A forecaster at the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) since 1999, Drew Hardesty is often described as the storyteller on the team, and with good reason. After college at UC Boulder, he served as an intelligence officer in the US Navy during the first Desert Storm, and spent a number of years working and guiding for NOLS and Outward Bound throughout the west. He spends his summers as a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park, and received Medal o Valor for his part in a rescue in 2012 on the Grand. Drew is known to infuse his avy forecasts with haiku, metaphor, and allegory, and references to the Book of Job. He cites Cormac McCarthy, the whale hunter Herman Melville, the dry-fly fisherman Norman Maclean, the French aviator Antoine de St. Exúpery, and the master haiku poet Bashō as literary inspiration.
–What is your background?
I grew up in the hills and horse country of Kentucky. I accepted a Navy ROTC scholarship to the University of Colorado in Boulder with the plan to get a degree in political philosophy, go to flight school, retire from the US Navy and enter politics. Something happened on the way to realizing that ideal – powder skiing and alpine climbing. Still – after college – I accepted a commission in the US Navy and worked as an intelligence officer, often with a team of 6-10 “specialists“, we’ll call them – and travelled from Japan to Singapore, Bahrain to Egypt, Jordan to Thailand. Most of the conflicts at that time centered around Iraq and Somalia. Annual Leave from the military found me skiing in Hokkaido, climbing in Thailand. I remember in 1989 or 1990 – my team and I were on an aircraft carrier in the Indian and was having a conversation with a career officer-telling him I was getting out of the military and about my dreams for the future. He was exasperated – “What!? You’re getting out? You’ve got a great job! Career! See the world! You’ve lost your mind. – look at you….reading some magazine that no one’s ever heard of – What are you thinking?” I laugh now thinking back to that story. I was reading Rock and Ice.
–How did you end up in Utah?
Once again..the best of unlaid plans….I’d been working for the Colorado Outward Bound School and NOLS and had a “handshake” offer to work at the Yosemite Institute for the fall. I drove west through Vernal, Roosevelt, Duchesne and crested up and over Daniel’s Summit on US40, dropping into the upper Heber Valley just as the sun was setting over Timpanogos. Deer Creek reservoir was shimmering in the distance. It was magical. Farmland and ranchland. I never made it to California.
–How did you get in avy forecasting? How did you come to work at the UAC?
For me – the art of forecasting… it was like finding that other person out there with whom you will spend the rest of your life – it was like, “Oh, there you are.”
Over the next several years, I worked as a ski patrolman at Sundance and taught winter expedition ski courses for NOLS and Outward Bound in Wyoming and Colorado. I learned a great deal about the Provo area mountains and often ice climbed and skied with good friend Rick Arms and then-UDOT avalanche forecaster Rip Griffith. My favorite ski outing may still be from those years – a well-before-dawn skin up the Sundance resort to the Arrowhead ridgeline…to the top of the Slide Canyon headwall (essentially the south summit of Timp)…north across the massif (looking east down into the Big Provo Hole…to the summit…and on north to the top of the north summit. A friend had stashed a car for us at the Pine Hollow parking area in American Fork…and then he promptly bailed. It was a nice solo outing. Looking back now, I gained a decent understanding of the Provo mountain terrain and climate that has proved useful for a SLC-based forecaster…and I still consider the Provo mountains to hold the most severe terrain in the range. From an avalanche perspective, they can be terrifying. I’ve been caught in a slide there myself.
In the fall of 1999, I applied for an opening at the Utah Avalanche Center, meeting with Bruce Tremper, Evelyn Lees, Tom Kimbrough, and the late Seth Shaw. The job was offered to someone else. As luck would have it, a position opened at the UAC office in Logan, and I quickly snapped it up. The individual offered the SLC job only lasted a year before moving on to California and I transferred to SLC the following year. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have cut my teeth out of the limelight of the high-visibility Wasatch Range and in the more low-key Cache Valley. It added more “breadth” of knowledge with yet another piece of topography and climate to the SLC office.
–How has the science of avalanche forecasting changed over the years?
This is a great question. To be sure, Monty Atwater’s 10 Contributory Factors remain the foundation for modern day forecasting and there’s been recent research into spatial variability and the mechanical properties of not just the weak layers, but the slabs above….But! the direction of late has been something altogether different. At this fall’s International Snow Science Workshop in Banff, AB one of the morning seminars was titled “What Science Has Done For Us”. The panel included many PhDs recounting how far our understanding of snow science has come. But leave it to Roger Atkins – ex-Wasatch heli-ski guide and current long time CMH heli-guide and avalanche forecaster – he asked, simply – “But what has science not done for us?” He goes on to say, “Science is not yet able to reduce the uncertainty about the stability of a specific slope enough to eliminate the need for human judgement.” Our understanding of snow and avalanches has improved, but we’re only starting to scratch the surface of understanding human behavior. The Salt Lake researcher Ian McCammon and Canadian Ian Stewart-Patterson have made inroads into this. And this, I think, is key.
