Photo by Jim Harris
This episode of Out and Back dives into the nitty-gritty details of snow science and avalanche risk assessment with renowned avalanche expert Bruce Tremper. Author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and Avalanche Essentials, Tremper gives his hard-won and masterful tips for avalanche safety. Drawing on his 30-plus year career as an avalanche forecaster, Tremper gives advice on everything from how to spot a weak layer in the snowpack to what to do if you’re caught in an avalanche.
As an avalanche forecaster, Tremper spent many frigid days nose deep in a snow pit, analyzing tiny snow crystals through a magnifying glass. On days in the office, he started his work well before sunrise to allow enough time to research conditions and issue the daily avalanche forecast by 7 a.m. It’s a tough job that mixes a scientific mind with athleticism and requires a certain amount of grit. Tremper came by the career honestly.
“I was kind of born into it in a lot of ways. I grew up in the outskirts of Missoula, and I grew up skiing since I can’t even remember when, so I must have been two years old or whatever. It seems like I’ve always had skis on my feet,” Tremper recalls on the podcast. “My father was a skier and he raced on the University of Montana ski team, as did my sister and I, a generation later. It was just like the famous book A River Runs Through It and that opening line when Norman Maclean says ‘in our family, there was no line between religion and trout fishing.’ Except in our family, there was no line between religion and skiing.”
Tremper spent his youth on the racecourse, joining the US Junior National and US Development ski teams and racing through college on the NCAA circuit. But eventually, Tremper grew bored of resort skiing. He gave up gates for untracked powder in the backcountry. With that came the dangers of winter travel, and more specifically, avalanches.
Tremper talks about three different avalanches that swept him away. But there was one avalanche in particular at Bridger Bowl ski area that grabbed Tremper’s attention and forced him to finally give credence to a snow safety lecture that his father had given him years earlier when he was only 10 years old.
Tremper describes a blustery day in the late 1970s. He was crossing a steep slope under the Pierre’s Knob chairlift when the slab cut loose under his skis. Tremper was thankful to have survived the slide down the mountain without physical injury. However, Tremper’s ego didn’t fair as well that day. Now some 40 years later, the steep chute under Bridger’s Pierre’s Knob chairlift bears his name — an indelible reminder of his poor decisions on the mountain that fateful day.
“That was a huge wake-up call for me,” Tremper says. “That thing really should have killed me. It changed my life and I went ‘whoa, I want to learn as much as I can about avalanches’.”
Tremper made good on his word and studied avalanches at Montana State University. He earned a Master’s degree in Geology and Meteorology with a thesis topic on, you guessed it, avalanches. Tremper tested his newfound knowledge on the snow safety teams at Bridger Bowl and Big Sky ski resorts before moving into avalanche forecasting. He worked in Alaska and served out his career as the director of the Utah Avalanche Center for 29 years, retiring in 2015 to pursue more snow science on his own terms.
“I love avalanches,” Tremper says. “Avalanches will never let me go.”
Tremper’s Hard-Won, Practical Advice for Snow Safety
In this episode, learn about Tremper’s personal system for a safe backcountry ski tour. He emphasizes that his routine begins at home with gathering the right gear, checking the local avalanche forecast, and plotting out a safe route on the map. Tremper talks about the importance of picking the right partners for winter backcountry travel, how many people make up the ideal party, and what usually happens when too many people join the group.
Tune in to find out what you can do to guard against the human factors that lead people to make mistakes in avalanche terrain. Tremper gets specific about the demographics for avalanche fatalities, his “low-risk travel ritual,” and the latest protocols if you are caught in an avalanche. Tremper nerds out with persistent weak layers analysis and busts some longstanding avalanche myths. After this discussion, you might think twice before jumping into zones you once considered bombproof.
To reap more of Tremper’s wisdom check out his books, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, Avalanche Essentials, and Avalanche Pocket Guide (Mountaineers Books). Listen to the podcast to hear Tremper explain how to use each book in your progression about avalanche safety and snow science.
Learn more about avalanche safety at avalanche.org. Find and sign up for an avalanche education class with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
5:30: Bruce grew up skiing and got his first lesson in avalanches at the age of 10 from his ski patrol father.
