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PowderPeople | Rudi Mair

The Tyrolean avalanche forecaster in conversation with snowstormer Lukas Ruetz

by Lukas Ruetz ‚ÄĘ 01/17/2021
Rudi Mair from the LWD Tyrol is working as an avalanche forecaster for the 31st winter this year. The eloquent "avalanche expert", who is also well known in the less snow-loving part of society, talks about the development of the Tyrolean avalanche warning service, the biggest innovations of the last thirty years and whether he would return to his professional origins in the Antarctic in retirement.

Rudi Mair, born in 1961, studied meteorology and glaciology and then completed his doctorate at the University of Innsbruck. After working tough summer jobs at various huts in the Stubai Alps to finance his studies and a research stay at the Georg von Neumayer Station in Antarctica, the Stubai native joined the Tyrolean Avalanche Warning Service. In addition to his work as head of the LWD, Rudi is best known for his "indelible hard disk": It is not uncommon for the entire "Max & Moritz" as well as countless ancient Greek verses to ripple flawlessly out of his mouth, captivating listeners to their seats thanks to his incredible memorization skills. The natural scientist attributes this - together with his high level of fluency - to his broad-based humanistic education, including Latin and Ancient Greek. A great advantage when working as an avalanche warden, when you have to memorize a hodgepodge of data and information and put it into context!

The story of his switch from studying medicine to glaciology is also legendary: Mair was stuck in a crevasse for many hours in icy conditions in winter. The first member of the rescue team - senior landlord Horst Fankhauser from the Franz-Senn H√ľtte - to look into the crevasse shouted to the others: "Hey, he's still alive!".

LR: In addition to your 24/7 job in winter to create the daily avalanche report, record snow profiles, evaluate them and spend hours reviewing and analyzing data on weather and snow, interviews and warnings about precarious situations in the media are as much a part of your work as snow is to winter. How many interviews have you given since you joined LWD Tirol? Can you give an estimate - it must be in the thousands?

RM: This year in October and early November, there were probably around 50. In an average winter, there are several hundred interviews. After an avalanche accident like the one on the Großvenediger at the beginning of October with the first avalanche victim, the phone rings almost non-stop. I'm now starting my 31st winter in avalanche warning, there really must be thousands by now. I used to keep newspaper cuttings, but I stopped doing that a long time ago.

In the beginning, I was very reluctant to do interviews in this job. But I realized that if you don't do it, others will talk about your work. And the avalanche is a very interesting topic in terms of media presence. The great white death is similar to the great white shark, a myth, scary. You hear almost nothing about the many traffic fatalities or drowning victims. Of the handful of fatal avalanche accidents per season in Tyrol, almost every one is on a front page. But actually, the journey to the mountain is more dangerous than the mountain itself.

And I see it as one of the main tasks of the avalanche warning service to issue warnings when necessary. After all, we are a warning service and not a secret service and the public also provides tax money for this.

How did the avalanche warning service in Tyrol actually come about? Usually, the installation of warning systems is preceded by major disasters.

In the 1950s, there were two major avalanche winters in Austria, 1951 and 1954, each with well over 100 deaths in the permanent settlement area.

My grandfather always told me that in 1951, the entire Sellraintal road between Sellrain and K√ľhtai was a single avalanche cone.

In 1951, almost the entire country was affected, in 1954 mainly the Großes Walsertal. However, the main reason for the founding of the LWD Tyrol on December 1, 1960 was Tyrol's application for the 1964 Winter Olympics.

Since the founding of the LWD in Tyrol, how many avalanche forecasters have there been? Have there been frequent changes or have your predecessors remained as loyal to the profession for decades as you have?"

There are and have been a total of six forecasters. From 1960 to the end of the 1970s, Otto Schimpp was the only avalanche forecaster in Tyrol. Then Raimund Mayr joined, who took over from Schimpp in 1990. I was part of the team from 1990 onwards. Since October 1999 as head of the avalanche warning service. In 1999, Patrick Nairz also joined as a forecaster. Since 2019, two young, motivated and excellent forecasters have been on board: Norbert Lanzanasto and Christoph Mitterer.

I am now probably one of the longest-serving avalanche forecasters in the world. From the group picture in 1993 - when we agreed on the standardized, five-level danger scale at a Europe-wide meeting of avalanche warning services - only I am still in office.

How did you actually manage the workload for so long with just the two of you? When you understand how avalanche warning works and what additional tasks - such as writing the seasonal reports or maintaining the weather stations - go hand in hand with it, it can hardly go well?

It always worked, but being in the office at 5 a.m. every day for months - even on public holidays or on Christmas Day with the small children at home - was of course exhausting.

The current team of four for the avalanche forecast is good and was important: in 2019/20, for example, we produced the avalanche report every day from 16.11. to 03.05. The entire avalanche warning service now consists of our technician Paul, two part-time secretaries, three interns per season who are with us for half a year or a whole year, two nine-month civilian servants and us four forecasters.

The LWD Tirol has now been in existence for 60 years. Exactly half of that - since 1990 - with your involvement or under your management. How did the avalanche warning basically work in the pre-Mair era?

In the beginning, the LLB was a five-liner that was sent to perhaps twelve recipients by teletype. The daily radio announcement was the main product for the public for a long time and is still very important today. Our voice is also well known among the Tyrolean population. I was recently approached while shopping in a supermarket with my wife, despite wearing a mask: "I know that voice, it's Avalanche Rudi!"