In regards to the forecast/advisory product itself, I feel that we’ve advanced in leaps and bounds over the years in no small part due to technology. When I began forecasting, we recorded the advisory on a multi-channel phone line called the Interalia. You had to record the advisory before too many people called the hotline (364-1581 anyone?) or else you – as the forecaster recording the advisory – were locked out. I laugh just thinking of it now, particularly in contrast to the photos, videos, Instagram images, Twitter updates and so on today – it’s enough to make your head spin. To be sure it’s one thing to talk about an avalanche being triggered on Gobbler’s Knob, it’s something else to have an image, much less a video of the thing. We came to realize at the UAC that we didn’t have an avalanche problem, we had a marketing problem – and we continue to maximize and build upon our mainstream and social media channels in this fast-paced 24-hour a day media world.
–What changes have you noticed in the backcountry in the Wasatch? What about other areas in the west?
The backcountry’s no secret anymore. By numbers crunched by SIA (Snowsports Industries of America), there were over 5 million who considered themselves “backcountry travelers” last year. Sometimes I feel like all 5 million of them can be in Grizzly Gulch or on the Cardiac Ridge. And like anything, when there’s a finite resource and a growing population, tensions flare and public safety can be compromised. This leads to the next question –
–Recently you’ve been credited with starting a dialogue on backcountry “ethics.” What does this mean, and why is this topic coming up now?
The tipping point for me involved a skier triggered avalanche in the Tetons a couple of winters ago. The skier – with a simple ski cut – triggered a 6′ deep avalanche that filled the Coal Creek drainage with 20′ of debris in what was estimated to be a once-in-a-hundred-year event. Coal Creek is the drainage near Teton Pass between Mt Glory and Mt Taylor and can see as much traffic as Grizzly Gulch in upper LCC…and it is only through luck that no one was killed in the slide. I started digging into the recent archives and found event after event, case study after case study of these very close calls and accidents – from Saddle Peak, Montana, Galena Pass, Idaho, Hell’s Canyon and Dutch Draw, Utah the list goes on. Unfortunately, the nightmare was realized last spring as a snowboarder triggered an avalanche in the foothills above Missoula Montana that ripped a house off its foundation, buried four and killed one. Other problems of late include backcountry skiers/riders triggering avalanches onto the open roads of state roads and highways or disregarding UDOT avalanche plans. It puts the howitzer teams in an awkward and uncomfortable position to see headlamps in the starting zones of their artillery targets for the morning.
In regards to backcountry ethics, my feeling is that we – as backcountry ambassadors – should look forward to shape and define a culture of social stewardship; where “freedom” in the bc is tempered by “responsibility”. The Backcountry Social Contract draws upon the philosophy of 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who argued that through a social contract – we are in fact more free – we being bc parties, the cars traveling up the open roads, towns and municipalities – that we are free from harm. These ideals – stewardship, social responsibility – are what we should aspire toward. The dirty underbelly, of course, is that should we not embrace these ideals, it then becomes more of an access and liability issue. Backcountry closures, backcountry permit systems and personal liability in the form of negligent homicide – these are what lie down the road if we aren’t pro-active. Just ask the folks at Rogers Pass and Kachina Peaks. Just ask the snowboarder in Missoula Montana.
In this way, I’ve presented on this Backcountry Social Contract in numerous venues and publications with distribution in the works for DOT avalanche programs, avalanche forecast centers, avalanche education providers and so on. A mock-up of my Backcountry Rider’s Responsibility Code is below, built on the concepts of Knowledge, Awareness, and Wisdom.
What is the team like at the UAC?
