Jon Tukman ’89 Keeps Avalanches at Bay


John Tukman 89
olorado’s Telluride Ski Resort receives roughly 280 inches of snow each season. All that fresh powder makes for great skiing, but for Jon Tukman ’89, BUS’98, it’s a reason to break out the explosives. As Telluride’s snow safety director, Tukman works to reduce the risk of avalanches that would be dangerous to skiers or damage the slopes. And what’s the best way to prevent an unexpected avalanche? Start a controllable one.

Telluride’s ski area sits in the San Juan Mountains; the resort covers more than 2,000 acres and has a vertical drop of 4,425 ft. (the tallest peak reaches more than 14,000 ft.). In inclement weather, Tukman heads to his alpine work station — “my office is at 12,000 ft. above sea level,” he notes — to do an avalanche forecast and assess the likelihood of danger before the slopes open to the public. After analyzing the level of snowfall, wind patterns and snow wetness, he and his Ski Patrol team make their plans. If there’s enough snow that skiers could start an avalanche, he and his team try to trigger one first. But they aren’t armed with just skis and poles: “I hand them packs with bombs,” says Tukman.

The team’s anti-avalanche weapons include three artillery pieces from WWII, three avalaunchers (guns that use pressurized gas to shoot rockets out onto the hillside) and 13 caches with all manner of explosives and detonators. What gets deployed depends on how much snow needs to be shaken loose.

Tukman and his team use models to identify likely avalanche paths so they can control the snow’s direction after they blast it with their considerable firepower. “When you trigger an avalanche, it tends to start in the same area and run down in the same way almost every time,” he says. “We have 300 avalanche paths that we manage in the ski resort, and the largest of these will run up to a mile in linear distance, so the terrain is capable of producing very large slides. We typically like to trigger smaller slides more regularly so we don’t have big, big avalanches.”

A lifelong skier, Tukman joined the Ski Patrol in 1993. A few years later, he left Colorado to return to New York, earning an M.B.A. from the Business School and taking a job at Goldman Sachs. In 2006 he headed back to the Rockies, and rejoined the Ski Patrol the following year. He became snow safety director seven years ago.

Tukman has had personal experience with the destructive power of snow. In his pre-Ski Patrol days he was once caught in a small avalanche that left him buried up to his neck; luckily, a friend skiing with him was able to dig him out.

But despite the risks, he says there are major benefits to the Ski Patrol life. Working with his talented and close-knit Ski Patrol team is “awesome,” and the beauty of Telluride’s alpine environment continues to impress him. “Being the first one up there on a lot of days and the last one down on a lot of days, you see some incredible stuff. Seeing the sun rise and the moon set up there is breathtaking and never gets old,” he says.

Plus, he gets to blow up snow.