Of avalanche forecasting and snow haiku

  • READING THE SNOWPACK: Jerry Roberts testing snow stability at his subalpine office

    JT Thomas
  • Roberts thinking through the soles of his boots, above Red Mountain Pass

    JT Thomas

Last winter in southwestern Colorado, on the kind of bluebird day when a ski-toting fellow endowed with more bravado than avalanche acumen could be seduced into believing the whole world was a benign winter playground, I found myself in good company in tricky terrain.

The day began on a sub-zero morning before dawn in the fluorescent-lit Silverton field office of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). Despite the deluge of wind, moisture and barometric pressure data trundling across the computer monitor, there was no snow predicted to tumble from the icy skies that day, nor in the days ahead. “Boring … ” sighed Jerry Roberts, a veteran avalanche forecaster with the CAIC. “I haven’t seen it this boring in years. You should come back when we are going full guns.”

Guns or no guns, blizzard or drought, this journalistic foray of mine was not about avalanches (or skiing), at least directly. Honestly.

Avalanches, the charismatic mega-hazard of the mountains, make for good press and spectacular photos. But behind the fanfare is a relatively unsung, unpretentious and snow-savvy group of men and women who devote their lives to keeping backcountry yahoos like me out of harm’s way. Jerry has spent 18 years predicting and controlling avalanches in the heart of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and would be my ambassador to the subculture of avalanche forecasters.

On that bluebird morning, once he had e-mailed his morning observations to CAIC headquarters, we tossed our skis in the back of his orange Colorado Department of Transportation truck and motored up the south side of Red Mountain Pass. We followed Highway 550, a serpentine road devoid of guardrails, girdled by dozens of avalanche slide paths and colored with endless tales of calamity and tragedy.

We ascended the pass in relative quiet, broken only by a few squawks on the truck’s CB and Jerry’s poetic incantations about hoarfrost, stratuggi, sublimation and stellar crystals — an ethereal vocabulary that I would expect from a mystical Chinese poet, rather than a mountain man clad in Gore-Tex and plastic boots.

More than a decade before I landed in the shotgun seat of Jerry’s pickup, I was in Alaska, being doltish. I was attempting to climb an unnamed peak with an ice ax in one hand and a tattered copy of Ed LaChapelle’s book, The ABC of Avalanche Safety, in my anorak pocket. If there ever was a poster child for job-security among avalanche professionals, I was it.

Shortly after surviving that foolish trip, I ended up in the Wrangell Mountains, living next door, ironically, to Ed LaChapelle. Often regarded as the patriarch of avalanche forecasting in North America, Ed is a contemplative man of few words, fine spruce-tip beer, and a to-do list longer than an Arctic winter.

He is credited with coining the mantra, “There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers. But there are no old, bold mountaineers.” In other words, be careful out there, or you won’t be long for this world. Had I not met Ed, heeded his mantra and been inspired to supplement my backcountry bravado with a bit of formal avalanche education, I doubt that I would have ever made it as far as Jerry’s truck, being schooled in snow-science haiku.

When we finally arrived at Red Mountain Pass and donned our skis, Jerry went silent, kicking and gliding into the spruce shadows. I followed along like a pile of inappropriate technologies, camera catawampus around my neck, microphone and mini-disc-recorder cables sprouting from my jacket.

Jerry rose with ascetic focus toward a wind-etched knoll, skiing as if a message were written across the porcelain face of the snow in Braille. And indeed there was, which he translated to me, in a scientist’s deliberate cadence: “That southwesterly wind event from Monday loaded the lee of this knoll; you can see the directional furrows frozen across the contour of the slope.”

On the far side of the knoll, Jerry dug a deep pit to reveal a vertical chronology of snow layers, a profile of the snowpack analogous to the annual rings in the cross-section of a cut tree. Like a forester discerning fire-scars from a tree’s rings, Jerry identified and dated the boundaries between the seasons’ storms. With his backpack of diagnostic tools — a snow saw, shovel and a magnification lupe used to inspect individual snow crystals — Jerry was able to interpret the relative strengths and stability of the snow slope upon which we stood. Despite some obvious weaknesses between several of the layers, we agreed that our slope was not steep enough to stress the weak layers, sending the snowpack — and the two of us — sliding.

As echoes and ice crystals spouted from the rim of the pit, Jerry insisted he was anything but a scientist, despite his clinical palpations of the subnivean pulse. “It is so kinesthetic out here,” he said. “What is under — or not under — your feet, is what is important.”

Among armchair adventurers, and even among my well-honed mountain cronies, the prospect of a career founded on fieldwork conducted in ski boots is seductive. But after meeting Jerry and a half-dozen other forecasters in the West, I decided that their work is less an “extreme” glam-job than it is a lifestyle for the attentive.

Professional forecasting careers today demand university credentials, rather than a long backcountry résumé; young forecasters emerge more often from snow hydrology classrooms than from ski-town lifestyles.

Jerry entered forecasting from outdoor education — more a horizontal transition, than a vertical climb through a career. As techniques have evolved over the last few decades, Jerry has had to add computer modeling and Geographical Information System skills to his rough-cut quiver. Today, all his motions — regardless of whether he is office-bound, deciphering climatologic models, or afield, armed only with a shovel — equally reflect his intuitive and scientific sense of snow.

The San Juan Mountain snowpack, with its infamous instability and proclivity for burying even the most experienced skiers, is not a place where minutiae can be overlooked. Nuances within a snowpack change constantly in response to shifts in wind and temperature. Without folks like Jerry digging through the snowpack’s riddles and writing detailed daily reports, weekend warriors and seasoned mountaineers alike would not have access to a coherent history of snow and avalanche conditions.

Among forecasters, Jerry and Ed LaChapelle are most familiar to me. And on that bluebird day off Red Mountain Pass, I kept both close to me — Jerry off ahead, thinking through the soles of his plastic boots and chanting observations that were more inspired poetics than raw science; and Ed, his inspired science buried in my copy of his book, faithfully tucked in my jacket pocket.

JT Thomas is a freelance writer and photographer and sometime radio producer based in Paonia, Colorado.

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