Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop

It’s officially time to think about snow! This past Saturday concluded the 3rd Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and yesterday I participated in an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Instructor Refresher Course.

Photo by Brian Irwin
Photo by Brian Irwin
Full House
Full House

Colleague Jonathan Shefftz wrote up a great recap of the workshop and has given me permission to post his draft here. Final attendance numbers still need to be verified and there may be some minor tweaks before this is published in the February edition of the Avalanche Review published by the American Avalanche Association. All photos are mine.

Third-Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)
by Jonathan S. Shefftz

Our third-annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop was held on November 9 in North Conway NH, near the base of Mount Washington in the Presidentials Range.

This year’s ESAW was once again a collaborative effort of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center – led by Chris Joosen – and AAA Eastern Representative Kyle Tyler.  Strong attendance of 145 filled up the entire gym of our host, the John H. Fuller Elementary School.  The $75 per-attendee registration fee was supplemented with a $500 grant from the American Avalanche Association, and registration fee proceeds over and above the hosting costs went to the youth-oriented White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund.

As with similar workshops in other regions, the presentations appealed to the attendee mix of snow professionals and enthusiastic recreationalists.

We started with Rebecca Scholand, a Mount Washington Observatory meteorologist.  In her 2011 presentation on upslope snow development, she remarked that she didn’t care about snow after it falls on the ground.  But since then, backcountry skiing has drawn her into our avalanche community, and her presentation covered resources and protocols for improving our avalanche-related weather observations.

Sign language? No, a cool way to estimate cloud cover
Sign language? No, a cool way to estimate cloud cover

Next we went on a tour of Maine’s Baxter State Park and its Mount Katahdin with Chief Ranger Ben Woodard, who explored the ramifications of the limited winter road access (a sharp contrast to NH’s Presidentials).  Bob Baribeau, from Mahoosuc Search and Rescue, demonstrated how Katahdin’s “Tableland” snow farm loads up even the technical ice climbing routes and summer hiking trails, so avalanche risk is not exclusive to skiers seeking powder.  And with a limited number of on-site park rangers plus only a weekend and holiday presence of formal rescue groups, combined with long approaches, self-rescue is often the only option (a rarity in the Northeast).  Bob noted that the average visitor now has more technical gear than common sense.   Although sees more avalanche rescue gear among climbers, he also sees parties cutting down on time devoted to information gathering (tying in nicely with the prior presentation on the importance of weather observations).

Doug Richmond, sporting a “Big Green” cap from his nearby alma mater Dartmouth College, assessed human behavior at the ski area boundary, informed by his many years as the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol Director.  Back in the 1970s, a federal ordinance legally sealed off the ski area boundary.  The legal status has since changed, as has interest in out-of-bounds skiing and the prevalence of ski touring gear.  Doug’s “favorite” incident included a helmet cam video of a skier whose partner is avalanched, then takes out his beacon and … reviews the back of the housing for the instructions on how to conduct a search.

A series of short sessions started with Julie LeBlanc, who updated us on her presentation from last year on the avalanche forecast center in Quebec’s Haute-Gaspesie (aka Chic Chocs), the only avalanche forecast center east of the Rockies other than our own Mount Washington.  (And once again, her Quebecois accent contrasted nicely with a bunch of American male presenters!)

Roger Damon, who has been teaching National Ski Patrol avalanche safety courses at Mount Washington since the mid-1960s, presented an update of his earlier ISSW paper on eastern ski resort avalanches.  Our ski resorts’ natural snowfall and typically scouring winds, further combined with high skier density, almost never allow for natural snow avalanches.  Yet our snowmaking prowess can also make … avalanches.  A December 2002 avalanche at 750-foot Holiday Valley (near Buffalo NY) left a 2.1-meter crown, representing a crown face almost exactly one percent of the entire resort vertical drop – perhaps setting some sort of record?  And preparations for the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics were evocative of a Monty Python scene:

“Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show ’em. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp.”
For the downhill race course, Whiteface Mountain blew onto bare ground a massive amount of snow.  It avalanched into the woods, leaving bare ground.  So Whiteface below onto the bare ground a second massive amount of snow.  It avalanched into the woods, leaving bare ground.  Fortunately the third try was not another strike!

Last year, Eric Lutz, a PhD snow scientist with the Dartmouth College Glaciology Group, had explained the art and science of snow penotrometry, taking us from the Ramsonde in the 1930s to the SnowMicroPen in the 1990.  This year, Brint Markle, with his fellow MIT whizzes at their AvaTech Safety start-up, took us into the next era.  As presented the prior month at CSAW, imagine if you could stick a sectional probe into the snow to immediately transmit a complete hardness profile to your phone, which would then be uploaded to a crowd-sourced geospatial map.  And imagine if you could do that … pretty much right now.  (Wow!)  Extensive field testing will be conducted this year by many snow science professionals – stayed tuned for further updates.

