Laughter and tears part of 4th annual California Avalanche Workshop
October 18, 2017
There were tears. There were awesome, and sometimes scary, pictures and videos of snowy scenes. There were a ton of laughs. And there was a very vague winter snow forecast for the Sierra Nevada.
Backcountry lovers on Saturday, Oct. 14, filled Duke Theater at Lake Tahoe Community College for the fourth annual California Avalanche Workshop.
They were there to hear top professionals in their respective fields speak to the dangers of avalanches and raise awareness for all backcountry travelers. The speakers presented slideshows and videos and got all in attendance primed and ready for the snow to start falling.
Event organizer Dave Reichel, the wilderness education coordinator at Lake Tahoe Community College, gave a brief introduction before handing the mic to Steve Reynaud, an avalanche forecaster for the Tahoe National Forest-Sierra Avalanche Center.
Reynaud recapped last winter as a "season of atmospheric rivers" where we received about 200 percent of normal precipitation. He said there were 25 avalanche incidents last season, one fatality and one full burial with a live recovery. Forty-seven percent of the forecast days for the winter season had avalanche warnings and the SAC sent out 150 daily avalanche advisories.
Jordy Hendrikx, the director of the Snow and Avalanche Lab at Montana State, followed with an entertaining presentation about risk taking behavior.
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Zach Tolby, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Reno, was up next and gave what all snow lovers were waiting to hear, the forecast for the 2017-18 winter season.
"We have no idea what the winter in the Sierra will be like," said Tolby.
He gave examples of the last two seasons when forecasts were all over the charts. Some were expecting the "Godzilla" of El Niño in 2015-16, which didn't materialize. Tolby says weather can be predicted pretty accurately about two weeks in advance of a storm event.
Richard Bothwell was next and the executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education was crying just a few minutes into his presentation.
He showed images of people who have lost loved ones and told some of their stories.
"My mission is to save lives through avalanche education and have people come home every day from their ski tours," Bothwell said. "I do not want to come back here next year talking about somebody in this room being dead."
Bothwell went through the avalanche courses offered by AIARE but said a certificate "is no guarantee or armor plating."
After lunch, Josh Feinberg, an avalanche forecaster with the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center and professional ski patroller at Mammoth Mountain, recalled the past season in the eastern Sierra.
Feinberg, along with a friend and the friend's girlfriend, was caught in an avalanche about 10 years ago. He couldn't remember everything after being knocked around in the slide, but painfully recounted his friend's girlfriend dying next to him while his friend went for help.
"Be proud of yourself for not pushing it, for backing down and turning around," he told the captivated audience.
Duncan Lee, an AIARE avalanche educator and professional backcountry snowmobiler, talked about sharing the mountains with skiers and snowboarders. He wants to bridge the communication gap between the groups.
He compared snowmobilers to when snowboarding first became popular in the late '80s and the clash between riders and skiers that happened for several years.
"A culture change needs to happen," he said.
Andrew Kiefer, from the Mount Shasta Avalanche Center, spoke about a couple of incidents that happened on the 14,000-foot volcano. Three people were caught in avalanches last year in two separate incidents and one was a family that wasn't ready for any emergency.
"They had no beacons, no probe, no shovel, no anything," Kiefer said. "The basics are what keeps us alive in the backcountry."
The workshop was capped with a superlative presentation from professional ski mountaineer Andrew McLean, who presented Mountain Mishaps, a compilation of his personal experiences with accidents and close calls over 27 years in the backcountry.
He focused on 16 separate incidents. His stories, images and videos again caught the audience's full attention. He's watched people die right beside him. He's saved lives, including South Lake Tahoe's Todd Offenbacher after he fell into a crevasse in Svalbard, near Norway.
After showing little emotion throughout, McLean, at the end, got teary-eyed. He talked about meeting his friend's loved ones at their funerals.
"We're just all one big family, we need to help and take care of each other."