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NOLS Snow Scientists
By Kerry Brophy
When the temperature drops and the snow starts flying, life doesn’t get much better for these NOLS grads...
Ian McCammon

Ian McCammon
Avalanche Researcher

It’s hard to imagine that standing knee-deep in a snow pit looking at snow stability has anything to do with robotics or aerospace design. But for NOLS Instructor Ian McCammon, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, the two kinds of research are surprisingly similar. At the University of Utah, during what McCammon calls his “former life,” he designed sensory systems for robotics and aerospace systems for organizations like NASA and the Department of Defense.

Before long, McCammon, who grew up skiing back East, was drawn to a different kind of science—the white, fluffy variety. “My engineering background gave me an appreciation for the scientific end of snow science,” McCammon says. “Things like snow mechanics and metamorphosis. I bring the tools of classical engineering to snow science.”

As McCammon shifted his engineering background from space to snow—and began to spend more and more time in the winter backcountry with NOLS students—the science of snow continually intrigued him. “For me, snow is a fascinating material just in how complex it is. It’s full of mystery.” Part of this complexity, says McCammon, is how relatively new snow science is. According to McCammon, people have only been studying snow since the ’40s and ’50s, and it doesn’t get a lot of funding so it doesn’t advance quickly. It’s also vastly different from anything else in the scientific field. “It’s a very exciting new world,” he says. “Most of our science and math have been developed for matter that is far from its melting point. But with snow we’re trying to analyze something that’s near its melting point.”

McCammon has also begun to construct in his mind some trends in how people think about snow. In between NOLS courses, he now spends much of his time looking at how people make decisions in risky situations. Along with a private engineering consulting business, McCammon passes his findings on to other snow scientists at conferences and seminars around the country.

He has started Snowpit Technologies, his own project that focuses on avalanche education, high risk decision making, and how fracture mechanics apply to snow stability. Sound complicated? McCammon gets into the complexities of snow, but he also wants it to make sense to the non-scientists out there. “Some people come to avalanche courses wanting to know all the gory details about snow science,” he admits. “But some of them are taking it because they want to avoid the hazards, and that’s simple to teach. There are a handful of clues that you can base your decisions on—you don’t need any science background for that.”

When it comes down to it, McCammon’s explanation for why he likes snow is surprisingly simple considering his background “I like snow because it’s fun to play in, and because it teaches us about ourselves,” he says. While McCammon says he goes through phases—he’s had his robotics phase and is now deep into his snow science phase—McCammon doesn’t think he’ll tire of snow for awhile. “During the winter,” he says, “things are stripped down to their basics; things are very simple but very complex at the same time. Snow is just so complex it never ceases to amaze me.”

Ian McCammon

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