TELLURIDE – When Telluride Ski Area Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz began his ski patrol career in 1970, snow science was a fledgling field in the U.S.
In fact, the study of snow – and of avalanches, specifically – was based more on trial-and-error than on science-based research. This dangerous reality often put those in the ski industry at risk.
Today, those who work and play in avalanche terrain are infinitely more knowledgeable about avalanche risks – and how to mitigate the hazard – than they did four decades ago. And Sterbenz, who has dedicated much of his career to advancing the study of snow science, is a key contributor to that growing body of knowledge.
The American Avalanche Association, the country’s preeminent group of avalanche researchers and professionals, recently acknowledged Sterbenz’ contributions in the snow-science sphere by awarding him the Bernie Kingery Award for Dedicated Professional Practice.
The award, created in honor of the Alpine Meadows Mountain Manager who died in 1982 in an on-area avalanche, recognizes sustained career contributions by dedicated avalanche field professionals.
“This award is for the boots-on-the-ground people who are out there every day making sure the slopes are safe, and Sterbie’s been doing that a long time,” said Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, one of the five avalanche professionals who nominated Sterbenz for the 2013 award.
Here in Telluride, “Sterbie” is the man behind the ski resort’s complicated avalanche-mitigation program. On snow mornings, he’s generally found directing the ski patrol’s operations from Patrol Headquarters, near the top of Lift 6. After any significant snowfall, Telluride’s snow safety plan includes utilizing any or all of the resort’s vast array of avalanche mitigation tools, including Howitzers, avalaunchers, Blaster Box, Avi Pipe, Bomb Trams, or simply patrol crews outfitted with handheld explosives. Sterbenz continually has his finger on the pulse of all snow-related activities on the Telluride Ski Area, from analyzing the snowpack through field data collection (digging pits and performing snow stability tests) to the day-to-day management of avalanche mitigation operations to planning for the next storm.
“Telluride is faced with a lot of complicated avalanche mitigation issues,” Greene said, “and it’s impressive what Sterbie has created there by looking at the different tools available and seeing where he can implement them. Thanks to him, the resort has been quite innovative in putting together a complex but well-thought-out avalanche mitigation program.”
Sterbenz began his ski patrol career at Aspen Highlands, but soon moved to Telluride to become the resort’s Snow Safety Director. His long tenure in Telluride has put Sterbenz at the forefront of avalanche mitigation, in both theory and practice, as Sterbenz helped pave the way for the ski area’s 2001 expansion into Prospect Bowl, and then for later expansions into Black Iron Bowl, Palmyra Peak and the Gold Hill Ridge.
Sterbenz was the lead proponent in bringing the Military Weapons Program to the Telluride Ski Area in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service in 2008, an achievement nearly 20 years in the making, utilizing Howitzers to mitigate avalanche hazard on some of the Telluride Ski Area’s steepest and most remote avalanche-prone terrain.
Sterbenz has authored numerous papers for the AAA’s Avalanche Review publication and for the International Snow Science Workshop, also serving as chair for the 2006 ISSW, held in Telluride. He also consulted on the snow safety plan development at Silverton Ski Area, and has provided expertise and advice for avalanche control operations from the American and Canadian northwest through the Inter-mountain region to the Rockies.
Sterbenz says his passion for this once little-known career path as an “avalanche professional” blossomed after a few of his own close calls in avalanche terrain early in his career. He attended the Silverton Avalanche School in 1975, and later joined the staff to offer its first Level II course, going on to co-found (and serve as director of) the Telluride Avalanche School, created following a string of local avalanche fatalities, in 1989. “The purpose was to help protect our community, because at the time we were seeing so many people die,” Sterbenz said, of the Telluride Avalanche School, which has morphed into today’s nonprofit San Juan Field School. “The idea was to give people the tools they need to travel in avalanche terrain safely.”
Sterbenz is renowned throughout the entire snow-science industry. He has worked as an instructor for the Northwest Avalanche Institute, the American Avalanche Institute/Snowise and the National Avalanche School; he is also chair of AAA’s Standards Awareness program. He says that despite all the progress made in the realm of snow science, and the practical work of mitigating avalanche hazard, the industry continues to face challenges when it comes to alleviating some of the dangers of avalanches.
“We will continue to see improvements on the technical end of the spectrum, but the most challenging,” he said, “is and always has been the human factor – because we are all still people. We may have a better understanding of the mechanics of avalanches, and how to manage them, but we continue to see people making the same mistakes.”
Despite the challenges that still face the industry, snow-science professionals agree that the contributions made by career professionals like Sterbenz have helped lift the cloud obscuring our knowledge of the avalanche phenomenon.
“Sterbie has contributed on a lot of levels over a lot of years,” the CAIC’s Greene said, of his longtime compatriot. “His is an impressive legacy.”