RIDGWAY – Jerry Roberts’ email handle is “snowviewer.” It comes from the 17th century Japanese poet Basho: “Come, let’s go/snow-viewing/til we’re buried.”
As it happened, Roberts had been snow-viewing, professionally and otherwise, for 57 years when he got buried, and barely survived, a large avalanche on Red Mountain Pass. I was there and helped dig him out. It was the scariest seven minutes of my life.
Not so much for Jerry, though, who said he blacked out very soon after the snow stopped moving. “I thought, ‘Well, Roberts, now you’ve done it. You had a good life. Many friends.’”
He was at peace with it, accepted it as a metaphorically appropriate way to go out. Now five years later at 62, Roberts still has a remarkable fascination with snow, its physical properties, its effects on human communities, its poetry.
Next month, he and fellow snow gazer Mike Friedman will teach a three-day course at the Ah Haa School in Telluride called “The Art of Snow Viewing: An Intuitive View of Snow.” It is directed at anyone with an inquisitive, artistic bent, not just snow scientists or backcountry travelers. “There will be no math,” Roberts said, laughing.
The course runs Feb. 8-10. Tuition is $150. (Check the Ah Haa website for the daily schedule: www.ahhaa.org.)
Roberts and Friedman have skied the San Juans backcountry together since the early 1980s. Friedman was one of the founding partners in Telluride Helitrax, the helicopter skiing business, in 1982. He is a filmmaker, lecturer at various avalanche schools, including the Silverton Avalanche School, and raconteur extraordinaire. Not to mention one of the most articulate humans anywhere.
Roberts began studying snow in the 1970s as part of the San Juan Project, which brought together many of the world’s snow gurus to study snow and avalanches for INSTAAR, the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.
He forecast the avalanche hazard for mines at 16,000 feet in Chile. Then for 10 years he forecast the Hwy 550 “corridor” over Red Mountain Pass for CDOT and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He called his job “the Buddhist road patrol.”
On a stormy night out checking for natural slide activity a few years back, he chanted an impromptu haiku: “Traveling under Brooklyns paths/fear/is my companion.”
Haiku is one of the ways Roberts expresses his relationship to the elemental. Haiku promises to be a component of the Ah Haa class, along with photography, history and design in nature.
“I just got out my microscope,” Roberts told me recently, “and took some photos of snow grains with a new digital setup. So students will be able to take their own pictures of snow crystals.” Snow, for all its morphing mystery (and it does still baffle physicists), its power on the imagination, its fleeting nature, is for Roberts all about “capturing a moment.”
The stories will flow. Participants will become snowviewers themselves. They will look at snow differently. “Wind slab layers/thick as/Van Gogh brush strokes.”