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Know the snow: An introduction

Posted: November 25, 2011 - 12:00am

I’ve always loved snow. As a kid I loved the way it looked, the way it felt, but most of all the day off school that came with a heaping fresh layer of snow.

The problem for me was that I was born and raised in Israel, which is not known for epic snow falls. Thus, as a kid, my winter activities were limited to building snowmen and small, civil war-sized snowball fights. As an adult, I spent most of my travels chasing what many consider bad weather in snowy areas.

My interest in avalanches began on a late fall search and rescue expedition in the Indian Himalayas.

Then, after a few years of trying to feed the hunger for snow remotely from my cubicle in Israel, my wife and I decided that it was time to move and try a different lifestyle. I quit my job as a mathematician for a computer company and got a “real” job as a ski patroller in Colorado. Two years ago and after 12 seasons of ski patrolling in Colorado and New Zealand, I jumped on the opportunity to work as an avalanche forecaster for the Kensington Mine.

Physicist Neil Bohr described an expert as “a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” According to this definition (and many others), I am certainly not an avalanche expert. However, I do have an inquisitive personality, a borderline obsessive interest in avalanches and I’m not shy when it comes to asking questions. These attributes have helped me to become friends with some of the sharpest minds in the field and take part in very exciting research projects.

My wife and I recently bought a house in North Douglas, where we live with our two young kids. I hope this column will serve as a channel to share some of my experiences with the vibrant community I belong to and feel strongly about.

In this column I will share my experiences of traveling, playing in and looking at snow, and forecasting and triggering avalanches throughout the winter. I will share my pre-season rituals. I will write about how I prepare for a backcountry ski trip, the specific equipment I carry with me, the information I seek and more. I will discuss the snowpack throughout the season and talk about the different types of avalanches we’ll likely encounter under those conditions, and what tools I use to negotiate the hazards particular avalanches might present. Readers will find out how I put together an avalanche forecast for different types of operations. I will also explain how to reduce the avalanche hazard for different operations and try to answer the question on everyone’s mind … why does it take ski patrol so much time to open the ski area on a powder day?

Alpine environments are interesting because enthusiasts live, recreate and travel through these areas. This column will touch on the interaction between people and snowy slopes. Occasionally I make decisions that, in hindsight, I wish would have been different. I will explain why sometimes our decision-making strategies don’t work as well in the backcountry and what I do to try and set myself up for success and overcome decision-making traps.

These topics, however, are only a snapshot. I encourage the readers to email me their comments, suggestions, questions and other topics they would like me touch on. Although I may not have all the answers, I’ll make a good effort to address it.

• Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster who lives in Juneau with his family in North Douglas. He would be interested to hear your thoughts, comments and questions. You can contact him at ron.simenhois@gmail.com.

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