’s wilds.”The stuff I do is to help people but it’s never something I do by myself. It’s never ever a single person effort,” Ann Marie says. “Even if I run in and grab the person by myself, it’s not me who trained me and it took a lot of effort by other people.” VT
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