Snow It All

How Telluride Ski Resort’s avalanche prevention expert Jon Tukman keeps the slopes safe for powderhounds.

WORDS Bill Kearney
January 2019

After he graduated college, California native Jon Tukman ventured to Colorado and fell in love with the Rockies, doing most of his skiing at Telluride Ski Resort. One day, while he and a friend were out skiing deep powder, he triggered a small avalanche that buried him up to his neck. Fortunately, he was able to breathe and make enough noise for his friend to find him. “Getting caught in forces so much greater than yourself scares the hell out of you,” he says, “but it’s fascinating.” After a 10-year stint on Wall Street, the Rockies called him back, and today, that fascination fuels Tukman’s role as Telluride’s snow safety supervisor. 

To keep the mountain safe, Tukman rigorously studies not only the weather and history of each slope, but the actual shape of snowflakes. He and his team dig snow pits all over the 13,150-foot tall mountain and meticulously examine frosty layers, sometimes with a magnifying glass. Beautiful star-like snowflakes are fine, but drastic temperature differences between the ground and snow, or even layers of old and new snow, can transform them into large, sugary grains that have trouble supporting the snow on top of them. “I like the analogy of wine glasses supporting a ping-pong table,” Tukman explains. “They’ll hold it, but if you tilt the platform too steeply or break a few glasses, the whole thing comes crashing down.” Now imagine that ping-pong table is a mile-wide slab of snow.

While still in the pit, he and the team conduct stability tests. If an area’s not trustworthy, they get to work on the slopes, marching on problem swaths with skis, or using a mechanical roller to compress weak layers early in the season, making the deeper snow dense and strong. Tukman provides avalanche forecasts twice a day, so ski resort employees can understand how conditions have changed and give skiers access to safe powder. 

After big storms or temperature swings, Tukman and his team sometimes deliberately cause avalanches, using canons or sticks of dynamite to blast problem areas early in the morning, before anyone gets on the slopes. Though it’s serious business, Tukman never loses sight of his initial attraction to the snow. “My favorite part of the job is still skiing powder!”

Bill Kearney


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