The Soul Gallery: Liam Fitzgerald

Forecasting avalanches in Utah for 40 years

Liam Fitzgerald, avalanche forecaster, born 1948. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz
Liam Fitzgerald, avalanche forecaster, born 1948. PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

The Soul Gallery, a tribute to iconic figures who defined skiing, originally ran in the January 2014 issue (42.5). As pure as snowflakes drifting through the sky, each winter represents a clean slate—an opportunity to meet new people, accomplish new goals, learn lessons about yourself and nature, and be reborn as you fly through deep powder snow. What happens when you can experience this every season throughout a lifetime? What lessons do you learn? What can you accomplish when you ski not just for years, but decades?

For a handful of old timers, the annual return of winter gives them the means to influence everyone around them. Season after season, storm after storm, they see things differently than everyone else, and they keep at it long after others slow down or simply give up. They are the pioneers, visionaries, innovators, artists, and warriors who are fully committed. Eventually, their accomplishments help define an entire sport.

Today, these skiers remind us where we came from and what lessons we can learn in order to follow in their tracks.

On December 27, 1971, Snowbird, Utah, opened with its new aerial tram, accessing 11,000-foot Hidden Peak. Among those on staff that day was Liam Fitzgerald, a surfer from Santa Cruz, California, who’d spent the three previous seasons as a ski patroller at Squaw Valley. He spent the summer helping construct the tram and three chairlifts, and then Snowbird hired him to be a ski patroller. What he knew at the time was that Little Cottonwood Canyon got a lot of powder and had a lot of avalanches, but he and the other patrollers were unsure of how to control the mountain. That first week on the job at Snowbird changed his life.

PHOTO: Scott Markewitz
PHOTO: Scott Markewitz

“We had a very weak snowpack and all of a sudden we were open,” he says. “On the very first tram, a guy was caught in an avalanche and buried for an hour. Then, a week later, two people were caught in one avalanche and sustained injuries. We were going, ‘Gee whiz, we have a lot to learn.’”

Not only did he eventually learn how to keep 500 inches of annual snowfall from tumbling down on unsuspecting skiers, he would work diligently for the next 40 years as a leader in Little Cottonwood’s world-class snow safety community. “I was given the job of snow safety director a month into our opening season,” he says. “It was a title I made up myself.”

Fitzgerald held the post for 27 years, and, in 1998, he transitioned into the same role for the Utah Department of Transportation. He has been there ever since, making the call as to whether the road opens or not. “There’s nobody in our department that takes the safety of our customers more seriously than Liam,” says UDOT’s Deputy Director Carlos Braceras. “He carries it with him all the time, and it allows people like me to sleep at night knowing that he is not sleeping.”

Also in The Soul Gallery: Dick Dorworth