Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Jerry Isaak

Professor Jerry Isaak is Chair of the Department of Expeditionary Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is an AIARE Instructor, AAA Professional Member and AMGA Assistant Ski Guide. He received an M.Sc. with distinction in Outdoor Education while studying as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and has worked as an expedition leader and guide in Canada, the USA, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Scotland, Austria and the Arctic. Personal climbing and skiing expeditions include journeys in Kenya, Nepal and throughout North America. 

I had the opportunity to ask Jerry a few questions about his work. I’m really looking forward to this Satruday and hearing his presentation: Organizing Doubt: Asking Questions in Avalanche Terrain.

Who was your first snow mentor?

My first snow mentor was really two people, Austrian/IFMGA Mountain Guides Hans-Peter Royer and Heli Rettensteiner. I met them both while I lived and worked in Schladming, Austria for a year after college. I went for my first ski tour in the Dachstein Range and have returned several times since. It will always hold a special place in my memory. Tragically Hans-Peter was killed in a paragliding accident in 2013. I think of him often, especially when ski touring. Heli and I are still connected via social media and we are hoping to bring SUNY Plattsburgh students to Austria sometime in the future.

How did you get hooked on studying social risk tolerances/decision making and snow?

I got hooked on this topic after living in Austria but then even more so after studying in British Columbia at Thompson Rivers University with Canadian/IFMGA Mountain Guide Ken Wylie (author of Buried). Ken is another person whom I consider a valued mentor. His experience as a guide and survivor of a tragic, high profile avalanche accident has helped shape and inform my own thinking on traveling in avalanche terrain. I now play many roles related to avalanche education and operations (guide, teacher/instructor, researcher) but my favorite aspect is my own continued learning and personal development. As I grow in experience in this field I am ever more acutely aware of my shortcomings and lack of knowledge. This is humbling but also incredibly engaging intellectually. I look forward to ESAW each year and to every issue of The Avalanche Review as an opportunity to learn more and gain different perspectives on my own practice in avalanche terrain.

Why is the snow the best in the East/ why do you choose to live here?

To be perfectly honest, the snow in British Columbia is the best in the world (sorry Utah)!

I’ve lived in many different places over the past 15 years but I’ve just recently passed the 3 year mark in Plattsburgh (upstate NY). Before this I lived in Oregon, Scotland, British Columbia, the Yukon, Austria and Chicago. I chose to move to Plattsburgh (from northeast Oregon) because my job as Professor of Expeditionary Studies is a one-of-a-kind. I get to work with students in perhaps the only undergraduate degree program in the world which has exploration at it’s core. I direct a small but exceptionally talented and experienced faculty and oversee roughly 50-60 students in the 4-year degree. I think I have easily the best job on campus!

 Do you ever ski with a GoPro?

I have skied with a GoPro in the past, though it’s not a regular part of my backcountry ski kit (which is not to say that I’m opposed to GoPro’s, simply that I don’t use one). However, this season I’m testing out a 360 degree camera as part of a Google Expeditions project. Telling the stories of adventure is an ancient human practice. Filming and sharing films or posts on social media is another way to tell these stories. The changes we’ve seen in the past 10 years have amplified those stories and changed the publishing cycle but I believe the impulse remains the same as it always was. As an educator I do my best to engage with my students on this topic, rather than attempt to ignore it. I’ve had some really interesting conversations on social media and technology in class this past year. These conversations and my own experiences have inspired me to begin writing a book on the impact of social media and technology on adventure. The Google Expeditions project is indirectly part of the book project as are the many lessons I’m learning from my students.


Have you registered for ESAW yet? Visit and reserve your spot. The silent auction items are stacking up. This will be one day you won’t want to miss!