Life in Snow-Stories of Two Avalanche Gurus

For the past few decades, the responsibility of keeping Utahns safe from the threat of avalanches has largely fallen upon the shoulders of two professional snow rangers. Liam Fitgerald was the first Director of Snow Safety at Snowbird, eventually becoming the lead avalanche forecaster for the Utah Department of Transportation. Bruce Tremper has had decades of studying, researching, forecasting avalanches, and issuing advisories in mountains all over the west, and has been the Director of the Utah Avalanche Center for 29 years, building the UAC into the premier avalanche forecasting center in North America. Both men recently retired from their positions of chasing the “white death.” Here is a look back at their careers, and the legacy they have both built.

 

 

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On President’s Day Weekend, 2012, Liam Fitzgerald sat in White Pine Parking Lot watching bumper-to-bumper traffic creep down Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC) as snow kept falling. Infrasonic Avalanche Detectors kept telling his computer phone that snow slides of increasing strength and frequency were running nearly to the highway in the mid-canyon. It was his worst nightmare, and one he’d endured many times as lead forecaster for Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) in the Wasatch Mountains. This time, he’d had enough. He resolved to finally retire after 40 winters of stress and sleepless nights.

 

Liam’s storied career in the snow had also been fun, fulfilling and engaging. It began at Squaw Valley in 1968. After a stint in the Air Force, and an unsuccessful attempt to “surf through college” in Santa Cruz, California, friends invited him to the Sierras. He spent a snowy month skiing every day at Squaw and got hooked; not on skiing as much as snow. He found avalanches fascinating, and the next winter he got a job on patrol. After a slow start it dumped most of the season. Since he was constantly out on the ridges causing avalanches, no one noticed that he could barely ski, and by spring he was proficient, at least in soft snow.

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Three years later, Squaw friend, Hans Burkhardt, invited Liam to work with him building lifts at the new resort in steep, snowy LCC. Liam and his new bride, Marjorie, lived at Tanners Campground that summer and fell in love with the “little canyon.” Fitzgerald got on the patrol for Snowbird Ski Resort’s inaugural season, and by January, he was in charge of avalanche control.

 

Snowbird’s Special Use Permit to operate a ski resort in notoriously slide-prone “Alta Canyon,” absolved the Forest Service of responsibility for avalanches. Their Snow Rangers had done pioneering explosive control work and forecasting at neighboring Alta for decades, but that era was over. Snowbird patrol would have to deal with a serious challenge on their own.

 

The Tram brought public to Hidden Peak for the first time on Dec. 27, 1971, and a rider got buried in an avalanche for nearly an hour that day. A week later, two women were caught and injured in what became known as Old Ladies Slide next to Regulator Johnson. The terrain was big and untamed, almost like backcountry. It was apparent the ski patrol director needed someone else to focus entirely on the avalanche situation. Despite having no great wealth of experience, Liam was keen to take on the role. He came up with a title for his new position, “Snow Safety Director.”

 

Fitz had a lot to figure out, and needed some good advice. Warren Baldsiefen, a rhododendron farmer from New York, became an unlikely mentor. “Baldy” spent many winters observing avalanches in LCC, and along with Ray Lindquist and Kent Hoopingarner, designed the 12 original hand-charge control routes for Snowbird patrollers. Hoopi eventually left patrol and went on to lead Snowbird at the corporate level.

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Lindquist was the snow ranger in LCC during the epic winters of the mid-1960s. He shared stories and knowledge with young Liam. January of ’65 had produced the largest storm, in terms of snow-water equivalent, ever recorded in Alta. Lindquist explained to his protégé how frightening it became. The underlying snowpack was weak, and as weight piled up on top of it danger skyrocketed. It was a weeklong siege. They huddled in buildings waiting for the storm to abate. Lindquist was so shell-shocked he quit his snow ranger post and spent a few years with the Forest Service in a different capacity. He returned to LCC avalanche work during Liam’s early years. Lindquist’s avalanche adventures enticed Fitzgerald to make snow safety his life’s work.