MIT upstart company "AvaTech"
MIT upstart company “AvaTech”
Traditional pit profile (30 mins), compared to AvaTech penetrometer (30 secs)
Traditional pit profile (30 mins), compared to AvaTech penetrometer (30 secs)

After lunch was scheduled to be Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab research in snow crystal bonding.  The prior two years, Sam had explained (to the extent we could understand it!) some technical snow physics, and this year was planning to explain wet snow physics, but unfortunately had to cancel because of a flu-like illness.  (Best wishes for a speedy recovery!)

Instead we skipped to Dale Atkins, past President of the American Avalanche Association.  Dale focused on the concept of risk, and introduced us to VUCA:  volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.  Our goal should be not to minimize risk but rather to minimize uncertainty.  He closed on the thought that when faced with uncertainty, don’t rely on decisions that require predictions.

Another series of short sessions started with Dale Atkins again, this time on avalanche rescue.  Dale is RECCO’s Training and Education Manager, but his presentation encompassed all the types, phases, and equipment involved in rescue.  His closing thought was that rescue gear puts you in a place to be lucky – but you don’t ever want to rely on luck!

Indeed they are!
Indeed they are!

Next was Jeff Lane, one of our snow rangers, who introduced us to meteorological variability on Mount Washington (and also announced a new free continuing education series scheduled for the second Saturday of every month).  Cyrena Briedé, director of summit operations for the Mount Washington Observatory, assessed how well the summit above-treeline 24/7 observations correlate with conditions for the avalanche forecast areas down in the at-treeline glacial cirques.  

Tim Brown, an instructor trainer for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, had flown out to teach an instructor refresher course the following day.  He explained the evolution and current usage of “avalanche problem” descriptors to communicate risk.  With our local “arctic maritime” avalanche climate, wind slab is almost always our primary or even exclusive concern.  But we eastern skiers see more varied avalanche conditions than anyone else, since we’re ones always flying out to various western regions in search of better snow and bigger mountains.  Therefore, Tim’s presentation was especially important for us when suddenly exposed to the avalanche bulletin format of different forecast centers.

Finally, up again was Doug Richmond to explain Bridger Bowl’s avalanche program and operations.  Despite those previously discussed snowmaking avalanches, and also Whiteface Mountain’s lift-served access to avalanche-prone landslide paths, eastern ski resorts are pretty much immune from avalanche danger.  Therefore, Doug provided a glimpse into a world that we do not experience locally.

Interspersed throughout were raffles of prizes donated by our sponsors, including American Alpine Club, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, ARVA, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, DPS Skis, Dynafit, Leki, Mammut, Mountain Hardwear, Off-Piste Mag, Petzl, Ortovox, Skimo.co, Sterling Rope, Toko, and Voile.

ESAW finally adjourned down the street to our second host International Mountain Equipment for socializing plus vendor displays from AIARE, AvaTech Safety, BCA, BD/Pieps, La Sportiva, Mammut, Ortovox, Petzl, RECCO, and Sterling.

Social Hour at IME
Social Hour at IME

The following morning, the AIARE instructor training happened to be held at the 2011 ESAW venue:  we marveled at how we were ever able to squeeze into there only two years!  And indeed we are now outgrowing our 2012 and 2013 venue, so plan to join us for the fourth-annual ESAW at the even larger “Theater in the Woods” in neighboring Intervale NH November 8, 2014.

AIARE 1 Instructor Refresher Course
AIARE 1 Instructor Refresher Course

Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and mondopoint-size 16 daughter (still too small for “Tech”-compatible ski touring boots) in Western Massachusetts, where he patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England, he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at jshefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.

While we barely have any snow on the Mt. Washington these two events signal the start of the 2013/2014 Avalanche Course season for me. Now is the the time to take a personal inventory of your goals for avalanche education this season. Events like these continue to reinforce that even after a decade of practice and dozens of courses the learning never stops!

I will be continuing my own professional development in December when I fly out to Mt. Rose, Nevada for an AIARE 2 Instructor Refresher Course. Then our season begins in earnest with our first course starting December 28th.

Since we’ve added online reservations our early enrollment has been significant. A few of our scheduled dates are close to full, so if you’ve been thinking about taking a course this season please check out our dates for our AIARE 1 Courses here.

This year we’re also offering 2 special 4-day “touring gear only” courses that combine the regular 3-Day course with an additional day of touring to help solidify skills learned during the 24 hour course. Those two courses are found here.

I’ll be updating again before the first course kicks off. In the meantime, time to find my avalanche beacon, tune up the skis, and think of snow!

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