Avalanche Nerd

Posted by on Feb 23, 2010 in Ski | 3 Comments

I admit freely that I am becoming more of an avalanche nerd. And for good reason. Reason I believe I have documented well enough recently that I see no need to do so again, other than to point out that something just last winter I had no understanding or interest in, has become a sort of ongoing obsession. This is not to say that I consider myself an “expert” or even any more knowledgeable than anyone else in the backcountry. Only that the details of such things are becoming more and more intriguing to me. Insomuch that I am at times, a small hazard on the roads – instead of watching the lanes ahead of me I am constantly scouring the visible lines off of Timpanogos, Box Elder, Provo and other local peaks for any signs of avalanche activity. Perhaps it is time to invest in a small spotting scope. Or better yet, simply “borrow” the unused one sitting forlornly in my parents house. (Dad, you can have it back when you return to the US of A).

Of course, I wouldn’t use the spotting scope while driving. I’d get dizzy.

What I find fascinating is that avalanche study and forecasting is very much a science. The best weathermen in the State of Utah (and probably in your State as well) are not the guys with the bad ties and comb-overs on the evening news, nor the oldster down the street whose arthritis acts up when the weather turns. No, the best weathermen I’ve encountered are avalanche forecasters, who seem to have an intimate and useful knowledge of the existing weather reading technology, and an even more beneficial ability to determine how the incoming disturbances will change our given snowpack. That knowledge comes from spending day after day in the field and in the office analyzing, digging, reading, and doing whatever else these uber-avalanche nerds do. I’m certain they get a few fluffy turns in along the way as well, but I think that is only part of why they are out there helping us be, if not safer, at least smarter.

I’ve had conversations with Mark and Aaron, my most frequent touring partners, about how far down the road of avalanche nerdom we each intend to go. The answers seem to differ depending on our most recent experiences or ski days from “not very” to “as far as I can”.  Indeed, our 3-day Avy class was over-the-top fun, but also remarkably nerdy. Which was good. I would have felt cheated if those I paid to teach me how to recognize and survive and avoid the avalanche dragons were worried about being to scientific to actually teach anything useful.

However there is a dynamic within an average group of dawn patrolling skiers wherein avalanche talk is taboo. Or at least, somewhat avoided. And while I don’t expect the entire morning to be focused on analyzing the surface hoar in the parking lot, I would like to spend more time trying to objectively assess our given route and intended ski lines. Something I think those I have skied with this year have done a good job with. In other words – when your life could be in jeopardy, it’s quite alright to be the nerd.

I may never acquire the knowledge or experience of our local forecasters. But I appreciate the work they do, both in matters scientific, but also social. The occasional reminders to keep egos and wild ambitions in check are well received, if at times sobering and tragic. Especially so when every one of us are starved for deep powder and hero lines down the iconic, epic slopes of the Wasatch Front’s spectacular mountains.


  1. KanyonKris
    February 23, 2010

    Better a live nerd than a dead macho.

    A friend told me this this statement he’d heard from a veteran search and rescue guy:

    Most tragedies are not the result of one big bad decision, but a chain of small choices that seemed only a little bad at the time.

  2. JZ
    February 23, 2010

    As an avalanche nerd you might like this account of the avalanche in the Tetons this past weekend and the account of the search and rescue response (unfortunately a body recovery), which sounds pretty dang intense:


  3. Jeff Higham
    February 23, 2010

    Nothing beats a good Rouche Block Test! I spent most of my teen-age life learning to telemark ski that hard way in the backcountry near Fairview Utah (didn’t see a groomed run for the first 4 years)… admittedly some of the best outdoor experiences of my life. Part of the excitement was the uncertainty of the snow pack and the process of deciding what was or wasn’t safe to descend.

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