 

The learning curve was steep in the coming years as more routes and additional methods of control were added to the avalanche-causing arsenal. John Stratton, a solid mountaineer and talented forecaster, became Liam’s assistant in the third season. Peter Schory, aka “Mongo,” who Liam describes as “impressively avi savvy”, soon joined the pair.

 

Although less scientific, Mongo was, “An incredibly astute observer,” says Liam. “He was the best forecaster I ever worked with, bar none.” High praise indeed, coming from “the man” in LCC. They had a complex area to make safe, and they worked well together. Mongo, who’d served two terms in Vietnam, was a natural leader. Fitzgerald was the “snow professor,” who never stopped worrying about what slope could slide and when. Randy Trover took Stratton’s place in the mid-‘80s, and those “Three Amigos” led the Snowbird control team for a decade plus.

 

When I interviewed for a part-time snow safety job at “The Bird” in1994, Mongo told me, “We pretty much know what’s going on,” probably meaning, “Keep your mouth shut young gun. Do what your told, listen and learn.” However, Liam took it another way, and said something like, “Come on Mongo. No one ever really knows.” Fitz was a gun-shy snow scientist. He’d seen dozens of surprises to erode any forecasting confidence experience and knowledge had given him. When it came to avalanches and forecasting, he seemed to think, all bets were off.

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Mongo became the lead guide with Wasatch Powderbird Guides after Greg Smith, who Liam describes as a “visionary,” started a heli-ski operation based at Snowbird in 1973. In the years that followed, Mongo helped with snow safety at the ‘Bird when stormy weather grounded the helicopters. Liam figures Schory worked 7-days a week for 7 seasons before stepping down at WPG, and joining Snowbird full-time.

 

During this time, Fitzgerald and Schory used the helicopter to access and control high, rugged starting zones above ski resorts and highways. Explosives with 90-second fuses were ignited and deployed from an open door. Liam counts this as one of the great advances in control work during his 40-year tenure in LCC.

 

But timing is essential in shooting down avalanches, because as soon as wind, snow or heat stops loading a starting zone, it begins to stabilize, and become reluctant to release. Helicopters need clear skies and light winds to fly, often meaning the morning after a storm has stopped. Another way of “tickling” the avalanche demons was needed.

 

Military howitzers had been employed in LCC since the 1940s. Liam and his control teams expanded upon this, using guns to shoot remote targets. They relied on previously established coordinates to nail targets even in poor visibility. Cannons ranging from 75 -106 mm in diameter are mounted on local high points within Snowbird’s terrain and used primarily for controlling starting zones above the resort terrain. But the placement of a new tower just below the top of what is now Gadzoom Lift, was, “a game-changer for highway control work,” Liam says. Being further west, it enabled the shooting of mid-canyon starting zones all the way down to Tanners Gulch. In prior years, State Route 210 essentially had to stay closed until the snow settled. Sweet for powderhounds staying in Alta, but not good for LCC ski business as a whole.

 

One early incident that shook Liam’s confidence in avalanche work was the in-bounds slide that took a young man in the Gad Chutes in March of ’77. A record-dry early season had given way to a snowy late winter. The extremely rare in-bounds fatality was devastating, and Liam came to work the next day thinking, “It could happen again today! Or tomorrow…?” Constant vigilance was the take-home point. He realized that a certain level of uncertainty NEVER goes away at a ski resort and consequences are deadly serious. The “Burden of Responsibility” Liam carried with him from that day forward was like a ton of bricks. Only when Snowbird closed in spring was it lifted. When he moved on to UDOT, an even graver weight hung over his head until spring when the avalanche run-outs melted back from the road, meaning slides could no longer reach the cars.

 

Most people Liam kept safe in his career were grateful, but others were oblivious, both to the need and the effort required. In Feb of 2008, I saw Liam at White Pine early on a storm morning. I was guiding a ski descent of the Coalpit Headwall in dream conditions. 350’ of snow had fallen steadily over the past 2 months, and the hazard was low, despite a foot of fresh. “We’re shooting the road,” he informed me. “I’m heading for the Coalpit,” I said, “Danger is low.” He nodded, and acknowledged my plan, while defending his. “There’s an inch of snow water-equivalent. Its just what we do.” I knew his diligence was a smart procedure, even if that particular day was fairly stable.

