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Jerry W. Roberts: Sept. 5, 1948 - Sept. 22, 2023
Legendary Avalanche Forecaster of Ridgway, Colorado
At the end of a full, rich life of mountains, poetry, dogs, humor, and deep friendships, Jerry Roberts, 75, shouldered his backpack and headed down the trail to meet some buddies on el otro lado, the other side. Scoot over, Basho. Make some room, Georgia O’Keeffe. Bukowski, Leonard Cohen, Frida Kahlo — crack a bottle of pisco and raise a welcoming toast, would you please?
Jerry was born in Cañon City, Colorado, the son of Win. C. Roberts and Doris M. Roberts, and grew up with his two older sisters. Jerry relished the freedom to develop — as Emerson once put it — “an original relation to the universe.” His “universe” was the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and his “original relation” was defined by mountaineering. Jesuit brothers at a local Catholic high school introduced him to climbing, snow camping, and skiing (leather boots, cable bindings, willow branches taped underfoot in lieu of proper skins), and by his early teens he was summiting the range’s tallest peaks.
Wanderlust plus a motorcycle equaled the West Coast: Berkeley, anti-war rallies, Zen Buddhism, the Beats, LSD. Jerry’s formative encounters with the 1960’s counterculture inspired a steadfast empathy for the underdog and an enduring practice of Buddhist mindfulness, particularly the art of attention known as haiku. He worked with the American Friends Service Committee, helping conscientious objectors find alternatives to military service during the war in Vietnam, and soaked up the radical literary scene before returning to the Rockies.
Still a young man, he led groups of youth into the high country for Outward Bound, bonding with his fellow instructors, many of whom became lifelong friends. He traversed the length of Colorado on skis over the course of two winters, guided in the Peruvian Andes, threw his sleeping bag down just about wherever. Though much of what he accomplished in the backcountry could be called hardcore, Jerry’s style was less sporty than soulful — an ongoing quest for simplicity, camaraderie, laughter, focus, “the space between thoughts.”
A growing interest in the physics of steep snow, rooted in both a naturalist’s childlike curiosity and an adventurer’s need to learn the dangers of the wilderness in order to survive, attracted him to Silverton and the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) San Juan Avalanche Project in 1977. Jerry’s participation established his reputation in the burgeoning field of American snow science and led to what he considered his only “real job”: lead avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Winter after winter, storm after storm, he monitored the hundreds of avalanche paths that threaten highways in southwest Colorado, deciding when to close the roads and when to call in the Howitzer, the Avalauncher, and the helicopter bombs to preemptively trigger dangerous slides. Channeling his Zen heroes who sat atop cushions and counted their breaths as though it were a matter of life and death, he meditated wholeheartedly, 24/7, on the intricate dynamics of weather and place, precipitation and topography. Scribbling impromptu haiku from the driver’s seat of his official CDOT pickup mid-blizzard wasn’t just a way to relieve stress, but a means of deepening his awareness, his commitment to noticing in the present tense. For instance:
columns, needles, stellars
Jerry co-authored a book, Living and Dying in Avalanche Country, and was an adjunct teacher at Prescott College for 23 years: a renowned educator, a mentor to an entire generation of avalanche forecasters and ski guides. In his sixties, semi-retired, he found new meaning as a weather forecaster for movies and television (“The Hateful Eight,” “Better Call Saul”). He also took up Tenkara fly fishing, always careful to send his two labs into the water first, so as to give the trout a warning, and kept busy with his inimitable blog, The Robert Report (pronounced “Ro’Bear Re’Por” after Stephen Colbert’s first comedy show). During his last weeks, as the autumn equinox approached and fresh snow dusted the alpine ridges, he held court for visiting friends at his home in Ridgway and watched a final cycle of the moon — waxing, full, waning — at the side of his wife, Lisa.
Jerry Roberts is survived by his wife Lisa Issenberg; sisters Jo Ann Roberts Paugh and Kae Roberts Kendall; nephews Jim Embleton and Mike Javernick; nieces Kim Javernick and Julie Kendall Porter; his labs Django and Paco; in memory of his nephew Billy Kendall; and by friends too numerous to count. Donations in his memory should be directed to Big City Mountaineers, a non-profit organization that introduces disadvantaged youth to the transformative wonders of nature.
Jerry’s last haiku, written for his compadre George Gardner, who died on the Grand Teton, reads:
departing morning dream
two old men —
butterflies float on gentle breeze
A beautiful poem, indeed, but this one from twenty years ago might convey even better his approach to living (and skiing), his “original relation to the universe,” his smiling, generous, big-hearted advice:
enjoy the ride
more right turns than wrong
A memorial will be held on the Vernal Equinox 2024.