Recent snowfall in the San Juan Mountains followed by some clear weather will have backcountry skiers and snowboarders pushing to the high country. It’s a perfect time for Bruce Tremper to visit Durango.
Tremper’s book, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,” is in its third edition and is renowned as one of the best resources when it comes to backcountry safety. Local outdoor shop Backcountry Experience partnered with Maria’s Bookshop and the Rochester Hotel to host a presentation from Tremper at Backcountry Experience from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday.
“I absolutely love spending time in different parts of the country to learn more about how the snowpack is different and how the locals deal with their local avalanche problems,” Tremper said. “We all tend to get provincial about our local areas, and we all have something to learn about how others operate in other areas.
“For instance, Colorado in general and the San Juan Mountains in particular are famous for its perennial depth hoar snowpack. There’s always monsters in the basement, which makes recreating in backcountry avalanche terrain a very dangerous and uncertain proposition. People who move from California to Colorado often experience tragedy before they can learn about the horrors of depth hoar.”
Tremper grew up in western Montana and was taught the nature of avalanche terrain from his father at the age of 10. He grew up a ski racer and said he always loved the events at Purgatory.
Tremper was a member of the Junior National Ski Team and the U.S. Ski Team Talent Squad and was eventually crowned a NCAA downhill champion. He began doing avalanche control work in 1978 at Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Bozeman, Montana. He studied avalanche science while pursuing a masters degree in geology from Montana State. He has served as the director of avalanche control at Big Sky Ski Area in Montana, as a backcountry avalanche forecaster for the Alaska Avalanche Center and was the director of the Utah Avalanche Center for three decades. He also was tasked with coordinating backcountry avalanche safety for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“He’s such a big deal within the backcountry community that I think people would get a lot of value out of meeting him,” said Margaret Hedderman, the director of marketing and events for Backcountry Experience.
Maria’s Bookshop will have copies of Tremper’s book available at Tuesday’s presentation and has it stocked on store shelves in advance of the free event. Maria’s owner Peter Schertz said a portion of the proceeds from all books sales will go to Friends of the San Juans, an organization that provides avalanche education across Southwest Colorado.
There have already been two avalanche deaths in Colorado this year. Environmental educator Arin Trook, 48, died Jan. 21 in an avalanche near Aspen. Peter Marshall, a 40-year-old from Longmont, was killed in an avalanche in the San Juan Mountains in Senator Beck Basin near Red Mountain Pass while participating in an advanced avalanche safety class Jan. 5.
Two were also killed by an avalanche at Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico after a slide Jan. 17 on inbounds terrain on Kachina Peak.
“It’s a tragic year for avalanche accidents and tragic deaths already,” Schertz said.
Tremper’s first edition of “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” was released in 2001, and the second edition came out in 2008. The third edition was released in 2018 and is full of avalanche photography and information across 352 pages. Knowledge of avalanche terrain has developed so much in the last decade that Tremper said he rewrote roughly 40 percent of the book between the second and third editions. During his 40 years as an avalanche professional, Tremper said he has been astounded by how much everything has changed. He said many techniques taught as conventional wisdom were simply wrong and good science has debunked many old avalanche safety practices.
“When I attended the graduation for my niece from medical school in Denver about 20 years ago, I was astounded when the dean of the medical school gave the commencement speech, and he said, ‘When you recertify for your board exams again in 10 years, you will find that about 40 percent of what we taught you here was wrong.’ In other words, science marches along and our understanding of the truth continually changes,” Tremper said. “Continuing education is essential. Every time I attend an avalanche conference, there’s always a couple talks that make me slap my forehead, sigh and think, ‘Well, there’s another chapter I’m going to have to rewrite.’ Things change.”
Though Tremper said there are seemingly twice as many athletes pursuing backcountry terrain every five years, he said avalanche fatality rates have remained flat during the past 20 years, meaning fatalities per capita per day have dramatically decreased.
Tremper’s best advice is to not ski on slopes stepper than 30 degrees unless certain about snowpack. He considers himself risk adverse despite his background in competitive ski racing, mountaineering and forecasting avalanches.
“You can have a lot of fun in gentle terrain, and that’s where you will usually find me, especially just after a storm or during any avalanche danger rating other than low,” he said. “I’m risk averse largely because I’ve seen so many things go wrong through the years, and I know it can easily happen to me, too.
“It’s possible to live a long lifetime recreating in avalanche terrain but only by rigorous application of a safety system. The system is the solution. I try to teach this system in all my books and classes, and I try to follow it myself.”
According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, avalanche danger in the San Juans is considerable right now. While Tremper said he loves Colorado, he also said the state is the leader when it comes to avalanche fatalities.
“Snowstorms in Colorado are a cruel tease,” he said. “It doesn’t snow very often or very much in Colorado compared with all the mountain ranges to the west, so people tend to get really excited. But with a depth hoar snowpack, it means that there’s almost always a very fragile house of cards at the base of the snowpack. Every time the snow falls or the wind blows, it overloads those fragile weak layers, like putting a brick on top of a stack of champagne glasses.
“Snow, like people, does not like rapid change, and putting sudden weight on top of a very fragile base always means trouble. Depth hoar is the most notorious of the ‘persistent weak layers’ as we call them – layers that continue to produce avalanches many days after they are loaded with weight. Persistent weak layers also require equally persistent patience, and we human beings, especially powder-starved ones, have a poor track record. Thus, Colorado leads the list every year in the number of people killed in avalanches.”