A Chat with an Avalanche Educator

It takes years of training and experience to become an expert in avalanches and backcountry safety. We sat down with Brian Lazar, the executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, to talk about getting buried, why being a guide makes it tough to have a relationship, and skiing in Russia.
Brian Lazar

After weeks of exchanging emails and one appointment when he failed to show up, I finally managed to sit down with Brian Lazar. We meet in a swanky café in Boulder during happy hour. He orders a glass of wine; calm, confident, and clean cut, he looks more like a young, college professor than a weathered, gruff mountain man. The guy’s got a busy schedule—he’s the executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, an environmental consultant, and founder of Alpine World Ascents, which is a guiding company based in Boulder—so I don’t blame him for standing me up earlier.

He starts by telling me about how he got to where he is. Shortly after graduating high school, Brian Lazar left the plains of the Midwest for the Rocky Mountains. Expecting to start a degree at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Lazar balked at the out-of-state tuition price tag and moved to Crested Butte for a year to establish residency. He started an apprenticeship with Jean Pavillard at Adventures to the Edge, a guiding company in Crested Butte, which instigated his guiding career and helped him pay for college. While getting his master’s degree in engineering, Lazar was offered a research project position in the Chugach Range in Alaska. His professor from the University of Colorado and the Institute of Arctic Alpine Research, needed a student competent in snow and ice mechanics, in addition to mountain guiding skills. After a few years in the Chugach, Lazar planted himself in Colorado. He became the executive director of A.I.A.R.E and created a niche in environmental consulting for ski industry brands and resorts. Then I ask him a few questions.

How many avalanche courses do you teach each year?

I teach from five to eight courses a year, nationally and internationally. This year, I’m looking forward to teaching a course in Chamonix; it will be my first time in Europe.

It sounds like as a guide you traveled all over the world, but you haven’t been to Europe yet. Where exactly has guiding taken you?

New Zealand, all over South America, numerous years in Alaska—when I was guiding I had to travel six to seven months out of the year to make a decent wage. This kind of schedule made it pretty hard to maintain a relationship. After years of guiding and traveling, I decided that if I continued to live for myself that I would end up by myself. When I figured this out, my focus deferred from guiding and I started doing environmental consulting work and taking more responsibilities at A.I.A.R.E.

Have you ever been buried?

I was in one avalanche in Colorado where I was buried about a foot under the snow. It took my partners about two minutes to get me out. Although I have only been buried in one, I have seen so many more.

Where is your favorite place to ski?

Definitely Las Lenas, Argentina. The combination of the culture and the skiing there makes it so unique.

So Chamonix for the first time this year? Any other mountains you hope to ski soon?

The 5,000-meter peaks of the Caucaus Range in Russia and Georgia.


Cutler Ridge Crown

Avalanche Conditions

Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Washington ski areas saw cold temperatures last week followed by new snow, currently creating snowpack instabilities. Avalanche warnings remain at high for mountain locations in these states.

An avalanche on Mt. Ruepehu, NZ.

How to Choose an Avy Course

You want to explore the backcountry. But first you need to take an avalanche awareness class. But how do you find a good one? For starters, don’t Google “avalanche education.” Here are six other tips from Dale Atkins, of the Alpine Rescue Team and Recco.

An avalanche in Wolverine Bowl set off by a ski patrol bomb. Photo courtesy of Jim Plehn.On March 31, 1982, a massive avalanche tumbled down California’s Alpine Meadows, killing seven people in the most devastating slide ever to hit a ski resort. Why nobody has written a book about this until now is a mystery to us. But when California-based writer Jennifer Woodlief—a former lawyer, Sports Illustrated reporter, and author of a biography of skier Bill Johnson—stumbled across the now 28-year-old story, the book deal was inevitable. A Wall of White: The True Story of Heroism and Survival in the Face of a Deadly Avalanche, comes out in paperback this February.The story, much like the avalanche it documents, starts out slow, adding layers and building momentum. And then, suddenly, it comes crashing down. What Twilight novels are to teenage girls, A Wall of White is to skiers: an engaging tale with a heroic, made-for-Hollywood ending. (Woodlief is currently in negotiations to sell the story to a film studio.) It wasn’t all tragedy: A woman named Anna Conrad was rescued after spending five days buried in a building collapsed by the avalanche. To report the story, Woodlief conducted extensive interviews with the victims’ families, the rescuers, and the lone survivor. “The hardest part of it all,” Woodlief says, “was the initial reluctance of people to talk to me this long after the incident. I had to persuade them that I wasn’t going to exploit them or sensationalize what happened to them.” Sure, the cover and title are a bit dramatic, but the story inside is a painstakingly researched tale that’s been waiting to be told for nearly 30 years. [$25; awallofwhite.com]Click to the next slide for an interview with Woodlief and Conrad...

A Wall of White: A 1982 Avalanche Revisted

A new book tells the story of the deadliest avalanche in ski-resort history—which happened 28 years ago. We spoke to the book's author and the slide's lone survivor, a woman who spent five days buried in a building collapsed by the avalanche. By Megan Michelson.