A man who has saved countless lives by mitigating and preventing avalanches, lost his own out in the mountains. Doug Abromeit, an avalanche safety luminary, died last week while mountain biking with friends in Idaho. According to reports, the 65 year old was out ahead of his biking group, and when they rolled up to him, he was lying on the ground while still clipped into his pedals. An official cause of death has yet to be confirmed.
As surprising and sad his untimely may be, friend and Utah Avalanche Center Director Bruce Tremper said that Abromeit's death was a fitting metaphor for his life--clipped in to doing something active with his boots on the ground.
During his formative adult years, Abromeit was a ski patroller at what was then called Schweitzer Basin (now Schweitzer Mountain Resort) in Northern Idaho during the winter and a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service in the summer. Eventually, in the ’80s, he became a snow ranger with the Forest Service and was appointed to Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. While there, he monitored the use of military artillery for avalanche control work since the Forest Service owned the land and procured and operated the weapons.
"It was hard for someone to come in and assume that position, but everybody warmed to him quickly," remembers UDOT Highway Avalanche Safety Program Supervisor Liam Fitzgerald, a close friend of Abromeit's and avalanche forecasting legend in his own right. "By the time he left Utah to go to the Ketchum Ranger District in Idaho, he made a whole bunch of friends. He was a real facilitator."
"He was a perfect snow ranger," says Tremper. "He was a very good skier and had an avalanche control background while working as a patroller. Plus, he was like a friendly golden retriever, just winning people over with his smile and gentle nature."
After settling in Idaho, he was the national coordinator for the military artillery for avalanche control program. He then formed the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in 1999, where he became the director and colleague Karl Birkeland was the avalanche scientist. In that role, Abromeit coordinated all the snow rangers at ski areas where there was military artillery, while providing guidance to avalanche centers and establishing others, from Tahoe to Alaska, to improve the level of service and provide consistency across all the different centers. In 2011, Abromeit retired from his director role and Birkeland took over the position for the Forest Service Avalanche Center.
"Doug was so good at working with people," says Birkeland, who worked with Abromeit for 14 years at the National Avalanche Center. "He was really good at finding consensus, and a lot of this work requires teamwork and establishing partnerships to make things work. He'd have everybody smiling at the end of the day." On top of that, Birkeland notes how often Abromeit got out in the field to teach avalanche courses, act as a professional resource for media like POWDER, and make powder turns.
Last year, I spoke with Abromeit for over two hours about backcountry safety and avalanche education. Like his colleagues and close friends noted, his demeanor and voice were soft but charming, and he made time to share his wisdom on snow science and safety, especially his recent work with the National Avalanche School.
"He gave back to a sport he and we all love, so we could do what we want in the mountains," says Tremper. "He was a mentor, gave great advice, and was a central figure in our community by saving so many lives."