Snowbirds fly south for the winter. Snow nerds fly (or in my case drive) to the Pacific Northwest (this year to Sunriver, Ore.) for the biennial International Snow Science Workshop.
Like the mountain men of yore, the world's extended family of cold-weather researchers and practitioners, about 400 of them, pocket protectors brimming, rendezvoused to lecture, drink beer, trade tall tales, drink beer, watch avalanches on video, compete in time-honored events such as the bomb toss and the transceiver search, rub shoulders with the great and near great (often while drinking beer) before riding off again for another two years of lonely science.
I use the term "nerd" at its most catholic, embracing for this week in September powderhounds and Ph.D.s, plow drivers and bomb-throwing ski patrollers. The number crunchers certainly showed up in force, making their mind-numbing cases for numerical models of snow drifts, drawing crystal angles and conclusions on the overhead projector, racing through arguments for relational databases (developed at hallowed, hands-on Alta, for heaven's sake) as the future of weather and avalanche forecasting.
Heretical blows were struck. Professorial Sam Colbeck of Hanover, N.H., delivered the bad news that sintering, or bonding of crystals in dry snow, as we have always understood it, "is a hoax. It cannot exist. We had the physics wrong, because we had the geometry wrong." And then he proceeded-I can only assume on faith-to prove it.
Robert Davis of the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory presented the final paper before lunch break on Monday. Tummy rumbling, I struggled dutifully to follow along with the abstract: "Avalanche response indices were further processed by normalizing the number of releases and sum of sizes to the maximum in any given year to remove the effects of interannual variability caused by snow processes that affect deep slab instability...."
Other attendees carried decidedly less nerdy credentials, though they were no less devoted to the raw material under discussion. Monday afternoon saw a gathering of heli-skiing operators and guides, notable among them famous freeskiers and cover boys Doug Coombs and Jim Conway. The two Alaskans, champions of perhaps the last patch of skiing anarchy in North America, jostled amiably with heli-giant Mike Wiegele and others over programs to certify guides in this era of blame-and-gain.
On Tuesday, supersmart Swiss guys who speak English more precisely than we do described their nation's remote-sensing, avalanche-forecast system. Sixty ridgeline sites relay snowpack information every 30 seconds to a central computer which then calculates the likelihood of dangerous weak layers forming near the surface. Talk about your up-to-the-minute snow report. "Of course they're way ahead of us," rationalized the guy in the auditorium next to me, "they have avalanche data that goes back 600 years! And squashed villages to prove it!"
Leaning against the back wall of the room, white-bearded Ed LaChapelle, author of the near-biblical Field Guide to Snow Crystals (1969) and the closest thing we have on this side of the pond to a snow Moses, smiled a gnomish, Cheshire grin.
There were papers from Iceland, France, Canada and Japan. Antarctica, California, Colorado and Alaska. The audience groaned when it learned that the guy from Kashmir, a Major General Sharma, hadn't shown up. It would have been fun to hear about avalanches in the western Himalaya, but then (I couldn't help imagining) he was probably very busy dropping shells and slides on the Pakistani army on the other side of the pass.
We did hear from University of Colorado professor, Dr. Tom Crowley, about a new product called the Ava-Lung, a vest worn outside a ski suit that allows a buried victim to breath air extracted from within the snow (snow being mostly air, as any powder pig will tell you) for up to an hour. As fascinating as the vest itself was the relative calm of the testers, wired up and completely entombed in snow. Some panicked after just a few minutes and demanded to be dug out, while others joked with researchers on the surface and actually saw their blood pressure go down well into the hour.
One large meeting room was festooned with "posters," visual presentations submitted by those presumably too shy to speak before the full assembly. There one confronted the "Activities of the International Yukigata Research Group." Yukigata is Japanese for "snow shape," and here were photographs of snowfields and slide paths in the shape of: the Jumping Horse, the Old Man and Woman, the Dragon, the Ermine, and my favorite, the Shaved-head Monster Sowing Soybeans.
Next to Yukigata was Utah heli-guide Sam Davis' poster: "Zen and the Art of Avalanche Forecasting," a light/serious, complicated/simple approach to safety in the backcountry. Among Davis' pearls were three obstacles to Zen forecasting: the Obstacle of Ego (most often experienced by the guide); the Obstacle of Inattention (trouble at home with the wife); and the Obstacle of Focus (feeling the whole beyond individual factors). At the corners of the poster were drawings of a shaved-head monk, cradling a ski and smiling gently.
It was weird seeing all these snow people in shorts and sandals, knobby knees crisscrossed with scars, toes hopelessly gnarled by decades in ski boots. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, old friends from past gatherings and long-ago ski days, went unrecognized without goggles on. Thankfully one of the priority events of each day was the mixer, or no-host bar. "Hey, now I recognize you!"
ISSW '98 chair, Mark Moore of Seattle, said this on opening night, by way of illuminating the conference theme: A merging of theory and practice. "We believe the theory of beverage consumption rates and amounts will reveal that you all have had lots of practice." Even the snow nerds without pocket protectors could have figured that out.