The world’s avalanche all-stars are coming to town.
For the first time since 1992, hundreds of snow science and avy safety experts will descend on Breckenridge for the prestigious International Snow Science Workshop. The global gathering is held every two years and comes to Beaver Run Resort conference center in Breck from Oct. 3 to Oct. 7, bringing with it ski industry professionals and scientists from more than 20 countries for a full slate of workshops and panel discussions, plus roughly 240 poster presentations. The panels and presentations cover everything from snowpack and new measurement technology to the history of avalanches on Colorado’s 14ers.
“This is really the only international meeting that’s focused on snow and international avalanche science,” said Ethan Greene, co-chair of ISSW 2016 and director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “We wanted to bring this back to Breckenridge, where we have a rich history of snow and avalanche science work.”
This week’s gathering marks the first time ISSW has been to the continental U.S. since 2006, when the conference was held in Telluride. Since then, it’s been traveling the world — Alaska in 2012, Banff in 2014 and next Innsbruck, Austria in 2018 — and comes to Colorado with a little help from Breckenridge Ski Resort’s own in-house snow safety guru, Will Barrett, and executives like Greene with the CAIC.
The goal for the week: take the latest discoveries in a highly specialized field and share with fellow industry professionals, all so that hundreds of thousands of backcountry users can be safe on the snow.
“I think we have some unusual and some very specific challenges in our industry, but a lot of those are similar to the things we see generally in society,” Greene said. “We have a very complex system, a very complex natural hazard that kills people. It affects community and families, so to take that complex information and present it in a way (so) people can actually take action is a constant challenge.”
ONE FOR THE PUBLIC
ISSW as a whole is tailor-made for industry professionals — ski patrollers, snow safety advisors, road maintenance crews, graduate and undergraduate researchers — but organizers like Greene wanted to make sure the public wasn’t left out in the cold, so to speak.
The week kicks off today with CAIC’s annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, a pared-down version of the weeklong ISSW conference made for professionals and backcountry users alike. The kicker: because ISSW is in town, the workshop features a slew of industry experts like Breck’s Barrett, Karl Birkeland of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, Henry Munter of Chugach Powder Guides and Hans-Peter Marshall of Boise State University.
“This is an amazing opportunity for the public to interact with avalanche safety workers and scientists from around the world,” Greene said. “We often bring people from outside to the workshop, but this year we have a pretty amazing array of international scientists talking in the afternoon.”
The workshops runs all day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but if you’re reading this now over morning coffee it’s not too late. Entry is $25 at the door and the day is split into two session: a morning session covering future challenges for avalanche operations and an afternoon session covering challenges for avalanche research.
“We’ll go over the big questions in snow science,” Greene said. “The questions the experts should be investigating and where they see the field progressing over the next 10 to 20 years.”
CROWDED IN THE BACKCOUNTRY
ISSW returns to Breckenridge just as backcountry travel — and, with it, avalanche awareness and safety — is becoming the new normal for veteran skiers and snowboarders. It’s tough to say for sure if backcountry travel is more popular now than in 1992, Greene noted, but if you’ve spent any time at local hotbeds like Bald Mountain, Loveland Pass and Quandary Peak, you can’t ignore the crowds.
“There’s no count this year, there’s no count last year, there’s no count 10 or 50 years ago — there’s just not the data,” Greene said of the apparent increase in backcountry travel. “But if you talk to anyone who has been at the backcountry trailheads in the past few years, they’ll tell you the increase is dramatic.”
One metric is gear. In the past 10 years — actually, more like the past five years — sales of gear like avalanche beacons, avalanche probes and alpine-touring equipment have gone through the roof. Last season, AT and randonee equipment sales increased by 8 percent across the board, according to industry group Snowsports Industries America, and sales of women’s AT gear jumped by a whopping 329 percent to nearly reach the $1-million mark. It’s only a slice of the $4.7-billion snow sports pie, but the trend shows no signs of slowing down.
“There are more people going into the backcountry, there are more people heading to ski areas,” Greene said. “And when you pair the pressure of use with what people expect — getting roads open, getting backcountry access open — it makes things very complicated.”
Social media doesn’t help, Greene said, and so there’s a session designed to look at how public technology like Facebook and the like influence decision making during the ski season. It’s an example of how ISSW had evolved since it last came to Breck — and how the job of a snow safety professional is more complex than ever.
“Information can be super powerful, but it makes it difficult for people to sort through the data out there,” Greene said. “Social media fits into decisions and sharing information in near real-time, and all that has a big impact on what we’re doing.”