Snow Nomad: An Avalanche Memoir

Snow Nomad: An Avalanche Memoir
By Alan Dennis
Published by Rocky Mountain Books, 2021

For the last few decades I’ve been interested in the life and philosophic vision of Dolores LaChapelle. LaChapelle’s early pioneering work with Arne Naess in deep ecology and her deep powder skiing insights were birthed when working with her avalanche legend husband, Ed LaChapelle. A nomad life of sorts, both lived in the snow fields of time. Avalanche research set them apart as much respected avalanche mentors for many. Alan Dennis mentions Ed LaChapelle, with due reverence, in Snow Nomad: An Avalanche Memoir.

Snow Nomad is a fast paced, quick read of Dennis’ early novice journey into the demanding world of more mature avalanche work. He learned hard lessons on the job as he rose the ranks to become an avalanche expert in BC and other parts of the world. The photographs, sketches and text tell an honest and raw tale from the perspective of an insider of the complex world of those who live within the avalanche tribe. As with most families, there exist internal tensions, clashes and betrayals. This is no romantized view of mountaineering, skiing and avalanche life in Canada. Nor in the various places outside of Canada in which Dennis has lived his avalanche vocation.

Alan’s experiences with Outward Bound informed his initial journey into the ethos of mountaineering. I have many fond memories of being with Outward Bound in the mid-1070’s. This key in the ignition with Outward Bound took Alan into the larger and fuller world of mountain culture and avalanche safety. He spent time in the Yukon then to the more demanding challenges of Granduc Mine Road and Bear Pass. This moved Alan’s avalanche apprenticeship to a higher level. In New Zealand at Milford Road in the early 1980s avalanche conditions were even more perilous and precarious. Alan learned skills, elevated his intuition and heeded local insights which resulted in greater knowledge about the science-art tension of avalanche safety.

The journey back to Canada and Alan’s leadership role from Revelstoke with the Canadian Avalanche Association/Canadian Avalanche Centre from 1991-1998 is worth a read (chapter 19). No punches are pulled here. His time is difficult, the inner dynamics of leadership contested. Alan departs in a trying manner – bureaucrats and consultants offer hair shirts of sorts (chapter 20). Such is often the dilemma when different temperaments and interpretations of avalanche safety collide. A significant number of people in Canada and elsewhere are named in positive and negative ways by Alan as he makes sense of his journey with them in the avalanche clan.

The description of Alan’s time with the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) from 1999-2004 and 2008-2011 makes for a mesmerizing read (chapter 24). The time spent in Meager Creek, Adanac Moly and Coeur Alaska from 2004-2007 reveals yet more about the far flung avalanche family. His time in Veladero (chapter 30) on the border of Chile and Argentina (camping at 3800 metres, high point on the road 4800 metres) is a nail biter.

There is much in Snow Nomad that is worth sitting with and reflecting on. Few have the sheer breadth and wide range of experiences in avalanche work – of safe skiing, ski touring and high mountain passes avalanche safety as does Alan. The accumulated wisdom of such diverse experiences and lessons learned about avalanches makes this evocative book a definitive primer and must read. This is especially so for those who ever need to be aware of the ambiguities of avalanche dangers – regardless of the mountain terrain they live in.

The cover of Snow Nomad – two skiers on a high mountain ridge gazing down on layered snow dunes – implies that the book is about skiing and avalanche safety—not so! The broad approach taken in Snow Nomad covers a variety of places and methods used in different weather conditions to anticipate the deadly nature of avalanches and avoid their tragic consequences.

The style of writing in this charmer of a book is autobiographical. It is honest and raw about people, organizations and tensions in the leadership of avalanche safety. A sane and sensible breadth permeates each chapter describing mistakes learned from, lessons internalized and insights gained. There is no silver bullet or snake oil here – no conclusive answer on how to absolutley avoid avalanches. This is a beauty and bounty of a book that one and all should own, read and digest. Especially those interested in mountain life and the challenges avalanches present. The rich and varied life of Alan Dennis has upped the level of avalanche work and awareness far beyond that of the pioneering life.

Rounding the avalanche prone Thar mountain in the Coquihalla (Photo by Ron Dart)

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