Keystone Mountain Safety Manager hopes to change the public perception of yellow jackets enforcing safety on the ski slopes
Jonathan 'Panic' Cernanec is a finalist for the 2023 safety champion of the year award
Summit Daily News
Much like driving past a patrol cop, skiers who love speed might feel a drop in the pit of their stomach when they turn a corner and see a slow zone sign with a resort employee sitting behind it.
It is because of situations like these that some skiers and riders might have a poor image and relationship with the mountain safety teams at many ski resorts across the country.
Keystone Resort mountain safety manager Jonathan “Panic” Cernanec has been on a mission to change that. As a result, he was recently named a finalist by the National Ski Areas Association for the 2023 Safety Champion of the Year award.
Cernanec originally started his professional career as a corporate engineer who designed exteriors for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. After a couple years of meticulous work, he had the urge to escape the corporate lifestyle and moved to Summit County.
“Neither Detroit, nor the engineering world or living in a cubicle were good for me,” Cernanec said. “I was a ski patroller at Keystone for four seasons, and I actually volunteered for a season out in Detroit. This is now my second season as mountain safety manager.”
Support Local Journalism
Although Cernanec is calm and collected while out on the slopes, he received his nickname “Panic” because of a brief moment of hysteria during his rookie year as a ski patroller at Keystone.
“I had a young 11-year-old who was very hurt, and his father didn’t speak English,” Cernanec said. “His older brother had passed them on the hill, and the father was a little bit agitated because he had a hurt 11-year-old and a 14-year-old who was somewhere else — in a country where he doesn’t speak the language.”
While trying to get a grip on the ensuing situation, Cernanec issued a panicked radio call for backup. When he arrived back at ski patrol headquarters about an hour later, the nickname of “Cerpanic” was given to him by the ski patrol dispatcher.
“Eventually the ‘Cer’ got dropped, and ‘Panic’ it was,” Cernanec said.
Cernanec says one of the things that drew him to a career in the ski industry and specifically mountain safety is the unknown day-to-day aspect of the job.
“We really have no idea,” Cernanec said. “Every single day can be a little bit different.”
Whether it involves having hard conversations with guests or interacting with other Keystone employees, Cernanec says the meat of his job is making sure that his team is having a positive influence on the Keystone community and the ski culture.
“That can take form in hundreds of different ways,” Cernanec said. “Sometimes it is hard conversations, but, oftentimes, it takes the form of just education. For most people, the only thing that is keeping them from stepping up their experience is understanding a little bit more about how to navigate the high Alpine.”
Beyond the unknown of the job, Cernanec was also drawn to the mountain safety manager position because of the often bad reputation that the department’s employees have while out on the hill.
Cernanec recognized there was a need for better mountain safety education.
“I believe that the ski community and ski culture can be something beautiful that self-perpetuates positivity and safe performance,” Cernanec said. “If you just educate people and get everyone on the same page, you can make them believe that by making the right choices, and by being courteous, that they are helping to continue on a beautiful culture. That is what I want. I want to ski when I am 90, and I want it to be a safe place.”
Over the last two seasons, Cernanec has helped spread the rules of the mountain through positive reinforcement. In turn, that has made the yellow jackets of Keystone’s mountain safety team look more approachable to guests.
Ultimately, it is the people that Cernanec gets to interact with on a daily basis that makes his job so special to him.
“I love my coworkers, I love my employees, I love my ski patrol counterparts — but I also love the ski lift,” Cernanec said. “Every single time you get on a ski lift, you get to be with a totally new human being. A brand new personality with their history and aspirations. Whether it is helping continue their stoke or talking about something completely random — I love the ski lift.”
Cernanec feels humbled and honored to be named a finalist for the National Ski Areas Association’s 2023 Safety Champion of the Year award, but he also feels a bit unworthy of the nomination at the same time.
“That nomination — and all of the work I have done — wouldn’t have been possible without my leadership and my employees,” Cernanec said.
Cernanec said his success was assisted by Keystone Vice President and General Manager Chris Sorensen, senior manager of health and safety Everett Moore, ski patrol director Mike Daly, senior director of mountain operations Chris Ingham and his countless employees for helping him create a better-educated mountain.
Cernanec hopes to continue to improve the safety at Keystone Resort in the seasons to come by taking his job one day at a time.
“I am not looking to shake any foundations,” Cernanec said. “I am just looking to take one step in the right direction each day. Have one conversation, change one mind, improve one person’s experience.”