Avalanche experts gather at Squaw

Megan Michelson

The country's top snow scientists, guides and ski patrollers stared at quadratic equations all week to help protect us from slides like this one.

The International Snow Science Workshop, a gathering of snow scientists, guides and avalanche practitioners discussing the latest avalanche-related research and theories, took place this week at Squaw Valley. Basically, it's bunch of a snow geeks figuring out to keep us skiers safe. We caught up with one of the event's organizers, Lel Tone, the assistant avalanche forecaster at Squaw and a board member of the American Avalanche Association. Tone has been a Squaw ski patroller for the last 17 years and she works as a heli-ski guide at Alaska's Chugach Powder Guides.

Who attends the ISSW?
When you look at the demographics, out of the 800 or 900 people who had registered prior to the event, we had 129 females and close to 761 males. It's a mix of ski patrollers, guides, researchers, transportation workers, educators and avalanche forecasters. Over a thousand people attended.

Sounds like the typical ski town ratio of men to women.
We had a divas night on Monday night, which was to honor all the women in the avalanche industry. We don't often get to sit in a room with just us ladies together. There are relatively few of us in this field. The great news is that the numbers are growing and there are more and more women coming into this. There are great opportunities to start some mentoring programs that I think are really important so that females in this profession feel support, because sometimes it's a tough crowd.

Michelle Parker

Squaw's assistant avalanche forecaster Lel Tone at this year's International Snow Science Workshop.

Can you give me a rundown of the event?
The event is five days long. It started with a social on Sunday and the first oral presentations started happening on Monday morning. Typically, the way a day goes is there are two sessions in the morning and then two sets of presentations in the afternoon and they typically break these up in different subject categories.

What are the subject categories?
One might be risk management and decision-making in certain operations whether it's heli operations or ski patrols or there was a session on avalanche mitigation. Some are very theoretical and you're looking at quadratic equations on the screen and your eyes glaze over and it's interesting for the scientific crowd but not so much for us practitioners. There are a lot of really fun activities as well, like field activities. We shot howitzers over at Mt. Rose and we walked from Alpine to Squaw Valley with tour guides who were showing the avalanche paths on the routes between the two. So there's a lot intermixed with all of the hard-core information.

So have any new theories been introduced and or any groundbreaking research?
Absolutely. We are refining some of the current tests that we do when we do snow pits. There was some discussion about new extended column tests and propagation saw tests and how we might do those better. Currently, there's a big buzz on the airbag technology. It's going to change a lot of statistics in the future for people being caught and killed in avalanches.

Why is the ISSW important to the snow industry?
It gets all of these practitioners and scientists into one venue drinking beer together, talking, hob knobbing. There's a certain element of continuing education so you don't get stale in your work. And it's a really great opportunity to network. There are a lot of heli providers that come and actually interview potential guides here.

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