1556 Tales of the avalanche clan

Snow Nomad: An Avalanche Memoir
by Alan Dennis

Victoria: FriesenPress, 2022
$25.99 / 9781039107984

Reviewed by Ron Dart


I have had an ongoing interest, the last few decades, in the life and philosophic vision of Dolores LaChapelle. LaChapelle’s early pioneering work with Arne Naess in deep ecology and her deep powder skiing insights were partially birthed when working with her avalanche legend husband, Ed LaChapelle — such a nomad life of sorts both lived in the snow fields of time and avalanche research set them apart as much respected avalanche mentors for many. Ed LaChapelle is mentioned, with due reverence, a few times, in Alan Dennis’s compelling read of an autobiography of sorts, Snow Nomad: An Avalanche Memoir.

Snow Nomad is a fast paced, quick read of Dennis’s early novice journey into the demanding world of more mature avalanche work, courses few, hard lessons learned on the job as he gradually rose the ranks to become an avalanche expert in BC and other parts of the world. Many of the photographs, sketches, and text tell an honest and raw tale from the perspective of an insider on the layered and complex world of those who live within the avalanche tribe, and as with most families, the internal tensions, clashes, and betrayals. This is no romanticized view of mountaineering, skiing, and avalanche life in Canada or in the various places outside of Canada in which Dennis has lived his avalanche vocation.

Alan Dennis. Photo by Sandy Allan

Alan’s initial journey into the ethos of mountaineering was shaped and informed by his experiences with the Outward Bound School (when it was in Keremeos) in the early 1970s (I have many fond memories of being with Outward Bound in the mid-1970s). Such a key in the ignition with Outward Bound was to take Alan into the larger and fuller world of mountain culture and avalanche safety. His time spent in the Yukon, then to the more demanding challenges of Granduc Mine Road and Bear Pass, moved Alan’s avalanche apprenticeship to a higher level. But it was in New Zealand, at Milford Road in the early 1980s — where avalanche conditions were even more perilous and precarious — that skills were learned, intuition elevated, and local insights heeded, and Alan Dennis internalized more about the heightened science-art tension of avalanche safety.

Bear Pass summit bluffs above Bear Lake in avalanche terrain in BC’s Coast Range. Photo courtesy Alan Dennis
Born in Malta, the son of a Royal Navy officer, Alan Dennis came to Canada as a boy

The journey back to Canada and Alan’s leadership role from Revelstoke with the Canadian Avalanche Association/ Canadian Avalanche Centre from 1991-98 is worth repeated reads (chapter 19). In the next chapter, no punches are pulled. Dennis’s time was a difficult one. The inner dynamics of leadership were contested and he departed in a trying manner. Bureaucrats and consultants often wore hair shirts of sorts. Such is often the dilemma when different temperaments interpret and read avalanche safety. A significant number of people in Canada and elsewhere are named in positive — and sometimes negative — ways as Alan Dennis makes sense of his journey with them in the avalanche clan.

The description of Alan’s time with the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) from 1999-2004 and 2008-11 makes for a mesmerizing read (chapter 24). His time spent in Meager Creek, Adanac Moly, and Coeur Alaska from 2004-07 reveals yet more about the far flung avalanche family, as does his time in Veladero (chapter 30) on the border of Chile and Argentina (camping at 3,800 metres, high point on the road 4,800 metres) — an account that remains with the reader as a nail biter of sorts.

Triggering an avalanche at night. Photo by by Mike Boissonneault
Alan Dennis. Photo by Pat Morrow

There is much in Snow Nomad that is worth sitting with and reflecting on. Few others have Dennis’s sheer breadth and wide-ranging experiences in avalanche work including the promotion of safe skiing, ski touring, and high mountain pass avalanche safety. The accumulated wisdom of such diverse experiences and lessons learned about avalanches both near and far makes Snow Nomad an evocative and definitive primer and a must-read for those — regardless of the mountain terrain they live, move, and have their being in — who ever need to be aware of the ambiguities of avalanche dangers.

The cover of Snow Nomad — showing two skiers on a high mountain ridge gazing down on layered snow dunes — makes it seem that the book might be about skiing and avalanche safety. But it is much more. The broad approach taken in Snow Nomad covers a wide variety of places and methods required in different weather conditions to anticipate, as much as possible, the deadly nature of avalanches and avoid their tragic consequences.

The style of writing in this charmer of a book is lucidly autobiographical, honest, and raw regarding people, organizations, and the tensions in the leadership of avalanche safety; yet a sane and sensible breadth permeates each chapter as Alan Dennis presents each step of the journey and the mistakes learned, lessons internalized, and insights gained — with no silver bullet or snake oil to provide conclusive answers on how to absolutely avoid avalanches. This is a beauty and a bounty of a book that will allow all those interested in mountain life to read, learn, and inwardly digest the challenges presented by avalanches. There can be no doubt, though, that Alan Dennis’s rich and varied life of has taken him to places and upped the level of avalanche work and awareness far beyond that of the pioneering life and research of Ed LaChapelle and, to a lesser degree, Dolores LaChapelle.

Alan Dennis with a copy of Snow Nomad. Photo courtesy Revelstoke Review


Ron Dart

Ron Dart has taught in the Department of Political Science, Philosophy, and Religious Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley since 1990. He was on staff with Amnesty International in the 1980s. He has published 40 books including Erasmus: Wild Bird (Create Space, 2017) and The North American High Tory Tradition (American Anglican Press, 2016). Editor’s note: Ron Dart has recently reviewed books by D.L. (Donna) Stephen, Elizabeth MayStephen Hui (Destination Hikes), Stephen Hui (105 Hikes), and David Crerar, Harry Crerar, & Bill Maurer for The British Columbia Review. He has also contributed three essays: From Jalna to Timber Baron: Reflections on the life of H.R. MacMillan, Roderick Haig-Brown & Al Purdy, and Save Swiss Edelweiss Village to The BC Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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