Each year I mark the beginning of thinking about snow with this annual workshop. I haven’t missed one yet, and each year friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz writes a summary article for The Avalanche Review about the presenters and topics (as well as organize vendor booths and collect raffle items). This year the American Avalanche Association and Jonathan have given me permission to post his article here before it goes to print! *All photos are mine and not part of official TAR article
Fifth Annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”)
by Jonathan S. Shefftz
The fifth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 7 attracted a record of more than 225 attendees near the base of Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range.
This year’s ESAW was once again a collaborative effort. The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center led by Chris Joosen, and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol. ESAW also once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), led here by AAA Eastern Representative Chris Joosen, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative. Additional support came from the American Alpine Club and our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research. Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefited the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.
ESAW 2015 kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of Mount Washington Avalanche Center and fueled by Smuttynose Brewery at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service. Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at the aptly named Grand Ballroom of the Mount Washington Hotel: famed site of the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference that established the post-WW2 international monetary order (including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank).
Although your faithful correspondent’s economics expertise pales in comparison to that of the 1944 conference’s John Maynard Keynes et al., our ESAW speaker line-up this year measured up to the best of them. Read on for proof. (And no more economics references, promise!)
Chris Joosen introduced us to our first theme of Warming. Dr. Bruce Jamieson, Professor in the Applied Snow and Avalanche Research program at the University of Calgary (along with far too many other positions and accomplishments to enumerate here), presented on “Warming of Dry Snow: Instability and Decision Making.” When Bruce offers training on this topic, the response is often, “Come back in March.” But this phenomenon can occur at any time of the season, even during otherwise wintry conditions. Assessing its potential is complicated by the lack of any direct numerical forecasts for solar radiation, as opposed to precipitation, temperature, and wind.
And if that wasn’t sufficiently technical for us, the snow science level was ratcheted up by Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships. In his fourth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained to us “The Physics of Warming.” The scale varied from micrographic pictures of snow crystals to the varying effects of global climate change upon Greenland versus Antarctica.
The next theme was Communicating Avalanche Information. Don Sharaf, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and forecaster for Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, presented on “Communicating Avalanche Information Effectively within Operations.” Along the way, he touched on the perception of “too cold for avalanches”: a colleague once saw an avalanche at … -48F!
We were then whisked all the way from Alaska to Europe by Dr. Rudi Mair, Director of the Lawinenwarnzentrale (Avalanche Crisis Center) for the Tyrol region of Austria on the topic of “Avalanche Danger Patterns.” The “clearly predicable course of events” for most avalanches was illustrated by many incidents that concluded with variations of, “he was found clearly dead.” (The his-and-hers paragliding avalanche incident though was certainly an atypical context!)
From there we went up into the “cloud” for “The Impact of Social Media on Decision Making” presented by Jerry Isaak, Chair for the Department of Expeditionary Studies at Plattsburgh State University of New York. Although we can easily be so dismissive of selfie-stick narcissism, social media is simply the modern technological expression of the ancient human impulse to tell stories.
After the lunch table we were treated to a round table panel discussion on “Traveling into New Terrain: Responsibilities, Questions, Risk, and Making Good Decisions” moderated by Chris Joosen, with participants Bruce Jamieson, Don Sharaf, Rudi Mari, and Jerry Isaak. The most dramatic example was probably Jerry’s planned trip for this coming season with his university students to Kyrgyzstan!
We then retreated to nice safe bucolic Vermont, the neighboring Green Mountain State. But perhaps not always so safe everywhere, as Neil Van Dyke, SAR Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Public Safety, reminded us with “Avalanche Terrain of Vermont.” And this is no mere conceptual threat, as a decade earlier Neil led the response to an avalanche fatality in Vermont.
The final theme was Stability Analysis. Don Sharaf led off with the highly pertinent “Easterners Heading West on a Backcountry Ski Vacation: A Stability and Decision Approach.” Among a wealth of valuable advice he reminded us to: “Listen to the locals … but don’t necessarily trust them.” (So apologies in advance if any of us sound skeptical this coming season when soliciting beta from you!)
Then Bruce Jamieson addressed “Field Observations and Snowpack Tests: Which is Best When?” And Rudi Mair presented on “Avalanche Forecasting Operations.”
We concluded with our annual expo, including displays from reps for the American Alpine Club, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Dynafit / Pomoca, Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, Hagan, La Sportiva, Mammut / Barryvox, and Outdoor Research (our headline industry sponsor). We raffled off donations from these companies plus the American Avalanche Association, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, DPS Skis, Free Range Equipment, Mountain Hardwear, MSR, Ortovox, Sterling Rope, Toko, and Voile.
In a break from tradition, instead of subsisting for the evening on scarfed-down free pretzels at the expo, we sat down for a formal dinner at the hotel. This was a memorial to Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, U.S. Ski Team alpine racers who died in an avalanche only ten months ago in Austria. In addition to some other presentations, Rudi Mair delivered the keynote address on “How do we deal with avalanches and their mortal dangers when we can’t understand the risks in their whole complexity?” A U.S. Ski Team racer who was with Ronnie and Bryce at the avalanche incident addressed us via video, and was capped by a heartfelt address by U.S.
Congresswoman Ann McLane Kuster and prepared remarks from U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen read by Chuck Henderson, her Special Assistant for Projects and Policy.
By far the most moving moments were a tearful address from Bryce’s mother that brought many of us to the same, plus one line in particular from Ronnie’s mother that summed up everything we are all trying to achieve:
“We want to keep you from suffering our loss.”
Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and mondopoint-size 18 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 or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), 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.
Thank you Jonathan for all that you do to further avalanche education in the East and for letting me share your article!
The following day I returned for a focused workshop “Reducing Risk and Exposure for Avalanche Workers” led by USFS Snow Ranger Chris Joosen. This 3 hour session was targeted at search and rescue groups, Fish & Game, local climbing guides, patrollers, and others who work professionally in avalanche terrain.
Towards the end Don Sharaf, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and forecaster for Valdez Heli-Ski Guides, laid down some impressive statistics about how many times during his 25+ year career he has had an “incident”, companion buried, near miss, burial, or died (still at zero knock on wood). This particular graph was enlightening, especially when Don talked about some of the things that cause these big drops in confidence:
It was a very productive morning and I’m hoping Chris continues this professional development session after the official ESAW next year.
Well it’s time to find your beacons and put some fresh batteries in, avalanche season is right around the corner! General Advisory’s will be posted at the Mount Washington Avalanche Center once the season really gets under way, usually no later than mid-December. I also have a few beacons I’ll be reviewing this season, and a cool outdoor survival kit review coming this Monday so stay tuned!
See you in the mountains,