For more than three decades this man’s job has been to figure our Mother Nature’s plan, and try to work around it.
Bruce McMahon has just been recognized for his 32 years of service at Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks with a Public Service Award of Excellence 2012 for “Outstanding Career.”
“I was into backcountry skiing in a big way in the late 70s, and there weren’t that many people doing it. I had a few close calls with unstable snow, and I realized I either need to quit this, or learn about snow and safety,” said McMahon, explaining why he first became interested in the Roger’s Pass program.
“I had no intention of staying, I thought I’d learn a little bit about snow and see where it takes me. And I’m still there.”
McMahon is now the Senior Avalanche Forecaster, which means he runs the avalanche program.
He and his team of roughly 12 professional mountaineers, are responsible for the snow analysis, avalanche control, and timing of highway and park closures, as well as mountain search and rescue in the Mt. Revelstoke and Glacier Field Unit.
“When push comes to shove, what we do is intervene on Mother Nature’s behalf. We closely monitor snowpack conditions and when certain thresholds are reached, we close and create avalanches at a time that’s suitable” he said.
“We do our best to estimate (timing of closures). So we have a rough idea, but you never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes you get results bigger than you expected, and then our timing is out the window.”
On average McMahon and his team have Highway 1 west of Golden closed 100 hours a year, however the 2011/2012 winter season was far worse than usual for avalanche control.
McMahon was nominated for the prestigious Public Service Award by Brenda DeMone, associate director of parks canada.
“I know actually when she did it. She was asking some funny questions, like I was about to get a pink slip or something,” he said.
The awards ceremony was in Gatineau, Quebec, and he was flown out for the festivities. When McMahon got out there, he was surprised and honored to learn his award was going to be presented by Alan Latourelle, CEO of Parks Canada.
“He is a man that I respect very highly,” said McMahon.
A 32-year career has many highlights, especially one as distinguished as McMahon’s. But the most rewarding achievement has been the development of the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale, a tool now recognized internationally as the most effective and accurate means of classifying wilderness avalanche terrain.
McMahon remembers developing the scale during a frustrating time when backcountry recreational enthusiasts were taking too many risks, and not fully understanding the hazards, especially with terrain choices.
Ten years later it is still being used by Parks Canada and around the world.
“It really has been an outstanding career.”