By Brian Irwin
Eighty of the Northeast's most intrepid avalanche enthusiasts met in the basement of the Mount Washington Weather Observatory Museum in North Conway, N.H., for the first annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop, or ESAW, in early November. Modeled after the world’s premiere upper-level continuing education program, the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), this grassroots, one-day conference was hosted by local sponsors as well as RECCO and the American Avalanche Association. Among others, featured speakers included national expert Kyle Tyler, physicist Sam Colbek, Chris Joosen (lead ranger from Mount Washington Avalanche Center), and Mammut representative Eric Siefer.
Since 1982, ISSW has been running week-long conferences to enhance the professional development of avalanche forecasters, guides, patrollers and backcountry skiers. The model—one of high-level snow science education blended with social infusion, with open bars and more open mics—has become a popular roaming show as it has floated in-and-out of areas like Telluride or Tahoe and internationally. But ISSW is once a year, hosts a thousand people and is held at a far-flung location for the Northeast snow pros. For this reason, Joosen and Tyler collaborated to offer the same high level education, with a dash of local brew after the show, and all close to home.
The conference opened with a lecture by Joosen, who reviewed the issue of spatial variability in our local avalanche terrain. One of the most micro-forecasted areas in the country, the venerable Tuckerman Ravine is Joosen's office and he's been assessing individual couloirs and slopes in this cirque for the last 18 years. The terrain he analyzed has some of the most heavy skier traffic per acre in the States, and his findings emphasize the importance of recognizing stark differences in snowpack within a small area—and how these differences translate to avalanche risk for skiers, riders and climbers.
New Hampshire local Sam Colbeck is one of the world's experts on snow bonding. He presented his 1998 research that literally proved the modern model of sintering, or snow-grain bonding upon which modern avalanche forecasters rely. Scores of slides showing the construction of the notorious faceted crystals, and how they develop, gripped the audience, which ranged from local guides to administrators of the Adirondack Park and Maine's Baxter State Park.
Subsequent speakers included Tyler, the Eastern Representative for the American Avalanche Association, who reviewed the propagation propensity of persistent weak snow layers; Jim Giglinto, who discussed the avalanche issues in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks; and Rebecca Scholand, an employee of the Mount Washington Observatory. Scholand's engaging discussion of upslope flow patterns in the White Mountains was one of the day's highlights.
The conference closed with a discussion of avalanche air bags by Mammut rep Eric Siefer. The presentation made strong arguments for the use of this new technology, revealing that most airbag users are not buried if caught in a slide, and perhaps more importantly, that if not buried, an avalanche victim has a 95-percent chance of survival. To show how easy it is to use an air bag, Siefer had his seven-year-old son demonstrate by deploying one for the audience.
The conference was capped by a social event at neighboring International Mountain Equipment. Vendor booths included G3, Black Diamond, Recco, Petzel and many others. Proceeds from the event went to The White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, a nonprofit that Joosen founded to enhance avalanche education among school-aged children who may not otherwise have the opportunity.