In the beginning, there wasn't a single weather station or measuring network. Just a handful of observers and Otto Schimpp as avalanche warden. Today, the LWD Tirol looks after over 200 weather stations!

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Which innovations would you describe as the greatest of the last 30 years at LWD Tirol? What are you personally most proud of?

I am very proud of Patrick and my book "Lawine - die entscheidenden Gefahrenmuster und Probleme erkennen". The book is available in five languages and has been awarded platinum because of its high sales figures. It was also part of the development of the avalanche problems that have become indispensable today.

And that we as LWD Tirol were one of the main organizers of the International Snow Science Workshop 2018 in Innsbruck with 1000 participants. The response to the event was excellent.

In chronological terms, the major innovations in avalanche warning itself for me were as follows: Initially, the development of the measuring station network. During my research work in Antarctica, I received a satellite phone call from Tyrol asking if I would like to join the LWD and set up the system for the stations there. And I pursued this with a lot of passion. But there were a few critics at the time. Even the companies advised us against it because the stations would not survive the harsh conditions on the mountain. But thanks to my experience in Antarctica, I knew that a weather station works even at -50¬įC and in winds of over 200 km/h. I was able to use it to plow and cultivate an unplowed field at the LWD.

1993, the European agreement on the uniform hazard scale was definitely also a milestone that required a lot of work. In 1994, we were the first avalanche warning service on the Internet. At a meeting of the LWDs at the time, I also encountered headwinds and major reservations - but we went through with it anyway. Not even the state of Tyrol itself had an internet presence at the time.

Also in the 90s, we were the first with a digital snow profile program where you could enter the profiles you had written down by hand and have them drawn by the computer. We were also the first to set up a measurement data distribution program with its own modem for the municipalities and avalanche commissions. Patrick drove from municipality to municipality to install the whole thing. I spent days and days in front of the PC maintaining the IT system and solving problems. From today's perspective, it would be unthinkable to invest so much time in something like that.

As the technology became more and more complex, we handed some of it over - to our newly hired technician Paul and to external companies. But it was definitely worth it: for personal development but also for the general development of the LWD. After that, we were able to focus more on snow and avalanches again.

Then the avalanche disasters in Galt√ľr and Valzur in 1999 gave us another positive boost, especially in the public and political arena.

Recently, our joint avalanche report from Tyrol, South Tyrol and Trentino, launched in 2018, was certainly the biggest innovation. It is still the world's only cross-border and multilingual avalanche report - a new benchmark, so to speak.

I am also proud of the excellent basis of trust we have with our employer, the province of Tyrol. If we say there will be a danger level 5 tomorrow, then there will be a 5. This is accepted by politicians and there was not even the slightest attempt to influence it. Even though this naturally triggers a lot in the country, such as major closures of entire valleys and the associated restrictions for the entire economy, for example. This is certainly also due to the fact that we always try to describe the avalanche situation in the best possible and objective way.

We are always state-of-the-art, both technically and scientifically, and neither create too much fanfare nor trivialize or oversleep precarious situations.

We have discussed the past and the developments of recent years in detail. Let's take a look into the future. Where do you think avalanche warning will develop in the medium and long term? With the flood of data and the rapid development of artificial intelligence, will avalanche forecasters even be needed at some point?

I can think of many things. We will certainly be amazed at the progress and quantum leaps. In science, scientific processes are being understood better and better, but meteorological models are also becoming increasingly detailed and small-scale. This has a one-to-one effect on avalanche forecasting. But IT technology is also developing further. In five years' time, we may be laughing at our current systems.

Avalanche forecasts will probably never be 100% accurate and there will probably not be an exact single-slope forecast any time soon. But the resolution is getting better and better. In the beginning, Tyrol was also a single warning region. In the meantime, the avalanche report consists of 29 small warning regions, which can be put together flexibly but can also stand alone. And there is a daily avalanche forecast for each of these regions.

The avalanche forecaster will not be replaced by machines any time soon. The experience and intuition of a human being are extremely important. Good avalanche and meteorological forecasters will remain the link between the consumer and the machine.

I always say to the students in my lectures and our interns: think about where there is still potential and consider what we could improve!

Your lecture on avalanche science is always well attended...

These are young, clever, ambitious people. The general public made it possible for me to study at the Leopold Franzens University in Innsbruck - I would like to give something back today. Just like with our numerous lectures.

Let's get back to Rudi. You're 59 and your well-earned retirement is just a few years away. But wait! Retirement? Can Rudi Mair even do that? Aren't you going to stay on to advise and support Avalanche Warning?

I'm certainly not going to sit around like the two old guys in the Muppet Show and talk down to the youngsters. I definitely want to withdraw and no longer get involved - unless I'm asked, then I'm happy to help where I can. In Christoph and Norbert, we've found exactly the right people as avalanche forecasters for the new generation. You have to give the youngsters their chance, just like we got ours. Besides, I did it differently to my predecessors and they will do it differently too.

You started your career in Antarctica with a 15-month stay at the Georg von Neumayer Station. Are there any plans for another "Antarctic vacation" in the guesthouse?

I'm mainly going to make myself comfortable on mountain and ski tours. As well as visiting huts like the Becherhaus, the Hochstubaih√ľtte or the Franz-Senn H√ľtte more often and enjoy not having to worry about the avalanche report for the next day. But if it comes up again with Antarctica: Why not?

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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