Alumnus Recognized for Avalanche Rescue

Posted: August 17, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 5, 2010 at 10:29 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

Alumnus Matt Murphy is a ranger for the .Photo courtesy of Matt Murphy

Alumnus Matt Murphy serves as a snow ranger and predicts avalanches at the Chugach National Forest in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Matt Murphy

Alumnus Matt Murphy, BA English ’97, has a very unusual job. Although his official job title is forestry technician for the Alaska Region Forest Service, Murphy spends a good part of each year serving as a snow ranger and predicting avalanches at the Chugach National Forest in Alaska.

As lead forecaster for Chugach’s Avalanche Information Center, Murphy reaches thousands with his daily morning backcountry avalanche predictions. But it was on one of his days off that he took that avalanche experience and became a hero.

Murphy was skiing with his wife, Anna, and some friends when he witnessed an avalanche that buried another skier. Upon reaching the scene, he formed a 20-person search team and directed its efforts.

Once he picked up the missing skier’s avalanche beacon, Murphy assisted in digging the skier out from under four feet of snow. Although the victim had been buried about 30 minutes, he survived, which, according to Murphy, is a statistically rare occurrence.

“Upon finding his head, I could see that his skin was blue, so I knew his airway was the priority,” says Murphy. “We were unable to [do CPR] immediately because the snow had set up like concrete around him. We could only lift his head up enough to keep his airway clear. Luckily, he started breathing on his own. [Soon] his eyes opened, and he was able to answer our questions.”

For his efforts, Murphy was named the Alaska Forest Service Employee of the Year and received an emergency response award from the secretary of agriculture.

Born in Petersburg, Alaska, Murphy spent only 10 years of his life in Virginia, but it was long enough to earn a degree at Mason. He is currently working on a master’s degree in natural resources through Virginia Tech’s Virtual Campus.

Your job sounds very cool. What is a typical winter day like for you?
I wake up between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m., check weather data from remote weather stations in the surrounding mountains and chart those weather observations by 7 a.m. I write an avalanche advisory for the Avalanche Information Center, plow snow in the Forest Service parking lots, drive 20 minutes up to Turnagain Pass with my co-workers, hike up various mountains, dig snow pits to conduct snow stability tests, obtain other observations about the snowpack/weather/terrain/human factors, ski back down to the truck, drive back to the office, and record my observations and snow pit data for the following day’s avalanche advisory.

How do you predict an avalanche?
Avalanches happen for certain reasons, in certain places, at certain times. There are some general guidelines to follow to forecast an avalanche combining snowpack, weather, terrain and human factors. Human factors are the most difficult part to predict.

Murphy, far left, also sees dry ground in his job. Photo courtesy of Matt Murphy

Murphy, far left, also sees dry ground in his job as a forestry technician for the Alaska Region Forest Service. Photo courtesy of Matt Murphy

The landscape and weather is pretty unforgiving up there. You must need to develop some kind of mindset, an almost “Be Prepared” Boy Scout attitude. Do you have such a philosophy?
It’s important to use your brain to make logical decisions when traveling in the backcountry. Gadgets do not replace common sense; so, I guess I try my best to limit my risk so that I don’t have to depend on things like avalanche beacons. The problem is the human factor. I am just as guilty as anybody else of making decisions that might lead to accidents. I am addicted to the mountains, and there is a certain amount of inherent risk involved with traveling in that kind of terrain. It is difficult to explain, but I think the reward is worth the risk. I think it makes life more enjoyable.

How did you decide to major in English?
I decided to major in English because effective oral and written communication skills are skills that can be applied to any job. I was lucky to meet [English] Professor Margaret Yocom during my studies. She helped find some practical applications with educational opportunities like an internship with the Smithsonian Institution.

The mountains and skiing are my passion, so I worked jobs that allowed me to spend as much time in the mountains as possible. Over several years, I learned about avalanches working as a professional ski patroller at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. Those skills combined with my general labor and basic construction experience led to a job with the U.S. Forest Service doing cabin maintenance/construction in the summer and avalanche forecasting in the winter. After 12 years of grunt work, it sometimes makes me laugh that I’m actually using my English degree by writing avalanche advisories that are read by a public audience.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu