Friday, April 16, 2010

Geologic Heroes: Avalanche Forecasters!

I recently changed decided to change the topic of this post after reading that there was another snow avalanche fatality in MT this week. I’d like to thank my local geologic hero – the Avalanche Forecaster.

During ski season I rely heavily on the experience and field reports that our local Avalanche Center puts out. They describe the locations they visit, the past, present, and future weather, current snow conditions, the stability of the snowpack as they and others have observed, and the presence of natural and human triggered avalanches. Not only do their reports give me a head up on good (or bad!) skiing over the years it has given me a healthy respect for avalanches & backcountry skiing (or snowmobiling).

I know how to evaluate the snow pack and slope stability from taking classes and working with snow scientists in our department. But the Avalanche Forecasters tireless work paves the way for me to pre-plan what angle slopes I MIGHT be able to ski, what aspects I MIGHT be able to ski, and what days I should just stay home! Without their evaluation of the snowpack on a day to day basis, I would be less prepared for what slopes were wind-loaded the week(s) before and what layers I should be expecting in the snowpack.

I don’t mean to make their work seem like they just make my life easier and improve my success at getting to ski the backcountry. They do. But, they do so much more. They have helped me to understand the human factor in all of this. I may have worked my butt off to get someplace to ski, but if I see the signs of instability, it means I should go home or ski on lower angled slopes. We all feel the drive to ski bigger and better slopes, but because of their daily reports I have learned there is a time and place for everything.

This year our snow pack has been particularly unstable, with twice the number of avalanche occurrences as last year. We have had some close calls here in MT and unfortunately a few losses as well. These forecasters work tirelessly to educate the public on what the snow pack is like in our area, how to evaluate the snowpack on slopes you are considering skiing, and when you should suppress your desires to ski that sweet, sweet line and retreat to safer terrain; leaving that line for another day in safer conditions.

I have provided a sampling of some of their work in the links below. This 10 minute YouTube video provides a brief intro into avalanche safety and the job that they have to do – trying to mitigate the human factor. This was of particular concern when a ski resort opened it’s boundaries for easy backcountry access (a National Forest Service policy).

Stay Alive! From the Avalanche Guys

This other video describes a huge avalanche on some very popular terrain that slid – fortunately without incident. But, if it had happened minutes earlier or later there would have been fatal consequences. This town hall meeting tries to show the public the danger they were in and the rescue work that goes into such an event. They try to get you to reconsider skiing that terrain in such conditions. Maybe you were willing to accept the risk. They are ok with that. They are just trying to educate the public about the risk they were putting (and continue to put) themselves in. Worth a look and a listen if you have the time.

Saddle Peak Avalanche Q & A Part 1 (10 minutes)

Saddle Peak Avalanche Q & A Part 2 (66 minutes)

For more information on Avalanche Forecasting see and my local forecasters: including their YouTube video archives.

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