Buried Alive: Avalanche Expert on Suffering for Science

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There's no doubt that it began when I took a year off from college to go skiing in Utah. We had a very large avalanche cycle that year. Several of the lodges were clipped. Windows were knocked out. Rooms filled with snow. Cars were tossed across the parking lot. I saw their power and wanted to understand them better. First for survival and then for intrigue. [It] took me to a deeper scientific involvement than I would have anticipated. Just seeing a big avalanche roll down, the awesome power of it [is so interesting to me]. It's so delicate, yet so strong.

What has been your most frightening experience with an avalanche?

Once when I was skiing with a partner, I hiked a ways out across a slope to see if it was something we would want to ski. I thought I heard a plane above. But when I looked up, there was none. I looked down, and saw that I was standing in the middle of a fairly large avalanche slope. Around my skis the whole surface had fractured. And I was sitting in a jigsaw of snow out in the middle of this thing. I just stopped right there and told my partner to keep his eye on me. I put my hood up, cinched everything tight and hiked off. So that was a little bit harrowing. Mostly, I've been pretty fortunate.

How do you "study" avalanches?

The real thrust of my research is looking at the structure of the snow itself and trying to understand when it might snow, when it might avalanche, and how the snow metamorphoses. I look at the microstructure of the snow. How it bonds together. How it bonds to various layers. And…how that might influence whether we're prone for avalanche conditions or not. We all want to get out and ski those 35-degree slopes. So how do we assess whether it's a reasonable day to do that or not? That's what I've been trying to study.

What would you ultimately like to do with your research?

My long-term goal would be to take large-scale climate data and the topography of mountainous areas and then model the metamorphism that's going on and forecast the probable mircostructural conditions of the snow—in essence, the strength of the snow. Then, put it all together in a large-scale model that's accurate and actually useful for forecasters and highway folks. I think we're moving in that direction.

I would also like to see the U.S. get more involved in funding of avalanche research. I think avalanches are going to become more of a problem. Especially as more and more people move into mountainous regions and put houses in fairly exposed areas. I think it becomes more important to see how avalanches work on a very basic level and how we might mitigate them.

What safety precautions would you suggest for people active in the backcountry?

The first thing to do is to get some basic background on the subject either through reading or an avalanche safety class. Nobody, in my opinion, should be going out in the backcountry if it is an avalanche hazard without [the absolute minimum required avalanche gear]: an avalanche beacon [transceiver], a shovel, and a probe [a collapsible pole used to pinpoint the exact location of someone or something buried under the snow]. Without this equipment, the probability of getting found is actually quite slim. Unless you happen to have a glove or something else sticking out of the surface. But you have to practice with the equipment. You can't just buy it. It could cost you your life if you screw it up.

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