It was my first season as an avalanche forecaster and I felt our basal depth hoar had finally gone dormant. I forecast a Low avalanche danger. It was February 19th, 2000. By early evening, I heard about the fatality.
Two snowmobilers were high-marking a narrow gully below a steep, wind-loaded bowl in the mountains west of St. Charles, Idaho. One snowmobiler got his machine stuck and the other came up to help him when their weight triggered the avalanche. The one who came up to help was able to outrun the avalanche at over 80 mph, while his fried was buried. Neither had beacons or shovels. The surviving snowmobiler probed using tree branches for about 15 minutes before going for help. An organized rescue crew found the body of the missing snowmobiler the following day.
Technically, the area was out of our forecast area and based upon interviews, it was unlikely that the avalanche victim had read the avalanche forecast for the day. While these things meant little to me, I learned a number of hard lessons.
First, the decision to drop the avalanche danger to LOW should not be taken lightly, particularly when you have what persistent weak layers within the snowpack. Second, consensus amongst the staff is critical in order to wave the green flag. As my friend Nat Patridge would say, If there is a question, then there is no question.
A couple of weeks later, I heard the whirr of the fax machine in the office. The fax was from Tom Kimbrough, another forecaster 30 years my senior and the person whose job I would inherit as a climbing ranger in the Tetons a few years later. The cover page and following excerpts from Ethics For the New Millennium that rolled through that ancient fax machine is what you see below.
It was more than an excerpt that whirred through the fax machine. It was connection. The connection meant and still means everything to me. Not only from someone who had lived a full life in the mountains as an avalanche forecaster and as a climbing ranger in the Tetons tasked with – at times – conducting technical mountain rescues and recoveries, but as someone that understood the nature of our professions and the roles we play within our mountain communities. A practicing Buddhist, Kimbrough’s fax outlined philosophy from the Dalai Lama, one that spoke to how we must look not necessarily at outcomes but rather at the individual’s Intention and Disposition. Have a look for yourself.