Friday, November 24, 2006

Avalanche Center director reflects on 30 years

Kellam knows her snow?and her community

Express Staff Writer

Janet Kellam, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, examines an avalanche fracture line on Titus Ridge near Galena Summit.

Janet Kellam's first glimpse of the mountains erupting from the prairie south of Sun Valley was from the side of a road in Shoshone, next to a broken-down Greyhound bus and the town dump.

"It was pretty funny," recalled Kellam, the director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, in Ketchum. "But looking up at the mountains, I was so thrilled."

Thirty years after that fateful day, those same mountains continue to fuel a passion that has framed both her personal and professional lives.

"I've come and gone a few times and worked in different areas, but invariably I've come back here because of the people and the mountains," she said.

Kellam was still a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she was a national-level Nordic ski racer, when she first arrived in Sun Valley in the summer of 1976.

"I took a summer job in the White Clouds doing some habitat (projects) for a fisheries biologist," she said. "I didn't have a car so I got a ride to Bozeman with friends and came the rest of way in a Greyhound bus."

Over the next four years she trained, traveled and raced on the national level. In between, she spent time in Sun Valley, where a new love was brewing.

"I started backcountry skiing and I was going, 'This makes a lot more sense than racing around a track against people trying to beat me.' Backcountry skiing was the demise of my Nordic racing career. Seriously."

By 1980, Kellam was in Sun Valley full-time, fully immersed in the mountains and all they can offer.

In 1981 she became the first woman in Idaho history to earn a lead guide license, which she tries to downplay. "It wasn't as widely done as it is now," she said.

She dove into guiding full time, leading hut trips and working for Sun Valley Heli-Ski Guides.

"But I mixed that with other things," she said. "I was coaching the Nordic team and working at the (Elephant's) Perch and teaching mountaineering school in the summer. It was a little bit of everything."

In 1984, she and Rick Barker, who also guided for Sun Valley Heli-Ski, embarked on a new venture.

"We wanted to develop a hut system," she said. "We had spent some time in the Pioneers and felt that was a great place. The Pioneers were the mountains the Swiss guides were so attracted to. They're so dramatic. Anybody who goes in there—it just blows your socks off."

In 1990, Kellam, who's married to Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum, switched gears again.

"I went to work in the documentary film industry and traveled for a couple years," she said.

One of her projects landed her on the Antarctic peninsula, where she worked on a documentary spotlighting the unique value of the area.

"We wanted to draw attention to what a place it is to preserve," she said. "We also incorporated wildlife and environmental conditions because it was already getting warmer down there."

Getting there was half the fun.

"We left from the tip of South America in a 100-foot, triple-masted schooner. It was pretty amazing."

In 1994, Kellam returned home and embarked on yet another mission: resurrecting Galena Lodge.

A relic of Sun Valley's mining history and a budding Nordic center, the lodge ran into hard times in the early 1990s and there were whispers it could be torn down.

Steve Haims, who purchased the lodge in 1987, had spent $300,000 renovating the facility and improving the trail system. But his plans to turn the lodge into a winter destination resort were derailed by the lodge's remoteness and unreliable power source.

"He and his crew did an incredible job getting renovations done and putting the lodge on the map as a cross-country ski area," Kellam said. "He just couldn't keep it going."

By 1994 the lodge had been empty and lifeless for 18 months.

"But the community loved it so dearly everybody rallied, and that was the start of the Galena fundraising campaign," Kellam said.

In a few short months the "Help Save Galena Campaign" raised more than $500,000, allowing the community to purchase the lodge, which was then donated to the Blaine County Recreation District.

"Then it was time to get it up and going again," Kellam said.

Tom Nickel, who owns the Sawtooth Club and the Roosevelt Tavern restaurants, both in Ketchum, worked on the lodge. Kellam, who lived on-site, focused on the Nordic program.

"I was up there by myself quite a bit," she said. "I loved it."

In her free time, she supplied the National Avalanche Center, located in Ketchum, with observations from the Galena area. When she left the lodge in 1996, she was recruited by Doug Abromeit, the national center's director, to work for the new Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center.

"It wasn't really developed yet. Doug was working to get it off the ground," Kellam said. "I was pretty much running the show the next year."

Now winter mornings start early.

"We're in the office by 5 a.m.," she said. "We put the advisory out by 7:30 a.m."

Kellam and forecasters Matt Lutz and Chris Lundy alternate schedules so they're never on more than two days in a row—unless there's some unusual circumstance.

"Some people think we're out checking the snow at 5 a.m., climbing with headlamps," Kellam said. "We don't do that. The forecaster who's in at 5 a.m. had been out in the field the day before. The place we choose to go is dependent upon conditions and where we think there may be some problem areas."

Their territory runs from Hailey to Galena Summit but sometimes stretches to the Soldier Mountains and as far north as Stanley. With such an enormous swath of terrain, conditions can be highly variable, which is why Kellam encourages people to phone in observations to the avalanche center's hotline.

"We make it really easy for people to get information to us," she said. "People can feel intimidated because they may not know all the right terminology. But we really don't need any of that. We just want to know if they have seen any slides."

Kellam is entering her 11th winter with the center, her 10th as the director.

"See, I can keep a job," she laughed.

Oh, and this past summer she was selected as the president of the American Avalanche Association—another first for women.

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