Words & Photos by: Sean Zimmerman-Wall
It is amazing how the universe lines things up sometimes. Literally hours after settling into our new accommodations in Bariloche, we receive an invite to join in on the first meeting of mountain professionals regarding the advancement of avalanche education in the area. Sponsored by SIAA (Servicio de Informacion de Avalanchas en Argentina), a small but dedicated organization aimed at building the mountain community and disseminating information to the public, the conference took place in the small enclave of San Martin de Los Andes.
Traveling along Ruta 40 to San Martin in the dark, we arrived just after dawn, the surrounding mountains reflecting the morning light. Views of Volcan Lanin on the northern horizon stimulate our imaginations and give glances of future descents. The town is perfectly situated on a lake featuring Fjord-like inlet. The wind picks up and white caps predominate the water’s surface. Walking to the local cinema, the venue for the conference, we stretch our legs and get ready for the day’s activites. SIAA is made up of several individuals who have spent the better part of their lives living and working in the mountains. Erik Sweet and Julian Carielo lead SIAA, along with a small group of forecasters and observers. Their goal is to create a network of small avalanche centers across Argentina and develop a professional community with a common focus. They have also formulated SnowProject, a web-based and observer driven platform intended on collecting and organizing information from the field. Through the use of SnowProject, any skier can gain an understanding of the backcountry avalanche conditions and use the data to make better decisions while traveling snow terrain.
The structure of the day’s class primarily revolved around getting everyone acquainted with each other and discussing tactics to improve the communication amongst guides, observers, forecasters, and patrollers. It was quite an honor to sit side by side with some very respected professionals. Represented in the conference attendees were the Nations of Argentina, Chile, and the United States. Each of us has our own brand of knowledge, but a desire to contribute to the future of this region is what has brought this meeting together. After introductions we head into the meat of the class. Julian leads off with a summation of avalanche accidents over the past five years in this area and the details of each situation. We then move into avalanche mechanics and the general nomenclature surrounding our professions. After a short break for yerba mate, we are back into the mix. An excitable gentleman named Chago Rodriquez takes the floor next. He is based out of Boise, Idaho, but has become an integral part of the local avalanche community and SnowProject. Engaging the class, Chago emphasized his high expectations of this community and how we should all shoulder the responsibility of the proliferation of education. Hearing the conversation reverberate throughout the group and getting everyone’s input was extremely encouraging. The passion for the mountains really shined through and it became evident that the potential for progress is as immense as the Andes. The day continued on after lunch with a spirited discourse regarding avalanche rescue. From gear to techniques, we shared opinions and stories on what works, and what doesn’t. Closing down the final session, Chago and Erik lead a discussion of avalanche accidents in North America from the 2011/2012 season. Lending some of his personal experience on the day of one fatality in particular, our Assistant Guide Sean Zimmerman-Wall spoke of decision-making and how his group was able to enjoy the powder safely. To be honest, Sean’s Castellano is getting pretty good, and he addressed the class professionally. Talking in detail about each incident, Chago aimed his comments at making us realize that accidents can and do happen to professionals, and that making critical decisions as guides is imperative
This experience was truly an honor and it was great to meet the professionals of the region. Our work with SIAA and SnowProject will continue throughout the rest of this winter and for many more to come.