By Lindsay Fendt
When Chris George arrived in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains more than 50 years ago, the only thing anyone really knew about the avalanches in the area was that there were a lot of them. The snowpack in the San Juans was notorious for its deadly slides that had been killing the area’s settlers for more than a century.
George wanted that to change. Now 82, he has spent much of his life learning about Colorado’s snowpack and advocating for better public-safety measures, retiring last year as president of the board at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
In between, he worked as a mountain guide and an EMT, started avalanches from helicopters for ski races and restored an old mining property into a world-class backcountry ski lodge on Red Mountain Pass.
“I guess you could say I’ve been busy,” he said.
Originally from England, George came to Colorado in 1967 after being recruited by Outward Bound for his mountaineering and climbing experience; the organization agreed to pay his tuition to attend what was then Metropolitan State College. George was nearly 30 when he started classes.
“They started that school for people just like me,” he said. “For me, a mature student, it just filled in the gaps and prepared me for the next 50 years.”
George graduated with a degree in history and a minor in French, getting a well-rounded education that also included earth-sciences classes. Those courses, he said, helped prepare him for a future in the mountains.
After graduating in 1973, George returned to the San Juans and bought an old mining property on Red Mountain Pass. He renovated it and turned it into a backcountry ski lodge that’s still operating today.
Living above 11,000 feet in Silverton and Ouray while running his business, George became more entrenched in avalanche safety. He became disillusioned by Colorado’s avalanche-safety and realized the state needed a science-based avalanche-prediction system like what he had seen in Europe.
“It became apparent to me when I was seeing accidents where snowplow drivers were getting killed, you know, miners were getting buried, that we needed a better system,” he said.
George’s passion eventually became the Colorado Institute for Snow Science and Avalanche Research, the precursor to the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
“It is the most trying science because the variables are just infinite,” George said.
Now retired, George doesn’t forecast avalanches anymore, but his years at high altitude have taught him one important thing about snow.
“The only way to really know what’s going on,” he said, “is to have about 40 years under your belt on one mountainside somewhere.”
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