Middlebury Magazine
Snow Rush  March 2009

March 2009  
Snow Rush
by Cameron Walker

Few love snow as much as Janet Kellam '78.

Central Idaho is a mess of mountains, a place where the snowpack can change dramatically between one slope and the next, where a skier could cross a ridge from perfect, stable powder to avalanche-prone slab. When Janet Kellam ’78 has worked with out-of-area weather forecasters, they confess, “I don’t know how the hell you do accurate forecasts for central Idaho.”

As the director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, that’s exactly what Kellam does.

From its name, the center sounds like an underground control hub in a James Bond movie, with rows of headset-wearing agents tapping away beneath a giant screen. Instead, it’s a single computer in a small, shared room, tucked in an unobtrusive Forest Service building on the road to the Sun Valley Lodge.

The gray might be creeping into Kellam’s blond braid, but she looks youthful in a well-worn fleece as she zooms from program to program on her computer, pulling up snow depth and precipitation data and photos of avalanches that roil like thunderheads, which she dubs “avalanche porn.” Willie, her two-year-old Australian shepherd mix, curls up at her feet.  

The woman simply loves snow. “There’s just such a dynamic life to the snowpack. To me it’s very intriguing to try to anticipate what’s going to happen.” Pictures of the white stuff hang from the walls; she gushes over electron microscope images of faceted snow crystals, which can create unstable layers in the snowpack.

It’s been a nearly life-long relationship for Kellam.  Growing up in Niskayuna, New York, she started skiing at local mom-and-pop hills; at Middlebury, she skied on the downhill and cross-country teams.

A winter day at the avalanche center starts when Kellam or one of her two forecasters arrives before dawn. The previous day, one of them has worked in the field, checking snowpack conditions in potential problem areas or spots sparse on information. The early bird uses these field notes along with weather station data on everything from temperature to wind direction to snow water content in order to determine the avalanche danger. It’s all woven into the report, which Kellam calls a blend of science and wordsmithing.

These reports feed the growing number of skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers searching Idaho’s backcountry for solitude and untracked lines. The goal, she says, is to give backcountry users the best information to make informed decisions about when and where to go.

Kellam understands the attraction; the acres of wide-open terrain drew her here as well. While an environmental biology student at Middlebury, she got a job offer with the Student Conservation Association in Stanley, Idaho.  One glance at a map of the area’s gigantic roadless expanses and she was sold.

She kept returning during her college summers, and later, winters. While she’s taken a few breaks—ski-guiding in California and Idaho, working on documentary films internationally—this is her home. “What really kept me coming back here was the community,” she says.

By the mid-1990s, Doug Abromeit was working to expand a then-tiny avalanche center. He saw Kellam’s “tremendous” backcountry skiing ability and snow savvy, and also her skills at community-building—she and a business partner had rallied locals around the threatened Galena Lodge, a nearby Nordic skiing institution. Abromeit pulled her into the Sawtooth center as a forecaster in winter 1996-1997; she became director in 2001. He credits Kellam with boosting community involvement in the center and enhancing the center’s work with backcountry buffs—particularly motorized and non-motorized users—who might conflict over wilderness use. “The public loves the Sawtooth Avalanche Center,” says Abromeit, who directs the National Avalanche Center from the other half of the tiny office.

The center’s online avalanche reports reflect this desire to serve a wider community, delivering simple, accurate forecasts with a mix of text and graphics. A Sawtooth avalanche safety brochure that relies on similar ideas—photos, graphics, a few key phrases—has been adopted by avalanche centers nationwide.  The center runs avalanche classes for a range of levels, serving more than 500 people each winter.

The point isn’t to create paranoia.  “It’s as much about helping people understand there are good times to go, and there are bad times,” she says.  “We’re really trying to help them get out more, because that’s so much why we live here.”

Many say she’s a local hero. In early 2008, two cycles of urban avalanches hit areas of Ketchum, Hailey, and Sun Valley, endangering homes at the base of steep slopes—and people who might seem unlikely avalanche victims, from dog walkers to snow-removal crews to meter readers.

It was Kellam’s day off, but she hopped in a truck with avalanche forecaster Chris Lundy during the second series of slides, following the emergency calls on the radio. While the avalanche center doesn’t work regularly with in-town emergency crews, “anytime she said something, people stopped and listened,” Lundy says. “It was pretty impressive to see that all those years of building relationships with people and being so dedicated had paid off.”

Kellam, who serves as president of the American Avalanche Association, is known for setting a schedule and keeping people on task. Yet colleagues also describe her as humble, an essential quality in a discipline where even experts can be wrong—with serious consequences. Says Mark Mueller, AAA’s executive director: “Janet is always very self-deprecating and doesn’t take herself too seriously, which I think is really an important part of being in the field.”

You can see this in the room around her. Along with snowy snapshots, her office is replete with gag gifts and funny photos from family and friends. Case in point: a pair of ski goggles with a magnifying glass poised in front of each lens that Lundy made for Kellam’s 50th birthday. “I used to be an eagle eye,” she says.

While she laughs easily at herself, the stories she tells are sobering—and riveting. I can’t help holding my breath as she describes an avalanche that killed a snowmobiler in the Baker Creek area, northwest of Ketchum.

She has her own story, too. In 2000, she and two other women were checking conditions in Baker Creek. As they crossed a low-angle slope during moderate avalanche danger—one at a time, as safe avalanche travel demands—the thicker slab of snow on the steeper slope above her broke and took Kellam with it.

An avalanche had tumbled her once before (“when I was young and knew enough to be dangerous,” she laughs), but this time, she was completely buried. She tried to fling an arm up and create an air pocket with the other, as she’d taught in her classes, but all she could move was a little finger. Her ski partners uncovered her face in less than five minutes.

The experience has informed her teaching and helped her talk with victims’ families. She recalls telling her story to the wife of an avalanche victim, who wondered about her husband’s last moments. “And I said, ‘It really bugs me, because I like to think of myself as a fighter. But, basically, everything was okay. It felt good, it felt peaceful. I felt like I could just drift off, and it was all right.’ ”

During higher avalanche danger, she now skips skiing with people who are cavalier about avalanches. But when the hazard dips low, she says, “Man, we’re going. I don’t care what kind of a day it is, we are going.”

On the last Saturday in March, nine inches of snow fall overnight in the mountains north of town. Kellam writes the forecast that morning—her last for the winter. It warns of considerable danger on high elevation slopes, particularly steep, east-facing ones. I follow her advice, sticking to Galena Lodge’s cross-country ski trails that morning. The powder’s so light skiing feels like flying, and I imagine Kellam out there enjoying it—safely—too.

copyright 2009, Cameron Walker.  All rights reserved.