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Never Go First

utah-avalanche-center-bruce-tremper-matt-hart_3Avalanche forecaster Bruce Tremper skins into the Wasatch backcountry. Photo by Matt Hart

“Never go first.” That’s the advice I get from revered avalanche forecaster Bruce Tremper as we eye our descent in Utah’s Mineral Fork Canyon. It’s February 8, and I’m joining Tremper for some fieldwork in his Wasatch laboratory. As we skin, Tremper, who is the director of the Utah Avalanche Center, constantly pokes a pole into the fresh snow, testing layers on different aspects, digging the occasional hand pit for a closer look. With a storm moving in, he wants to see the top layer of existing snow so he can forecast how new snow will bond to what is a weak and shallow snowpack in Mineral Fork.

Tremper, 59, started picking up avalanche safety lessons from his father at age 10 in western Montana. His early days ski racing in Montana and touring near Bridger Bowl led him to study geology at Montana State University, learning from established avalanche scientists there. In the years since, he’s kicked off maritime slides as an avalanche forecaster in the Chugach Range Alaska and thrown hand charges as the director of avalanche control for Montana’s Big Sky ski resort. Tremper joined the UAC in 1986 as the director, and wrote Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain in 2001. Under his tenure backcountry skiing in the Wasatch has grown exponentially. It’s now one of the busiest backcountry regions in North America.

A look at the work day of an avalanche forecaster. Tremper performs stability tests (above right) in a snow pit. Photos by Matt Hart.

We stop on a 25-degree slope at the foot of the ridge. It’s a low enough angle that we feel secure the slope won’t slide, but the snow pit Tremper digs here should tell him something about the snowpack on steeper, more avalanche-prone slope angles. Tremper digs his pit four feet deep and five feet wide. Analysis and stability tests like the ones he’s now performing can reveal weak bonds between layers, which create avalanche conditions. But because of all the backcountry variables—slope angle, tree coverage, aspect, elevation—forecasters dig many pits to determine where danger lies. “You don’t want to get married on the first date,” Tremper says.

He fills in his pit as a party of splitboard snowboarders descend above, one riding down and over Tremper’s site. He responds forcefully: “Don’t travel over or on top of me in avalanche terrain!” I eye our position—an anchored, low-angle slope with little danger—and wonder if he’s overreacted. “That’s how avalanche pros get caught,” he says. “Complacency.” I know he’s right. Part of overcoming statistical probability is paying attention to protocol. In this case the maxim is: Never ski above anyone in the backcountry. That way you’ll never kick an avalanche down on someone.

As we skin over the wind-scoured ridge, he tells me to wait—protected by a small band of trees, out of a terrain trap—then climbs the steepest slope of the day. The aspect has been scoured by wind, but it’s still avalanche terrain and Tremper treats it with respect: “Low probability, but high consequence.” Extra weight increases the odds of an avalanche. If we’re both caught, who will dig us out? So we proceed, one at time. More protocol.

Tremper digs his second pit below the ridge, on an aspect similar to that we’ll ski. He performs compression tests, an extended column test, and decides he’s comfortable with the results. He refills the pit, and we transition to downhill mode—ready to ski the descent we’d eyeballed earlier.

“You want to go first?” He asks. But I’ve learned a few lessons today, and say: “No thanks, it’s all you.” —Matt Hart

Please visit utahavalanchecenter.org for more information.

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