The UAC is very much a field-based get-your-hands-dirty type of outfit. All of us come from very strong alpine backgrounds and get a great deal of personal fulfillment in being in the mountains checking on conditions. A number of other forecast centers rely on weather stations, others’ observations, and snowpack modelling to make a forecast – with little time in the hills. To be sure, we have all the modeling, gizmos and world class obs from our observers, but we feel it’s important to “ground-truth” and verify our forecasts and opinions on the snow. Bruce Tremper has been the director for nearly 30 years. He refuses to rest on his laurels, and is continually inspired to forecast and teach in new and dynamic ways. Evelyn Lees is a longtime chief guide for Exum in the Tetons and brings a very pragmatic no-nonsense approach to the team. It’s without hesitation that I would say Evelyn is the bedrock of our team. Brett “Kowboy’ Kobernik may be the most valuable player. Originally a Michigan farmer, he has that keen inquisitive eye for understanding how things work. With a PHD in garage science, he is the father of the original split-board and has built his own snow density kits, ram-penetrometer for gauging snowpack structure, thermocron I-buttons for measuring snow temps…the list goes on and on. And while he was laid up with a broken femur (from a dirt-biking accident in southern Utah), he taught himself how to code and now he’s the de-facto computer expert for the team. He’s easy-going, quick with a laugh, and always good for a beer at the end of the day. Toby and Paige Weed are an absolute god-send for us in the Logan area mountains. After a number of transient Logan forecasters came and went, they’ve solidified the Logan program, giving it the consistency it has so long deserved. They’re equally adept at skiing and snowmobiling and are the cornerstone of the winter b/c community in northern Utah/southern Idaho. Craig Gordon has forecasted for the western Uintas and Manti-Skyline plateau since 1999 and has contributed so much to the avalanche communities throughout the west. He chairs our annual Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop, developed the immensely popular Know Before You Go avy outreach program, and networks with both the duct-tape tele-skiers as well as the rich and famous. Eric Trenbeath rounds out our team, forecasting in the La Sals and Abajos. A “retired” Alta ski patrolman, Eric is a one-man tour-de-force keeping people safe in southeastern Utah. I would be remiss if I didn’t include Paul Diegel – the executive director of our non-profit Friends side of the Utah Avalanche Center. It would be impossible to overstate his role in the overall success of the Utah Avalanche Center. His leadership, not to mention his grant-writing skills and fund-raising acumen has enabled us to enjoy financial sustainability while embarking on cutting edge projects and innovative education that benefits not just Utah but the greater avalanche community at large.
I also make no secret that we have the Greatest Backcountry Community to match the Greatest Snow on Earth. As Wallace Stegner – a former Utahn himself – put it, we need – to “have a society to match the scenery”. We do. We have such a rich and vibrant snow and avalanche community here – from the UDOT forecasters, the avalanche snow safety programs at our world class mountain resorts, the Powderbird guides, and the legions of some of the savviest backcountry skiers and riders on earth. We’ve taken something that used to be quite exclusive – snow and avalanche info – and democratized the info…making it very much a community avalanche center, thereby making it very much inclusive. I’m honored to be a part of it, in a place that played such a key role in the history of avalanche forecasting and study in North America.
-If there is one recommendation you could make to a person new to the backcountry- what would it be? What about a veteran tourer?
To the veteran, I’d encourage them to welcome the new folks and point out what it’s like to be in the Wasatch backcountry community – what it means to be a part of the bc community (see Backcountry Social Contract, above). To the rookie, I’d encourage them to tap in to the UAC advisory and other products so they can be armed with info to make good decisions and smart choices in the mountains.
–Are there any specific incidents over the years (positive or negative) that stand out in your mind?
Two events have been very difficult for the community. The first was what I called – as the investigator – a Day of Madness. It was early season November 2011 and the resorts hadn’t opened yet…and we’d just had a 14″ storm with great powder snow falling on top of some extremely weak faceted snow on the ground. The danger was Considerable, but it didn’t matter. It was a feeding frenzy up in LCC – avalanches triggered left and right in the unopened/uncontrolled slopes of the LCC mountain resorts…and by the end of the day, over 8 people were caught and carried with one snapped femur and the unfortunate and tragic avalanche death of former pro rider Jamie Pierre. The second incident was the death of good friend and avalanche colleague (with UDOT) Craig Patterson off Kessler Peak in mid-BCC in April of 2013. He was carried over 1500′ over the Kessler Slabs above the Cardiff Fork road. I remember calling fellow UDOT employee Chris Covington that night – as he was just arriving on scene. I’ll never forget what he said. “Drew, I’ve just arrived on scene…and it’s not good.” We loved Craig. He left behind a wife and young daughter. He is very much missed.
–You’re also a climbing ranger at GTNP?
Years ago – it was my first, and only season forecasting in Logan. We’d had this deep slab instability that I thought had become completely inactive and so I dropped the danger to Low. That afternoon, a snowmobiler – across the border in Idaho – triggered and was killed in one of those deep slab avalanches. Did he read the advisory prior to heading out? Hard saying. Soon, though, there in the office, I heard the whirr and clicking of the fax machine with something from the venerable Buddhist avalanche forecaster Tom Kimbrough. In came a couple of passages from the Dalai Lama’s book on compassion, describing the idea of looking at an event based upon the person’s intention and their disposition. As a rookie forecaster, it meant the world to me. In time, Tom and his wife Barb Eastman and son Paul became family to me. We overlapped for his last few years at the UAC when he told me to apply for his soon-to-be-vacated position as a Jenny Lake Climbing Ranger in the Tetons. There were hundreds of people at his retirement party and it went long into the night. Toasts became roasts and it struck me when one colleague got on top of the government issued picnic table serving as the podium and boomed out, “KIMBROUGH! Retired – from what? You haven’t done an honest days work in 40 years!” And I thought to myself, Now that, that’s for me.