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On another storm morning, after being up since who knows when, and getting the infamously dangerous Utah SR 210 open for the rabid ski bums, he was headed to the Snowbird Snow Safety office when an impatient resort skier accosted him in the Tram waiting room. “What the hell is taking you guys so long to get the mountain open?” he ranted. “You should have the Cirque ready by now. This is ridiculous! I paid for my season pass. I want to shred…”

 

Liam just listened, shrugged, smiled in his quiet, patient way, and said little. He’d heard it all before, and it didn’t faze him. The pissed-off ski bum obviously didn’t realize Fitz was now working at UDOT, not Snowbird. He just recognized the tall, distinguished Fitz as being “the man” of control work, and “let him [verbally] have it.” Little did he realize Liam had laid the foundation at Snowbird decades prior for the current control teams to stabilize the terrain, and “let the skier have it;” the powder that is!

 

Most who worked around Liam have great admiration. Mike Olson, a veteran of aerial avalanche control work at Wasatch Powderbird Guides, praises Liam for, “A calm demeanor in a difficult position.” And “being exceptionally easy to work with.” Liam was not a fan of riding in the helicopter and deploying explosives himself, but he valued the access to starting zones provided by helis. Olson and other guides pored over maps and photos with Liam before lifting off to understand the specific “shots” he wanted to protect the highway.

 

Fitzgerald moved to UDOT from his beloved post at Snowbird somewhat begrudgingly in 1998. UDOT was in disarray after a snowy winter under the leadership of Steve Conger, who was hired from outside the tight-knit circle of LCC. Liam negotiated some important changes in the chain of command, and took on this new and challenging position in the twilight of his career. Part of his success was the respect he commanded after 27 years in LCC. As lead UDOT forecaster, his decisions directly affect safety and sales at Alta and Snowbird.

 

Liam stepped in and righted a ship that was badly listing. On January 11, 1997, 4,000 skiers were stranded in the canyon. Slides swept across the highway as they tried to drive home. The situation went out of control. UDOT necessarily ordered everyone, “out of your cars and into the buildings.” It was a black eye for UDOT. During Fitz’ 16-year stint, including numerous “lanchey” winters, traffic and control work ran as smoothly as could realistically be hoped, given the complexity of intermingling thousands of cars with snowstorms and slide paths.

 

Liam’s team used mid-day “road shoots” to bring down avalanches before the resorts closed. This enabled a long evening line of skier vehicles, the “red snake,” to descend the road in relative safety. The timing helped immensely, but problems remained. The volume of private vehicles was rising to 7,000/day, giving LCC road the ignoble distinction of having the highest avalanche hazard index in North America. A car with 6 or 7 young people was swept off the road in April 2006, by a slide in the White Pine Fingers. These relatively short paths dump avalanches directly on the highway with almost no runout zone to slow the debris. Fortunately, everyone was unhurt, but Liam was disturbed.

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Adam Naisbitt, one of Fitz’ forecasters, spearheaded the placement of a remote gun directly across from the pesky finger chutes on a wooded ridge in White Pine Gulch. It allowed for straight, rather than obliquely angled, shots into these troublesome paths. The innovation was a big help until the military decided to do away with the smaller, transportable, 75 mm howitzers employed at that backcountry location.

 

Another innovation under Liam, headed by forecaster, Newel Jensen, was the infrasonic avalanche detector. Mounted along slide path “tracks,” these high-tech sensors give forecasters immediate information on avalanche activity. Natural avalanches (not triggered by man) no longer had to be directly observed. Forecasters now also have immediate feedback on the results of “artificially” triggered slides by their explosives.

