a rugged mountain guide, alone, setting out to tackle the challenges of the harsh Canadian mountains in deepest winter… by hunching over his laptop computer.
But for 37-year CMH veteran Jon “Colani” Bezzola, a computer and an Internet connection have become the most important items in his toolbox. It’s an unlikely fate for a guy who earned his guide stripes the old-fashioned way in the Engadine region of Switzerland, back when learning to read snow by eye and feel—not to mention learning to speak five languages—was the closest thing you would get to database management. As CMH’s Mountain Safety Manager, however, Bezzola spends most of the winter flitting across the 15,000 square kilometre expanse of tenures surrounding CMH’s 11 lodges—and his trusty laptop is never far from hand.
“CMH first started compiling snow-related data electronically about 20 years back,” Bezzola recalls. “At first it was a very primitive old MS-DOS system, but by 1994 we hooked up with a young guide from Alta, Utah, Roger Atkins, who had been working on a computerized method of tracking snow conditions over time.” Hans Gmoser managed to talk Atkins into coming to CMH to guide, and together with Bezzola and others, they refined a proprietary system called SnowBase that, much evolved, is still in place.
At its core, SnowBase consists of daily snowfall, weather and condition reports from manual recordings at survey plots in all 11 areas, as well as random field tests. CMH’s own reporting is further augmented by a region-wide information-sharing program of the Canadian Avalanche Association called InfoEx, in which other professionals such as B.C. Highways, backcountry lodges and cat-skiing operations render their own condition reports. From this mass of information, Bezzola and his fellow guides face the ongoing task of digesting its meaning in regards to choosing safe places to ski.
Raw numerical data is only a small part. Human assessment and decision-making remain an essential component. One of the most important enhancements of SnowBase, says Bezzola, is a slope-by-slope photographic record of every named run in the CMH universe, frequently updated in the field using digital cameras. During conference calls just before dinner, and then at the morning guides’ meetings, Bezzola and the guides review the day’s proposed skiing targets specifically in light of the historic and prevailing conditions. “We ask questions like, What type of terrain has been skied over the last two or three days, and was there anything unusual? Did you see any avalanches? What about sluffing? All of these things are noted directly on the photographs, with particular attention to areas of concern.” Another key feature of the process is that at each area, one guide is designated as the daily snow safety evaluator. Rather than guide guests, his or her job is to roam the tenure, make and record stability tests, and ensure that whatever calls were made by Bezzola and the other guides, on-site observation must be able to back them up. And even then, there’s one more vital protocol. “Say we give the go-ahead in the morning; it doesn’t mean things are green and totally without risk. If just one of five guides says ‘I don’t think we should be here,’ it’s off. Everyone has a veto.”
Meanwhile, ordinary skiers usually have just one question for the laptop guru. Have snowfall amounts changed much in your 37 years? “I don’t think so,” he says, “apart from minor year-to-year differences. Sure, maybe temperatures themselves are more prone to fluctuation than they were 20 years back. But as for raw snowfall? Not so much. I never saw it deeper at my place in the Columbia Valley than we had last winter.”