This statement that professional snowboarder Kevin Jones made during his closing speech at the California Avalanche Workshop on Saturday October 17th fit very well with the theme of the entire event. No matter how much knowledge you have about snow science it is the dynamic of the group and the chain of decisions made that will affect you more than anything else. More on his speech later. The second annual California Avalanche Workshop was held on a rainy chilly day. Something made you feel as though that this winter would be different than the last three…
David Reichel kicked off the event explaining the origin of the name. If it were called the “Sierra” avalanche workshop then it would exclude the Cascades along with Mt Shasta. So the name that the workshop fell on was the California Avalanche Workshop. From there the program hit full stride quickly and we went directly into the first speaker.
David Page – The Human Factor 2.0
With tousled hair and a muscular frame similar to a surfer, David Page was the first to speak. He seemed carefree, but his eyes and body language showed that he was well traveled and spoken. From his demeanor, you could tell he’d seen a lot in his time. Having just flown in from the Philippines the night before and making the drive up from Mammoth at 5:45 am the same day, his dedication was evident. When he presented it was quickly apparent, he wasn’t just a skier journalist but an all-around writer. Most of the crowd knew him for writing the “Human Factor,” which was published in Powder Magazine. He spoke about a few interesting concepts. First, he put things into perspective. The risks in the backcountry and the lure of fresh powder which loom large in the community are small in comparison to the problems in the rest of the world. For example, there is a lot of talk about the “mega” El-Nino providing the North American mountains bountiful powder, but almost no discussion that at the other end of the planet in Southeast Asia they are bracing for a record breaking drought. This is what happens in that region in strong El-Nino years.
The next concept, he raised is that there is a sense of shame that goes along with getting caught in an avalanche when in the backcountry. The fact of the matter is, unfortunately tragedy will always occur in life. Turns out, this is opposite of what should happen. The more people talking about it the better the support structure to help others through it. The passing of knowledge allows for more opportunities to learn. It’s crucial to pass on firsthand accounts of real incidents. Lastly, he went into how there is a ton of information about snow science, but the human factor is the newest frontier in understanding how to keep people safe on snow covered mountains. Factors like “familiarity,” which is the sense that I’ve skied a certain face for over 10 years and it never triggers were introduced. Then group dynamics such as the decision maker in the group isn’t the right leader. They were simple selected because he/she is the “father” or a “senior” person in the group, but they have no true experience in the wild. All these play a role in being safe in avalanche country, just as much as snow conditions and terrain.
The Ward Creek Avalanche – A Humbling and Awakening Story
After the introduction of snow science and discussion of the human factor, it was time for reality. Standing at the podium Jon Rockwood looked like a person that lives to ski and loves traveling into the mountains. As he began to tell the story of this tragic event the first thing he highlighted was that the three people involved were all highly accomplished backcountry travelers. They all were risk averse, avalanche aware, and had even skied places like Denali. The day that the avalanche occurred it hadn’t snow for weeks and then a storm dumped over three feet of the white stuff. To enjoy the goods they decided to head over to Squaw Valley. Standing in a huge line waiting for the lifts to open they began to get impatient. The lifts were on wind hold for hours and it didn’t look like they were going to open. A few options were raised like going to the bar, hiking inbounds on Dog Leg, heading to Ward Creek, or even heading over to one of their normal backcountry spots. The call was made to head to Ward Creek since it was the closest. Two of the three hadn’t skied the area before, but Ben stated that it would be perfect. Upon arrival the uphill trudge began. As they climbed they weren’t very sure where they were. Every step they kept asking and wondering. Finally at the top they tried to pick out there line. Jon pointed towards a tree and stated “over there.” You could tell this just got real. At this moment in the story, overwhelmed by emotions, Jon began to get choked up as he spoke about the nightmare unfolding. Ben dropped first and drifted into the run past the point of no return. He kicked off an avalanche. Jon lost track of Ben because the run had a roll-over which meant there was no way to visually follow. He slowly moved down trying to see if Ben was okay. This caused a second avalanche which caught Ben and caused him to tumble all the way down to the bottom of the slope. When they found him, they discovered the slide had shattered his helmet against trees before stopping at the creek. Opening up and sharing his story so others could learn was truly one of the bravest things I’d ever seen. I can’t imagine being in his shoes.
What does the Winter look like for Tahoe?
From such a humbling story, we transitioned to Zack Tolby, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service based in Reno. He began by providing a quick tip sheet on reading their forecasts along with some of the advancements they had made on their pages. One was the mountain forecast. It provided information regarding more or less snowfall and they added an avalanche forecast section. As expected he quickly covered what to expect this winter. Like a seasoned vet, he restrained from any predictions. Instead Zack simply pointed out that El Nino doesn’t mean Tahoe will get a big winter. It just means there is more likelihood that it won’t be a dry one. El Nino doesn’t give him hope, but rather the “RRR” or the ridiculously resilient ridge seems to finally look like it might go away. This is the root cause of 3 consecutively bad winters. Let’s hope this is true!
The future of Backcountry Travel – Avatech
Next, it was time for some technology. Brint Markle the CEO of Avatech was on hand to show what role technology could play in snow safety. This new company which is based in Park City is filled with grads from MIT. Their device allows people from all around the world to measure, track and share snow conditions. Working alongside some of the largest avalanche safety organization, TGR, and many more, this looks to be the future of keeping backcountry travelers safe. Brint was quick to point out, this isn’t supposed to replace the standard tools available today but rather be complimentary in helping people be safe. In the coming months Avatech will be releasing more interesting gear so be on the lookout!
After several presentations chocked full of information it was time to refuel with some lunch and digest the material.