 

Gazex exploders are yet another means of avalanche control that came to LCC while Liam was at UDOT. Common in Europe, these devices are permanently fixed above a problematic slide path. A mix of propane and oxygen from nearby tanks is piped in and exploded by remote control to impact the snow and start a slide. They have been effective, however they are neither cheap, nor compatible with wilderness. The slide paths that threaten SR 210 west of Mt. Superior are all in the Twin Peaks Wilderness.

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Despite all the advances, LCC vehicles remain at risk, especially from Lisa Falls to White Pine Parking Lot, and it means sleepless nights and shortened careers for conscientious forecasters like Fitzgerald, Naisbitt, and the others. Liam says, “When cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper, moving at a snails pace, and its dumping, disaster is just so close! The current system requires a high volume of vehicles on the canyon road in order for resort profits and public enjoyment. This volume can at times create a situation that presents an unacceptable level of risk to motorists and poor mental health for the forecasters. Something needs to be done to reduce traffic volume.”

 

Liam has retired and Bill Nalli, Matt McKee and crew now get to deal with UDOT’s ongoing dilemma. Mountain Accord has taken the avalanche hazard index into account in proposed solutions to population growth and its affects in LCC. We seem to be on the verge of an important shift toward public transit. Environment, economics and safety will all improve if it happens. Convenience to the individual will be a trade-off. But as Liam puts it, “Cut the number of cars in half, and it’s a safer place.” Let’s hope that both his legacy, and this sage advice will remembered, for the good of all who live and play in Liam Fitzgerald’s favorite avalanche laboratory, Little Cottonwood Canyon.

 

Bruce Tremper

 

“There’s no sense in writing a forecast if no one will remember it. We’re in the entertainment business!” Bruce Tremper, told the crowd. The audience laughed, taking it as a joke. Utah ski resort bigs were meeting the new director of the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) for the first time. But he was serious. “Avalanche forecasts must be memorable to be helpful,” he explained. Dry, government-style, two-paragraph newscasts had been the norm prior to his arrival. Instead, Tremper wanted vibrant UAC bulletins and captivating educational styles. Creativity and innovation became Tremper’s trademark in Utah.

 

Bruce came to Salt Lake from Anchorage, where he’d spent a year working at the Alaska Avalanche Center with mentors Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston. From these renowned avalanche experts and educators, known for their multi-media avalanche classes, he’d learned not only continental, maritime and transitional snowpacks, but also how to effectively share knowledge and information. Audience participation games, slabs made of cardboard sitting on weak layers of Dixie cups, and other best-practice teaching techniques became part of UAC classes.

 

Forecasts also needed to be funny and “cool.” Tremper’s new forecasting paradigm, utilizing analogies, anecdotes and quotes, helped imbed life-saving info in backcountry skiers’ minds. I still remember him referring to a rain/rime crust as “magazine snow,” in a forecast. “Back in Montana,” he’d announced, “We put magazines in our boots on days like this to save our shins when skiing through knee-deep powder topped with a stout crust.”

 

Bruce Tremper

Bruce Tremper

Tremper retired from the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center this year after a whopping 29 seasons at its helm. He’s shepherded a talented and evolving staff through decades of change. Evelyn Lees, Bruce’s cohort for most of his tenure, says, “I think one of the highlights of Bruce’s directorship is just the creativity that has come out of the UAC. [He brought] freedom for him and the staff to try new ideas, both in forecasting and education. And even behind the scenes, like our custom website, and what it allows the forecasters to do, and our one of a kind observers program.  He just let the staff ‘go for it’ with ideas and projects, with amazing results. These results probably partially reflect on the backcountry community here in Utah – motorized and non.”

 

When Tremper arrived in 1986, typed forecasts were recorded on a single avalanche “hotline.” Nowadays, internet-posted bulletins feature modern, user-friendly, graphical content. Increased call volumes, partly due to lively presentations, require 10 and 20 phone lines on busy mornings. “We had to adapt,” Bruce recalls. “Early in the internet age, forecasters had to learn the use of browsers, for example.” Tremper and crew visited snow safety offices at Wasatch ski resorts to help train patrollers to input their avalanche observations on-line.

