Story by Morten Lund
Photos courtesy Jerry Nunn collection
Some where in ski land where the snow falls deep and steep there will be an occasion, during a given winter day, when a duo of ski patrollers walks up to an awkward-looking device resembling a 200-gallon propane tank with a 12 foot exhaust pipe sticking into the air from one end. One patroller drops a plastic projectile into the pipe, the other turns a valve, shuts it off, aims the pipe, pulls the lanyard, and—whump!—a blast of compressed gas hurls the projectile into the sky—zing! The projectile rapidly diminishes into the blue.
A mile or more away in the snowy distance—boom!—down comes an avalanche otherwise intended for the first unwary skier on the slope. This is the way an avalauncher looks and works, the mainstay of avalanche control in the U.S.
The existence of the avalauncher owes in great part to a National Ski Patrol avalanche specialist whose name is Jerry Nunn. She made the avalauncher possible, demonstrated it, and sold early models to high-profile ski areas around the U.S. and brought in the technical expertise that put the avalauncher profitable production.
How Jerry managed to accomplish all this is a remarkable story. Her lifetime devotion to the safety of the sport inspired her to take on the National Ski Patrol and the Forest Service avalanche leaders of her time. Her resuscitation of the avalauncher grew out of that. She made a difference. A big difference.
Jerry is 85 now and lives with her husband Jimmie in a splendid home in Flagstaff, Arizona. She is still as full of fizz as ever and instinctively full of empathy and understanding, traits that made her hundreds of friends throughout the ski patrol world over the years. But this was only part of her life…Jerry was in turn an X-ray therapist, a mother with two kids of her own and four adopted, a major charity organizer in California’s Bay area, one-time crocodile hunter, and other diverse accomplishments. Her news clippings fill several large, heavy scrapbooks.
Until she reached the age of 17, chances of her becoming a skier did not look good. Jerry was born Gertrude Schreiber in Oakland, California. Her mother and father divorced when she was seven. At 14, she was sent to Our Lady of Presentation, a Catholic convent school in Oakland. There she decided to become a nun. She changed her mind quickly when she entered public high school in Sacramento as a junior. There she decided there were other important things in life: one, skiing; two, the opposite sex. That ruled out the nunnery, but soon the third and most important thing of all became to help others in need, so she became a woman of faith after all.
Alpine skiing was very new in the U.S. in 1939—Jerry’s junior year. A few hours by train west of Sacramento lay Donner Pass. The highest stretch, Donner Summit, was one of a half-dozen most substantial early concentrations of tows and trails in America. Donner’s unique advantage was the Southern Pacific’s weekly excursion train, the storied Snowball Express, which ran from the Bay area, stopped in Sacramento, all the way to Donner Summit every Friday in the winter. Jerry and her friends took advantage of her high school ski club’s Snowball Express trips to get into the sport. Jerry’s father had bought her Sears and Roebuck skis, beartrap bindings, and sensible ski boots. The rest of her expenses, including the $20 round-trip fare from Sacramento (in today’s money), she paid out of babysitting earnings. And that was how, somewhat improbably, Gertrude the would-be nun became Jerry the extraordinary skier.
Soda Springs was where Jerry learned to ski. She learned through the helpful hints from two Sacramento High girlfriends who were already into racing. Jerry’s first and doubtlessly quite difficult lesson was how to ride the rope tow that reached halfway up Soda Springs’ strapping 600 vertical feet. Once the rope was mastered, Jerry took to skiing as if born to the sport. She was naturally strong and adventurous. She could wrench herself right out of a fall. Even so, she recalls, she fell in every direction: frontward, backward, left, and right.