Bill Foster, who grew up happily in low-lying Petaluma but found his place among the ski slopes, rivers and lakes, trails and untamed expanses of the Sierra Nevada, died Dec. 24 in an avalanche at Alpine Meadows. He was 53.

Foster, a highly respected veteran of the resort's professional ski patrol, was positioned at a location that experience told him would be safe as a fellow ski patroller tossed dynamite to loosen treacherous snow. No one on his team expected the resulting avalanche to reach him, but it did.

One of seven children, he learned to ski on family trips from Petaluma to the Lake Tahoe area. He attended St. Vincent de Paul High School and Petaluma High, but as soon as he was able he left southern Sonoma County for the high country.

"That's really where he was the happiest," said brother Robert Foster of Santa Rosa. "He was a spiritual person and found his solace in the mountains."

Bill Foster was still a teenager when he took entry-level work at Northstar resort near Truckee. He worked his way up to a ski patroller.

"It's a great job," he declared in a 1998 interview. "You do it for the lifestyle."

Foster worked nearly 30 years on the ski patrol teams at Northstar and Alpine Meadows. An animal lover, he trained and handled his own avalanche patrol dogs, Kyle and Riley.

Following his death on Christmas Eve, mournful Alpine Meadows officials called him "one of Alpine Meadows' very best and most experienced professional ski patrollers."

Through the fair-weather months, he ran a business washing windows on Tahoe vacation homes.

Beyond the skiing, Foster savored biking, backpacking, and fishing in the mountains. He and his wife of 18 years, Lisa, often enjoyed outdoor adventures together, in recent years taking two rafting excursions through the Grand Canyon.

His brother Robert said he would pry himself from Truckee and come to Sonoma County to visit but soon would chafe to return to the slower, more contemplative and natural life in the mountains. Having no children of his own, he delighted in introducing his many nieces and nephews to the wonders of the outdoors.

He'd also become a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters.

Robert Foster said, "My brother got more out of one day than most people got out of a month."

In addition to his wife in Truckee and brother in Santa Rosa, he is survived by his mother and stepfather, LaVerne and David Noble of Petaluma; father and stepmother, William Foster and Susan Willow of Santa Rosa; sisters Laura Wiley of Santa Rosa and Lisa Dawson of Sebastopol; brothers Peter Foster of Santa Rosa and Michael Foster of Willits; stepsisters Joanna Noble of Cloverdale and Liz Sower of Carmichael; and stepbrothers David Noble of Sonoma and Tim Noble of Rocklin.

A celebration of his life will be at 3 p.m. Jan. 19 at St. Vincent's Parish Hall in Petaluma.

Donations may be made to a memorial fund at the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe's new animal shelter, P.O. Box 9041, Truckee 96162 or

- Chris Smith