 

Although retired as director, Bruce is now an independent contractor for the Friends of the UAC (FUAC,) working on special projects, such as an update to the wildly successful “Know Before You Go” video, including a slide deck version. The film has been seen by over 200,000 people in Utah, primarily as an introduction to avalanche safety talks. If funding comes through, tutorials for teaching will follow. Bruce and Craig Gordon initiated this now-international avalanche educational program after a tragic accident on Mt. Timpanogos, on December 26, 2003.

 

A huge storm had deposited record snow at the Salt Lake Airport and throughout the Wasatch Mountains. Yet a group of young snowboarders hiked straight up a well-known, 4,000-foot avalanche path falling northeast off cliff-bound Elk Point. Six youths were caught in a massive, but predictable avalanche! Three were buried below meters of debris, and it took many days to find their bodies. Sadly, the UAC message was being missed by some of the neediest backcountry travelers. Gordon and Tremper collaborated to produce an informative, yet entertaining video, accompanied by fresh music, with wide appeal to young audiences. The intriguing, action-packed film has been a huge contribution to avi-education, worldwide.

 

Bruce is glad to be free to concentrate on “2 or 3 projects at a time, rather than having 20 balls in the air,” as director. Managing a statewide agency with 7 forecasters, and doing his share of daily bulletins kept him busy. Yet his most critical role was funding. In addition to the Forest Service, funds comes from a bevy of disparate governmental agencies, including Utah State Parks, Public Safety, Utah Emergency Management, Utah Fire Authority and Salt Lake County. Together, these agreements and partnerships add up to a budget. But when contracts fail, personnel have to be furloughed, a sad situation for director, employee and consumer.

 

Fortunately, during Tremper’s reign, supplemental funding for the UAC has increasingly come from private sources. Private fund-raising is handled by the non-profit FUAC, headed by Paul Diegel. It now provides 2/3 of the center’s budget, including a “rainy day” fund. Thanks to this, if government funding falls through, forecasters still get paid!

 

After 25 years of dedicated service, Bruce still got to trailheads and meetings in a beat-up, lime-green, 1980s Subaru that I recognized by it’s lone sticker, “Know Snow.” He eschewed personal fortune in favor of an altruistic career in the snowy mountains, saving lives and sharing knowledge. “No one gets into avalanche forecasting for the money,” he laughed, “because there isn’t any.” Indeed, his spunky, redheaded wife and partner on many adventures, Susi Hauser, earned more as a school counselor than he did; a career she also retired from this spring.

 

Bruce got into forecasting, “because of the people,” he says, and mentorship was his path. His dad was a fuel distributor and volunteer ski patrolman in Missoula, Montana. He took a 4-day avalanche class from Dr. John Montagne in Bozeman in 1964, and upon returning home, immediately taught an eager, 10-year-old Bruce all he’d learned. Years later, young Tremper would study under Montagne in the Geology department at Montana State University.

 

Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center investigates a large avalanche on the Argenta slide path in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center investigates a large avalanche on the Argenta slide path in Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah

Along the way he worked as a photographer (which he still does professionally,) ranch hand, tree-thinner, trail-crew in Glacier Park, rescue ranger in the Tetons, hydrologist, and basically whatever it took to get by in Montana, where he asserts, “most folks were generalists.” In late fall, 1978 he was earning his living building chairlifts at Bridger Bowl outside Bozeman. While skiing alone, he took a frightening avalanche ride during a windy storm. Through luck and fortitude, he survived the disaster his inexperience and overconfidence had brought about. It was a life-changing event. Bruce was now determined to learn all he could about the deadly white wave.

 

To this end, he got a job on the ski patrol that winter, with U of Montana ski-racing buddy, Doug Richmond. Tremper had been a national-caliber college racer while he did his undergraduate degree, also in Geology, on a ski team scholarship. With the help of Richmond and another speedy teammate and life-long racing friend, Bruce Maxwell, Montana often won their division. Bridger Bowl Patrol had a 4-person ski team, and Tremper may have been hired partly as a “ringer” to help the team compete. He loved racing. It had been “his life” as a youth, but now he had found a new direction.