9:50: Tremper got his start in the ski industry as a lifty at Bridger Bowl, Montana, and worked his way up to ski patrol and avalanche forecasting.
19:40: Tremper has been caught in three avalanches.
20:30: Tremper talks about avalanche fatalities rates, and the demographics point to the “new kids on the block.”
23:20: Avalanche risk broken down by region, Colorado, Utah, Montana, Washington, California, and why it’s so tricky in the cold regions far away from the ocean.
26:20: The backcountry is shaping up to be busy this season. Here’s what you can do even if you can’t get into an avalanche class. Watch the “Know Before You Go” video.
30:00: You need a backcountry system to stay safe. Copy Tremper’s system to create your own.
30:40: Tremper talks about how he uses Gaia GPS as part of his system.
34:10: Avalanche risk varies greatly with slope angle and aspect. North facing slopes can be dangerous in early season conditions.
35:20: Pick your backcountry ski and snowboarding partners wisely and don’t bring too many friends with you.
45:10: Systematic and confirmation biases play into poor decision making in the backcountry; don’t trust your beliefs because it can lead you astray. Rely on the data and observations.
50:00: Tremper busts common avalanche myths: skied slopes are not always safe, avalanches can happen in the trees, and low-angle slopes are generally safer but no guarantee.
55:30: Tremper runs through his “low-risk travel ritual.” A list of safety protocols he learned from ski patrol over the years.
1:00: Here’s what you should do if you’re caught in an avalanche.
1:04: The avalanche risk scales used in the United States are not linear ratings, each level doubles the risk of avalanches.
1:07: Here’s what Tremper says first-timers should do to stay safer in the backcountry this year.
1:11: Tremper continues his snow safety work by creating more books and videos on avalanches.
Next Episode: The Avalanche that Should Have Killed Bruce Tremper
Stay tuned for Out and Back’s next episode as Tremper takes over the mic once again. This time, Tremper tells his first-hand account of what it was like to take that ride down the mountain in the avalanche on Pierre’s Knob at Bridger Bowl, Montana. This story is famously written up in the prologue to Tremper’s celebrated book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain. Listen to the podcast to hear Tremper share the story in his own words.
“The avalanche was sliding through those trees and they looked like they were coming towards me kind of like a periscope in an old World War II movie, you know, slicing through the ocean,” Tremper recalled. “I slammed into the tree hard and I grabbed on and held on with all I could and that undoubtedly saved my life.”
Tune in next time to get the blow-by-blow description from the expert himself on what it feels like to be caught and buried in an avalanche.
Last Episode: Search and Rescue Braces for a Busy Winter
Winter looms with promises of bluebird skies, powder stashes and possibly record crowds in the backcountry this season. Colorado’s Summit County Rescue Group Mission Coordinator Charles Pitman gives us the temperature of what the upcoming backcountry ski season looks like from the search-and-rescue perspective. Pitman says it might not be pretty.
Backcountry skiers, winter hikers, climbers, and snowmobilers will not want to miss this behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming snow season and what rescue professionals are doing to prepare for the busy season ahead. Plus hear a few of Pitman’s most harrowing rescue stories. Learn more about Summit County Rescue Group and donate to your local search and rescue organization.
Meet the Hosts
Andrew “Shanty” Baldwin
In 2019, host Andrew Baldwin completed a southbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After five months on the trail, Baldwin returned home to pursue a career in voice acting. A friend of the Gaia GPS company, Baldwin was a natural choice for hosting the Out and Back podcast.
In each Out and Back episode, Shanty strives to bring you conversations with people who spend an extraordinary amount of time outdoors. Listen in as Shanty taps into each backcountry expert’s superpower so that you can take their knowledge and experience with you on your next adventure.
Mary is the Out and Back podcast producer and a writer and editor at Gaia GPS. Before joining Gaia GPS, Mary worked as a lawyer, newspaper journalist, ski patroller, Grand Canyon river guide, and USFS wilderness ranger.
When she is not in the office, Mary works as a guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures in wild places around the west, like Rocky Mountain National Park, Yosemite, and the Brooks Range in Alaska. Learn more about Mary on Instagram. Also, read her tips on how to plan your first solo backpacking trip and listen to her scary story about being stalked in the wilderness by a sketchy man.