Friday, November 26, 2010

New director fills shoes, blazes path

At Avalanche Center, Lundy follows Kellamís exampleómostly

Express Staff Writer

Chris Lundy, the Sawtooth Avalanche Centerís new director, works in his Sun Valley office. Photo by David N. Seelig

Chris Lundy, the new director for the Sawtooth Avalanche Center in Sun Valley, sits in front of a computer and watches a YouTube video of himself hiking along a ridgeline in the Salmon River headwaters last March.

Suddenly, the snow below the figure on the screen starts to move, sliding down the steep slope practically beneath Lundy's feet. The video is of a skier-triggered avalanche, one of five that Lundy and center staff triggered in the peaks that day.

While the avalanches are frightening to hear about, they're even more dramatic to see in action, which is why the center already makes extensive use of YouTube and plans to upload even more videos this coming season.

"If a picture's worth a thousand words, a video's like a million," Lundy said. "People are way less likely to go and ski a steep slope after seeing that."

This is Lundy's first season as the center's director and his seventh in the valley, where he's worked for the center as a forecaster since 2004. While he said he's hoping to follow former Director Janet Kellam's example in many ways, he's also not afraid to forge his own path.

"I'm inheriting a very top-notch program," he said. "But there are certainly going to be some changes."

One major change is the center's emphasis on social media and making avalanche information more accessible to the public. The Sawtooth Avalanche Center's YouTube channel received 32,000 views since it was launched last year, more than 700 people have "friended" the center on Facebook, and the center's Twitter following is going strong.

"We're trying to follow the trends of how people get their information," Lundy said.

Of course, it helps that Lundy is a self-professed "computer nerd" who initiated the center's online outreach programs last year with the support of Kellam. He said he's a proponent of using computers and technology to make more people aware of the dangers of avalanches, but that he still looks to Kellam's tenure as his role model for how the center should be run.

When asked if Kellam's example results in a lot of pressure on his part, Lundy doesn't even hesitate before answering in the affirmative.

"It's intimidating," he said. "Janet's been kind of the glue that kept [the center] together. She had a level of commitment and dedication that's hard to match."

Kellam had deep roots in the community, Lundy said, cultivated through her 14 years at the center. He said keeping in touch with Kellam's contacts and continuing the relationship with the community that she started is one of his top priorities, adding that his time as forecaster has prepared him to take on the director role.

"I'm really excited that it's me, since I've been here," he said. "I have an ownership in it."


He said his outlook is that the center should act as a good neighbor to the community, helping to keep people safe in a dangerous season.

Though skiers have special reason to be concerned about slides, avalanches can occur practically in town, such as in 2008 when Della Mountain near Hailey slid three times and dammed the Big Wood River. Those slides caused flooding and damage very close to home for many area residents, in what is called an "urban avalanche cycle."

"Avalanches are a part of our lives here, even if you're just driving down the street and you see one in the hills," he said.

Avalanches have been part of Lundy's life since college. Born in Minnesota, he grew up skiing before heading to Montana State University in Bozeman to get an engineering degree. Stronger interests prevailed, and Lundy said he soon found himself out in the snow as much as possible.

"I got sidetracked by all the outdoor stuff," he said.

He started learning about snow science and working on the slopes when a few professors took him under their wings. His thesis work ended up focusing on snow science and avalanche studies.

Lundy later became a ski patroller at Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, where he said he triggered a lot of slides and fed his passion for skiing.

Lundy is an active ski mountaineer and says he loves how unpopulated the Sun Valley backcountry is. Whe said that although this area doesn't don't get as much snow as many other places, the lack of crowding makes up for it.

"I like to measure our snow in inches per person," he said with a laugh.

But while Lundy's love for Sun Valley is clear, he said his favorite place to ski is farther afield.

"Patagonia's my main obsession now," he said. "It's just stunning scenery, like how America probably was 100 years ago. You can have an adventure there. It's unlike anywhere else in the world."

As for the avalanche forecast for this season, Lundy said it may be too early to tell, as a dramatic weather event such as a dry spell or a blizzard could change conditions at the drop of a hat.

"There are some seasons where you know early if it's going to be bad, [but] it's such a dynamic thing," he said.

This year, La Niña should make for a great ski season and a slower avalanche season, Lundy said. The weather system normally causes above-average snowfall, and he said that some National Weather Service reports predict the strongest La Niña cycle in 50 years.

Last year's rough season was caused by a dry spell in December that set up a sugary snow layer and prompted slides. La Niña, with its increased precipitation, is not likely to result in similar dry spells.

Or so Lundy hopes. He said the best-case scenario is that once the late snowfall comes, it will just keep on snowing at consistent intervals.

The new director said he's holding out hopes that his first season will be one with stable snow and lots of it.

"I just think we're due for a good winter," Lundy said. "We're going to be optimistic."

Katherine Wutz:

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