 

Duain Bowles, a snow science researcher at MSU, came to the patrol shack one day, and made quite an impression on Tremper. In those times there were strict resort boundaries that no one crossed. Bowles was an exception. He took a patroller and headed out to dig pits. After doing 4 snow profiles, Bruce watched in awe as the pair skied down a beautiful, untracked powder line just out of bounds. “That’s what I want to do,” he decided, “become a snow scientist.” He pestered Bowles constantly in the coming years, learning all he could about depth hoar, surface hoar and much more. He even dated Bowles’ daughter at one point!

 

Tremper earned his Masters degree in Snow Studies over the next two years. Meantime, Bowles, who’d taken young Bruce under his wing at MSU and Bridger, took a job in Utah and founded the Utah Avalanche Center in 1980. Tremper visited his mentor and friend there and was amazed at the position he’d created. He set his sights on one day becoming the director of an avalanche center based in the large ski town, juxtaposed against the soaring Wasatch Range. It was a unique situation for interaction of people with avalanches. Denver and Seattle have plenty of skiers, but are hours from the ski terrain.

 

At MSU, considered “the institution” for snow studies in the US, Bruce’s advisor was Dr. John Montagne, a foremost expert. He’d learned avalanche skills in Europe while a member of the US Army’s Tenth Mountain Division. His influence on Bruce and others was immense. Like Bowles and Tremper before him, Mark Staples, the new director of the UAC, has an MSU background.

 

Upon completion of his masters, Tremper offered his services as ski patrol director to the new Big Sky Ski Resort, south of Bozeman. Their avalanche control team had suffered a number of close calls trying to tame a steep, rugged upper mountain that initially saw few skiers. The Forest Service threatened to shut the resort down. Tremper came on as the Snow Safety expert, and grew the patrol from just 6 members, to 16 during his three years there. Experience is a fine teacher, and he gained a great deal by deploying packs full of explosives, on a regular basis, to stabilize the backcountry-like slopes threatening the ski run below. “It was like doing control work in the Uinta Mountains,” Bruce said, “Where no one skis and the snowpack is perpetually weak!”

 

The next stop in Bruce’s progression to Utah was in Alaska, under Doug Fesler, who’d been mentored by Ed LaChapelle, another early American avalanche guru. On the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage, he dealt with a new forecasting climate: a mild, humid maritime snowpack. At Hatcher Pass, in the Talkeetna Range to the north, he dug pits in a faceted, weak continental snowpack. Near Anchorage it’s a transitional snowpack with characteristics of both extremes. It was an excellent avalanche laboratory. Yet, after one valuable year under the tutelage of Fesler and Jill Fredston, oil prices crashed. The State of Alaska had little money, and all state employees were laid off, except schoolteachers and firefighters.

 

Luckily for Bruce, Sue Ferguson was leaving her post as director of the UAC, and there was an opening in Utah for his dream job. Tremper ran the gauntlet of the 3-tiered government hiring process and got the position. He quickly settled into the mountain culture of SLC. The access was easy, and the snow was great. He fell in love with the Wasatch, especially Mill B. South and the Twin Peaks Wilderness, where he often went on his field sessions.

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One of the best seasons was 1992-93, when the snow was cold, plentiful and stable. All the lines filled in. That year he hired and trained Alex Lowe as a forecaster. A world-famous mountaineer, originally from Bozeman, Lowe came to Salt Lake with Black Diamond Equipment, skied Lisa Falls Couloir in waist-deep powder, and was one of the many inspiring people Bruce worked with. Seth Shaw, Andrew McLean, the venerable Tom Kimbrough, and many others also forecasted under Bruce.