–What is the life of a climbing ranger like?
This is a wonderful question…Well, it’s the life for me. In this day and age, it is very difficult to find and be a member of a strong fraternity of men and women, sewn together with a common purpose and passion. I feel lucky to have this in the Tetons. The tradition of mountain craft and to some extent rescue in the Tetons began really with Fritiof Fryxell. It continued with to John Montaigne and many others… to Renny Jackson to the present day. It’s this tradition among the Jenny Lake Rangers that rangers should range! And through this, the Jenny Lake staff maintain a high level of fitness, good all around rock/ice/snow alpine skills, knowledge of the range, and just as important – recent knowledge of the range. The staff take pride in a reputation that when a climber comes in to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station and asks about a route…not only has the Jenny Laker been there…they’ve likely been there in the past month. It’s the first step of what we call PSAR – preventative SAR – to shepherd people to (and sometimes away from) terrain appropriate for their skills or condition of the route. Beyond that, the lifestyle is wonderful. We each have a cabin on the eastern end of Lupine Meadows, with an unobstructed view of Teewinot. Cottonwood Creek, feeding out of Jenny Lake – roughly a half mile to the north – ripples and runs amongst our cabins. The meadow – Lupine Meadows – teems with wildlife. Otter, sandhill crane, elk, bear, pronghorn all consider Lupine their home as well. I’ve often said that the Tetons are the most romantic mountain range in North America and I believe this to be true. Ask anyone who’s been there and they can remember exactly that moment when they saw that iconic beauty for the first time.
–What are some of the worst things you’ve seen in the mountains?
Of course many climbers over the years have requested our help in the mountains. It’s difficult when it’s sometimes assumed that the stuck or injured climbers were “dumb” or “in over their heads” and so on; but I really feel like, more often than not, it’s just bad luck. Unexpected weather, loose rock, a quick moment of inattention. After years doing avalanche and alpine accident investigations, I tend to feel more compassion and empathy than perhaps I used to.
–You received a Medal of Valor for your role in a rescue in 2012 from a lightning incident on the Grand?
Of course we were just doing our job. I look back at it now as the weather being very capricious. We had just done a body recovery that morning of a college girl who had slipped over some slabs in the south fork of Garnet Canyon the night before. Our A-Star B3 helicopter returned to the heli-base just as an unusually early mid-morning thunderstorm enveloped the Grand. Moments later over the park service radio – “This is a call out for Jenny Lake – we’ve had multiple reports of multiple people being struck by lightning high on the Grand Teton.” And moments later, “At this time it looks as if the numbers total upwards of 17 people struck by lightning. Please respond.” I look back and laugh now, thinking about how real that was. Time to go to work. The weather improved enough to insert a few of us (Nick Armitage, Marty Vidak, Dan Corn, Ryan Schuster, Jack McConnell and I) at the Lower Saddle where we gathered gear and climbed through the rain to the upper mountain. At the upper Saddle, the six of us traversed the Crawl and Belly Roll of the Owen-Spalding, beyond and into the waterfalls of the Wittich Crack and Double Chimney and onto the Owen Ledge and Catwalk. When I say the weather was capricious, what I mean is that the weather improved long enough for us to be inserted and then high on the mountain, only to come back with a fury and vengeance for which I had never seen before or since. Bolts of lightning cleaved the air followed by searing and deafening thunderclaps. From my vantage on the Owen ledge, I could only see to the north and northwest while the gunmetal was coming in from the south and southwest. Halfway through the storm, I radioed fellow ranger Jack McConnell down on the Upper Saddle – “Jack – what’s it look like upstream of us?” That unmistakable Boston accent came back, “Bub…..it doesn’t look good.” And so it was. After nearly an hour, the weather improved enough to where we could short-haul (extract via a fixed long-line rope beneath the helicopter) the injured and walking wounded parties to safety. Hats off to the helicopter pilot Matt Heart and the Exum guides who assisted in the effort.
–What might you do on your “days off?” What do you do for fun? Any hobbies? I tend to read a lot. Most of my life is non-fiction, so I prefer to read a fair bit of fiction laced with allegory. Asked what I was reading the other day, I replied that I was reading a western…and an eastern. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Matsu Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North were on the desk.