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The Avalanche Experts

Features
posted: 04/17/2006



There are hundreds of avalanche professionals working in the field and in classrooms throughout North America to make the backcountry a safer place for you. Meet five.

THE PATROLLER: BILLY RANKIN
Home Range: The Elk Mountains, Colorado
Claim to Fame: On day 15 of a January 2005 blizzard, Crested Butte ski patroller Billy Rankin boarded a chairlift intending to set off an inbounds avalanche on the nine-plus feet of freshly fallen snow. He headed to Flatiron, a 38-degree double-black-diamond run, lashed two two-pound hand charges to a bamboo pole and stuck it into the snow, lit the fuse, and skied away. Two minutes passed. Then-crrrack! The entire slope fractured. Huge chunks broke free. And the powder spray of a massive slab avalanche enveloped Rankin - who stood protected in the slopeside trees.

"You can't conquer nature and earth," says Rankin, a 32-year-old Long Island native in his third year as a line patroller at CB. "So you develop a balance between listening to your gut and relying on science."

It's all in a day's work for the patroller, as are mundane tasks like responding to minor accidents and acting as resort ambassador. Still, avalanche-control work is the most engaging. "If this job were as easy as pressing a button, or knowing that A plus B always equals C," he says, "it would be boring."

One With Nature: "When Flatiron ran I felt a mix of pride and incredible sadness. It would take four feet of snow before we could ski it again. I almost cried."

Don't Blame the Redcoats: "Some skiers think patrol keeps runs closed so we can ski it ourselves. That's not true. We want it to be safe for everyone."

Yes, They Really Are Smarter: "If you want to be safer, ski with a woman. She can often be the voice of reason."

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["The Hero"]

THE HERO: ABBY WATKINS
Home Range: The Canadian Rockies, British Columbia
Claim to Fame: In 2003, alpine guide Abby Watkins and her husband Rich Marshall were skiing on Rogers Pass, British Columbia, when a 1,100-yard-wide avalanche swallowed a group of 14 high school students and their three chaperones, who were ascending the Balu Pass Trail.

Within 40 minutes, Watkins and Marshall had dug out five skiers and launched a rescue effort that would eventually save five more of the 17 victims. Though Watkins is a world-class mountaineer, the experience changed her: "Witnessing something like that leaves you with a physical understanding of the consequences of an avalanche. It's more real than anything you can learn in a textbook."

The 2003 rescue inspired Watkins to bring critical backcountry information into the public domain. As of this winter, any skier or climber can go to the Mountain Conditions Report (acmg.ca/mcr) and read snowpack and weather observations from members of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides and the heroine herself. "As guides," she says, "we know what's going on because we exchange info on conditions all the time that should be made available to the public."

Don't Ignore the Obvious: "Often, guides will be fully aware of a particular hazard that a recreational group will step right into."

Practice in Real Time: "Just searching around in your backyard for a beacon isn't enough. You have to actually bury things deep, and practice probing as well as searching. Digging a deep hole in dense debris is really, really hard."

Be There: "Are you present? Do you know every layer that's between you and the ground? Situational awareness - that's what we call it in the avalanche and guiding industry."

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["The Forecaster"]

THE FORECASTER: BRUCE TREMPER
Home Range: The Wasatch, Utah
Claim to Fame: Bruce Tremper has triggered avalanches in Montana's Gallatin Mountains, Alaska's Chugach, and Utah's Wasatch range. But he didn't land a gig as director of the Utah Avalanche Center just by digging a few avalanche pits. A Montana native, Tremper's avy education began at age 10 when his father first took him backcountry skiing. But it wasn't until he was 24 and a slide at Bridger Bowl, Montana, buried him to his waist that he found his calling. "When I started working in avalanches, I learned a lot, and realized how dangerous they are-and how lucky I was." Now 52, Tremper, who's been at his current post since 1986, issues forecasts for all of northern Utah, whose three mountain ranges-the Wasatch, Bear River, and Western Uintas-see some 10 million visitors each year. That includes one of the highest concentrations of backcountry skiers in North America, who, even if they don't know it, count on Tremper's predictions to stay alive.

Fatal Attraction: "I love being around avalanches. I'm like one of those tornado chasers. Once you see something that huge and powerful occur right in front of you, it changes your life forever."

Keeping It Light: Tremper injects snow-science-geek humor into his daily advisories as a way to keep people reading. Sample entries: "This is not the time to have a picnic under steep snow-covered slopes." From the Yuletide poem: "It's Christmas Day and all through the range, no avalanches are stirring, which doesn't seem strange..."

Listen Up - He's Right: "To keep everyone safe, amateurs are going to have to adopt the procedures, safe travel rituals, and checklists that professionals have used for years. Get educated, get the right gear, and go one at a time."

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["The Gurus"]

THE GURUS: DOUG FESLER AND JILL FREDSTON
Home Range: The Chugach, Alaska
Claim to Fame: If you've ever taken a Level I avalanche course, you've learned a thing or two from Jill and Doug. Since 1986, when the pair first opened the Alaska Mountain Safety Center in Anchorage, they've taught thousands of backcountry travelers the difference between hard data (terrain, snowpack, weather) and assumptions ("There are tracks on this slope: It's definitely safe."). Their avalanche guidebook, Snow Sense, first published in 1984 and still in print, is widely considered the text on backcountry education. It's excerpted routinely, and there's even a blog dedicated to the tome - written in Japanese.

"Jill and Doug identified how we make decisions and mistakes in the backcountry," says Dale Atkins, a forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "They came up with better ways to evaluate conditions. Their work was cutting-edge in the '80s, and it still is today."

Jill and Doug have excavated more than 50 bodies from Alaska's snowy catacombs, and the work has taken its toll. "Even if I avoid imprinting a victim's face to memory," Jill writes in her 2005 book, Snowstruck, "my mind is crowded with images." Still, the pair believes that, with well-trained eyes and decision-making chops, people can ski what they want - and live.

Now That's Optimism: "I see the same accident over and over again," says Jill. "That's great. It means we can teach people how not to get caught in an avalanche."

Befriend a Flake: Says Jill: "If you learn to admire snow for what it does, looking for clues - like settling slopes, layers, wind effect - is not a burden."

Mountains Are Backstabbers: Says Doug: "An avalanche doesn't care if it's your best day of the season, or if the sun's out, or if the face is untracked. You need to read between the lines."

MARCH/APRIL 2006

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s, looking for clues - like settling slopes, layers, wind effect - is not a burden."

Mountains Are Backstabbers: Says Doug: "An avalanche doesn't care if it's your best day of the season, or if the sun's out, or if the face is untracked. You need to read between the lines."

MARCH/APRIL 2006

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