 

Unfortunately in February, 1992, when Bruce returned from helping Japan get their avalanche forecasting program going, he learned of a tragic accident in Moab’s La Sal Mountains. Mark Yates, who Bruce had hired in Moab three years prior, and trained for the new, seasonal contract position of forecaster in the La Sal Mountains, perished along with 3 friends. The accident occurred as the party of 6 approached the Talking Mountain Cirque, a wide-open bowl, covered by a weak snowpack. The accident seemed to compel Salt Lake forecaster, Brad Meiklejohn, who did the grisly accident investigation in Tremper’s absence, to get out of the business. It was emotionally awful. Bruce spent time with survivors and Yates’ widow and children. It drove home to him the critical importance of feeling 100% confident in the experience-level and judgement of his forecasters.

 

An accident he investigated in 2013, where Utah Department Of Transportation forecaster, Craig Patterson, died on Kessler Peak, was difficult for a different reason. Rather than a massive avalanche running on basal facets in a big bowl, this was a small, shallow slide in steep, unforgiving terrain. Craig had been alone, and the clues to what happened were unclear. Bruce had lost a promising, 34-year old friend. He’s still vexed by not knowing what really transpired.

 

Closest to home was when Tremper got a call from his best friend since grade school, Bruce Maxwell, whose son had just been killed by a massive avalanche in Western Montana. The young victim stopped just below a tree and triggered the avalanche before he was able to dig a snowpit. The avalanche was about 5’ deep and a third of a mile wide, removing the entire season’s snowpack.  The avalanche was huge and took him down through unsurvivable, rocky terrain.

 

Tremper went into the accident site afterwards with Maxwell and his surviving son, Tyler.  He wanted to see what happened for himself and explain it to them from an avalanche perspective.  Then he met with the rest of the extended family that night in Missoula to explain it all to them. The emotional weight of having a long-time friend lose his son, who’d grown up calling Tremper “Uncle Bruce,” was crushing.

 

Bruce’s personal contributions to grieving families of avalanche victims are as admirable as his ongoing proactive efforts to prevent more accidents. He’s spent countless hours mentoring protégés and aspirant forecasters, speaking to a wide variety of audiences, working on television documentaries and writing educational articles and books.

 

Tremper’s book, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, first published in 2001, is a thorough review of intermediate-level avalanche forecasting, snow science, rescue and risk mitigation. It has become the “bible” for ski tourers and avalanche professionals who want an entertaining read with up-to-date information. The second edition came out in 2008.

 

Avalanche Essentials released in 2013, caters to the recreational backcountry enthusiast. It is concise, priced a bit lower and presents decision-making tools in a step-by-step algorithm. Finally in 2014, Bruce put out his Avalanche Pocket Guide. All volumes are published by the prestigious, Seattle-based, Mountaineers Books.

 

Aside from all he’s done for others, there is a Bruce Tremper who likes to have fun. He enjoys pushing himself in the mountains, and I’ve been impressed with how fit he still is. When I entered the Powderkeg Ski Mountaineering Race in 2007, I was proud to finish 19th in the pro division, skiing up and down 5500 feet in 2:41. Yet Bruce, 12 years my senior, made the top 10 as he has nearly every year. He’s hoping to ski tour more this winter, now that he’s semi-retired, get fitter, and do well in the race, even though it has become much more competitive.

 

Susi definitely likes to have fun, and she’s insisting that Bruce should work less and play more at this stage in life. Their agreement is that he’ll work 50% of the time and they’ll travel and do some of the things for themselves that they’ve put off while working. The pair have climbed to 20k in Peru, trekked the Himalaya and spent countless days in western mountains and deserts.

Look for Bruce and Susi on the skin trail this winter. I’ve known Bruce for decades, but only seen him enjoying a handful of good powder days. He’s spent the bulk of his winter days fund-raising, managing, and educating. Hopefully Hauser and Tremper will be out there, and we’ll all enjoy a powdery, safe winter in the Wasatch backcountry.

 

One Response to “Life in Snow-Stories of Two Avalanche Gurus”

  1. The top photo with the VW is of a mid-day natural release in the spring of 1979 from an area called the Willows just below Snowbird entry 2. The VW belonged to or was used by an exchange patroller from France named Jaen-Jean, that is him in the photo. I came upon this scene right about when the photo was taken as I remember Jean-Jean still climbing around.

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