Friday, November 23, 2007

Keeping watch

Doug Abromeit oversees the U.S. Forest Service?s national avalanche safety program


By JASON KAUFFMAN
Express Staff Writer

Standing on the edge of a steep precipice on the north face of Galena Peak, Hailey resident Doug Abromeit takes a breather while climbing out of the South Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River drainage. Abromeit is the director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, which is based in Ketchum. Photo courtesy of Ed Cannady

Winter in the Rocky Mountains can present an innocuous and inviting panorama of white. But beneath the surface lies a hidden danger.

It's a hazard Hailey resident Doug Abromeit has dedicated his life coming to know and understand.

As director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, situated on the edge of downtown Ketchum, Abromeit spends his days coordinating the workings of the agency's 14 local National Forest avalanche centers. The centers stretch from the state of Alaska all the way to New Hampshire, and include three in Idaho. But for all of the significance and grandiosity attached to the center's impressive-sounding name, working there is in fact somewhat cramped.

"I call it the little center with a big name," Abromeit said.

Sharing the small office tucked away near the back of the Sawtooth National Forest's Ketchum Ranger Station are Abromeit and Janet Kellam, director of the local Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center.

Abromeit is perfectly happy with his surroundings, though. The setup is one he lobbied for and received not too many years after he was named first director of the national avalanche center. Given the job in 1989 while he was working as a Forest Service snow ranger on the Wasatch National Forest's Salt Lake Ranger District, Abromeit was able to transfer the national position to Ketchum when he accepted the job as director of the local Sawtooth Avalanche Center in 1995.

In 2001, the requirements of his job as national avalanche center director became too demanding, so the job of local director was passed on to Kellam, who at the time was Abromeit's assistant.

Within the Forest Service, the national center and accompanying local avalanche centers are a world unto themselves. Unlike much of the rest of the federal agency, the program's funding is evenly split between government and private dollars.

Abromeit says the setup has its benefits and downsides.

Unlike nonprofit organizations, the Forest Service doesn't incur any liability in issuing its daily avalanche forecasts to the public during the winter. Abromeit said the same would not be true for organizations that might wish to take on the avalanche forecasting role.

"They would have to get insurance and it's just prohibitively expensive," he said.

On the other hand, because much of the funding for local avalanche centers comes from private donations, Abromeit is constantly concerned about the pressures local avalanche center directors have trying to secure funding.

Never one to brag about his many achievements and qualifications, the fit, longtime skier portrays a confident bearing. You just know he's the kind of guy you'd want at your back if things turned nasty in the mountains.

Born and raised in the picturesque mountain town of Sandpoint in Idaho's mountainous northern panhandle, Abromeit took to skiing when he was 15. He's been skiing in the backcountry since his early 20s.

Though he graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in English, he quickly returned to his love of the outdoors, working for the Forest Service as a smokejumper. Next up was a stint as a snow ranger in Utah, which cemented his career with the Forest Service.

"It was definitely sink or swim there," he said.

The other major component of his job as director of the national avalanche center is to oversee management of surplus military artillery used to fight avalanches at ski areas and along highways and railroads. The artillery, which originateed with the U.S. Army, helps keep rugged ski areas like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Bridger Bowl, Mont., open and skiable. The Army only allows ski areas on National Forests to use the recoilless rifles and howitzers.

"They won't deal with private ski areas," he said.

Abromeit, who just turned 60 but doesn't show any signs of slowing down, has zero regrets about his chosen path in life. It's one that's taken him to the snowy heights of many a mountain range and down the steep lines of numerous backcountry powder stashes.

"It's been an incredible job. I work with incredible people."

And while his job does keep him at the desk or travelling to other far-flung locations throughout the snowier reaches of the country, he still finds time enough to renew his passion for exploring the local mountains that surround his Ketchum office.

"I get out backcountry skiing as much as I can."

So if you happen to come across him on one of his preferred local backcountry runs—nearby Titus Ridge and Mushroom Ridge are among his favorites—thank him for a job well done. He deserves it.

Where to go for local avalanche forecasts

Reports on local avalanche conditions are available by calling 622-8027 or by logging on to http://www.avalanche.org/~svavctr/. Also, information and an online avalanche safety tutorial are available at www.avalanche.org/~nac/. To report local avalanche, snowpack or weather observations from the field log on to www.avalanche.org/~svavctr/submit_observation.php or call 622-0099.

Information on local avalanche safety classes is available at www.avalanche.org/~svavctr/education.php.




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