“To me the goal was to learn, to see, to know, to understand. Never could I glimpse a sail on an outbound ship but my heart would stumble and my throat grow tight” (Louis L’Amour The Marching Drum)
1:20 AM Monday. Ted Stevens International Airport, Anchorage. Travel delays and frequent flier tickets deposited me here at midnight, seven hours before the workshop started. Like any traveling skier, I had made lodging plans with ski friends. And like all ski friends, their dates were wrong and I had nowhere to crash until Monday night.
I came for the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW). The ISSW was started in 1976 as a way to “merge theory with practice.” An annual and truly international event, past locations have included Vancouver, Davos, Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley, with future locations planned in Chamonix and Banff. It seems every country with mountains, and some without, sent lecturers or participants. Trying to rank the best represented country or institution is difficult; a quick roster sample reveals experts from the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, the Canadian Avalanche Center, Rosa Khutor Avalanche Service in Russia and Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol and Montana State University.
6:00 AM Monday. Kaladi Brother’s Coffee, Downtown Anchorage. I gazed into downtown Anchorage through the dark rain, feeling surprisingly refreshed from a few hours sleep on airport benches. Anchorage is the kind of place you look forward to visiting for the first time. You add time onto your trip to ‘see’ Anchorage. Alaska’s primal beauty though does not exist in Anchorage. Alaska is home to 39 mountain ranges, 100,000 glaciers and the most amazing rivers and wilderness in the world; Anchorage is a rough and tumble town with high levels of alcoholism and vagrancy, Chinese buffets and Wal-Mart’s. Its redeeming quality is its local world-class skiers and climbers, access it provides to Denali National Park, Alyeska Ski Area and a multitude of renowned heli-ski operations (Mike Wiegele, Chugach Powder Guides, Alaska Rendezvous, ect.). At the same time this Alaskan city supports a methamphetamine culture and the Albanian mafia. Gazing at the city while being here to study the mountains this contrast is startling.
The format for the workshop was 15 minute presentations followed by question and answer. Speakers were selected after submitting papers to the ISSW board. The entire sphere of snow science was included. Thermodynamic scientists from Montana talked about surface and depth hoar, Swiss avalanche experts explained their risk management strategies and ski patrols from around the world discussed notable avalanche events. It was amazing to see Mike Weigle (USA), world renowed heli-guide, listening to Norwegian psychologists discuss risk analysis and our “culture of risk.” Perry Bartelt (Switzerland) presented “The Underestimated Role of the Stauchwall in Fell-Depth Avalanche Releases” shortly after Fanny Bourjaillat (FRA) outlined the site for the 2014 Winter Olympics and avalanche control strategies being implemented. The lectures covered an extremely wide variety of topics, but all were expertly and professionally presented.
My favorite and final topic was airbags (balloon bag backpacks). Our use of airbags in the US is significantly lower then one sees in Europe. By significantly I mean we rarely see them here, while in Europe I’m typically one of the few people without. Because airbags are a relatively new topic, many of the studies illustrated were the first of their kind. Pascal Haegeli’s (Canada) study of the effectiveness of airbags in large avalanches is the most comprehensive examination of the system to date while Steve Christie (USA) of Backcountry Access discussed changes to human behavior when using balloon bags. It was refreshing to see statistics collected by researchers and not manufacturers.
3:45 AM Saturday. I peer down the dark and rainy street, pitying the human forms huddled under ledges in the frigid fall weather. I can’t help reflect how little this weeks proceedings have changed this isolated city. The groundbreaking transfer of knowledge that I witnessed and participated in has done nothing to solve the rampant drug and alcohol problems troubling Anchorage. Guilt fills me when I contrast my elation at finding temperature gradient modeling software with the overwhelming sense of despair I see around the city. Maybe once our knowledge reaches a point where our friends and family are safe in the mountains this collected group of thinkers can shift to solving some of the problems we saw this week.