10 Minutes with Doug Abromeit, Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

Doug Abromeit is the Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center based in Ketchum, Idaho. Over the last two weeks, he and other snow safety experts have been analyzing the unprecedented avalanche activity occurring across the West, a time period during which three people were killed in inbounds slides. So far this year, 18 people have been killed in avalanches. During a phone interview with Powder Senior Editor Matt Hansen, Abromeit tries to find the answers to such widespread instability, and explains how snow safety crews might address future control measures.

Powder.com: First off, Doug, what are you finding in the snowpack?

Doug Abromeit: It varies from resort to resort, but in general, the West got some early snow, and then it was cold and we had this weak, sugary base layer. Then on other aspects, there’s also a rain crust that faceted into surface hoar, and depth hour has surface hoar on top of that as well. So what you have is a horrible base layer, and starting in mid-December the entire West got big storms that added heavy weight on top of it. But that’s not an unusual scenario for early season conditions. What is unusual is how many incidents we have had, including the three fatalities. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t have all the answers.

What is the next step for you guys? How do we move forward from here?

Everyone is going to be poring over the data and procedures and looking at what happened this December and trying to find the root causes.

So the first thing we will do is gather all the information we possibly can, including accident reports, pit profiles and all the snow control data that we can get a hold of. That way we’ll try to figure out if there is a common thread that links these incidents. One of the things we are seeing is that almost every one of these accidents was a post-control release (meaning after explosives had been used). We don’t have any really conclusive data on how well explosives work with relatively non-cohesive snowpacks. We do know that on cohesive snow layers, explosives work really well with hard slabs, and we can get snow to travel a long way and take out big areas. But early season explosives, it appears, don’t work quite as well.

That sounds pretty scary, because I think most skiers have considered these accidents and thought about how many times they’ve been skiing deep powder inbounds, and thinking about how easily something like this could have happened to them.

When you are in a ski area, and it’s later in the season, all you’re dealing with is new snow. Early in the season, you don’t have skier compaction. It’s just a whole different ball game. Another factor is that we can get out there now a lot easier because skis are a lot better. Plus, I think there’s a lot more desire to ski these technical slopes than there used to be.

Will this cause ski patrols to change they way they open specific zones during the early season?

That’s going to go through every snow safety director. It’s such a fine balance because you want to get skiers out there because you get skier compaction, but then you have fragile snowpacks. It’s a delicate balance. And it’s bound to make people more conservative.

Have you ever seen such widespread instability in your career?

In the past 30 years, there has never been anything remotely close to what’s been happening.

Considering that we are in a national economic recession, is there any chance that funding or staffing levels have been cut from snow safety?

I don’t think so and I certainly hope not. I don’t see any evidence that that is the case.

Do you think all this avalanche activity is going to change how we access the backcountry from resorts, or even how we access expert areas inbounds?

The system we have is not going to change. We, as the Forest Service, require resorts on Forest Service land to have access gates to allow people to get to the backcountry. As long as there are precautionary warnings up there, I don’t anticipate that will change.

Thanks for you time, Doug. Any final thoughts?

Despite the three fatalities, it’s such a minute risk, even though I know people don’t feel that way. People are jumpy and scared, but statistically, getting in an avalanche inbounds is a very small risk. It’s also important to remember that snow is such a complicated medium. Ski patrols and snow safety crews can reduce the risk but they cannot eliminate it.

For a tutorial and more information on snow safety, go to fsavalanche.org.