In the Field
Alexandra van Zyl
Drew Hardesty was busy changing diapers when I first called him on a summer afternoon at his residence in Salt Lake City. Temperatures hovered around 35 C and the monsoon rains that pelted much of the West had yet to so much as mist his windowpanes. The alleged “greatest snow on Earth” that graces the snaking canyons of the neighboring Wasatch Range felt as far off as it ever does each year.
From the first flurries to the last rush of snowmelt cascading down valley, Hardesty has his finger on the snowpack. When we spoke, the veteran forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center was learning a new kind of responsibility with his (then) newborn son, Sawyer, but he’s well prepared for the job.
[Forecasting] is a little bit like having a child in the sense that I say I get paid to pay attention,” Hardesty jovially mused. “Everyone laughs, but truth is paying attention is hard work!
It should come as no surprise that Hardesty draws parallels between his occupation and parenthood. Besides the acute eye for detail, neither affords much time off. Officially, the 52-year-old Hardesty spends three days each week in the field (though he acknowledges the weather doesn’t take days off and neither does he). The following two days, he finds himself in the office no later than four in the morning. At 5:15 he records the Dawn Patrol Hotline—a necessity in the Wasatch—and by 7:30 he releases the “bread and butter forecast” for the day.
Bread and butter is an all too bland description of Hardesty’s literary-infused palate. For twenty-three years, he has provided the Salt Lake region with an informative yet flavorful forecast seasoned with eloquent prose and apt metaphor. It’s a rarity in a data-heavy industry, but Hardesty sees a “poetry and a resonance” in the conditions that beg to be interpreted in an engaging manner.
“I first and foremost grew up in a way that I understoodthe power of storytelling,” Hardesty said. “And I’ve tried to harness that as a backcountry avalanche forecaster to get into the psychology of how people make decisions and tell them stories that resonate.”
He paused for a moment, reflecting. “If you can tell a good story that they can understand and grasp and relate to their own experiences, they’re going to understand what I’m telling them when everything is on the line.”
Two seasons ago, an avalanche in Wilson Glade caught seven individuals, fully burying six and killing four—one of the most significant avalanche accidents in Wasatch history. The following day, Hardesty went to the home of a survivor who lost three partners, including his spouse. He shared his story of being caught by a slide in a zone just around the corner from Wilson Glade, 10 years prior. Hardesty was lucky, he told the man. Out of sight of his partner, he hung onto a tree and escaped with little more than a few scrapes and bruises. It easily could’ve taken his life.
“You have to lead from the top,” Hardesty saysof dismantling the taboo around avalanches. “When I do an investigation, I’m very quick to say I have had my close calls as well, and perhaps I was luckier than you or I could have found myself in your situation. You address that immediately, and it changes the whole mood in the room.”
Humility and vulnerability are core tenants of Hardesty’s stories and forecasts. He may understand the Salt Lake City snowpack better than anyone, but over the years he’s been presented with ten thousand opportunities to be wrong. Therefore, it’s imperative he take home the right lessons, and that often requires an outside perspective.
“Hindsight bias is so strong with all of us,” Hardesty mused. “I really try to take great pains to describe that sometimes, in retrospect, you walk away with the wrong lessons altogether. It’s not as clear as you might think.”
Snowpacks are highly volatile and, at times, low validity environments.The human mind can be much the same. Getting through to skiers isn’t always about appealing to reason.
“We don’t make decisions like we think we make them—we’re emotional creatures,” Hardesty explained. “If I can tell a story or write a forecast, the people on the ridge lines about to jump into the bowl aren’t going to remember exactly what I said—is that layer of surface hoar buried at 45cms or 60cms down?—but they’re going to remember how I made them feel.”
Years ago, a reader of his forecasts wrote, “Now here’s another Hardesty metaphor on life disguised as an avalanche forecast.” Hardesty still chuckles proudly at the memory. Forecasts typically display a caveat: they’re only valid till the end of the day. He hopes his stories will stick with skiers for life.