Longtime avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer heading for retirement — but he’s not done skiing yet
April 8, 2017
Veteran Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Scott Toepfer had his first brush with a slide when he was a lift operator at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in the 1970s.
Back then, lifties would sometimes "borrow" the ski area's garbage trucks, moving around bags of trash to make room for beer and then heading up to Loveland Pass for some late night turns.
One night, on a full moon, a friend got buried up to his neck in an avalanche.
"We were all laughing, we had no idea how dangerous it actually was," he recalled, sitting on the porch of the home he built in 2005 near Blue River. "We told him we would dig him out if he bought us a case of beer."
“That’s been one of the greatest rewards of what I do. I got to ski all over the state and on some iconic lines, but I also got to find things serendipitously. There’s always somewhere in the state where something’s going off, because it’s a big state. You don’t often get to relax.”Scott ToepferVeteran Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster
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Toepfer started out at A-Basin as a breakfast cook in 1974 while riding up a chairlift with the ski area's owner. What followed was more than 40 years of working in ski boots, patrolling from Colorado to France to New Zealand and working 25 years with CAIC.
Now, the forecasting service's longest-serving member is retiring from the gig — but not from skiing, of course.
"It's in my gene pool, so there's not much I can do about that," he said, reflecting on decades of 100-plus day ski seasons — and looking forward to more.
Much has changed since the beginning of his backcountry career, when he went out with a hardware store spade he had modified to have a detachable handle. Since then, he's gained a deep appreciation for the destructive power of avalanches.
"If you keep pushing the envelope and getting away with it you might think, 'I'm good,' but it might just be because you got lucky," he cautioned. "Over the years, I've found it's better to be conservative. I turn back more than I used to."
One of his most poignant memories of a slide came just a couple of seasons after the full-moon ride on Loveland Pass. After a heavy storm at France's Courchevel 1850, he and his fellow patrollers threw an explosive charge at the top of a hard-packed bump run that had been piled with new snow.
As the other patrollers skied away, the young Toepfer stood in awe as the entire slope slid away, bumps and all.
"Until you've seen a mogul run slide all the way down to the ground…" he said, trailing off. "That was a real eye-opener."
The big leagues
A life of full-time skiing hadn't always been Toepfer's plan, though, and part of him always felt the back-and-forth pull between school and the slopes.
After 10 years patrolling at Vail, he went to Metro State in Denver to pursue a degree in meteorology but needed a job to pay his way through. He cold-called the CAIC, and after an interview over Avalanche Ale at Breckenridge Brewery, he was hired as a forecaster.
"Patrol guys are really good at microclimate forecasting, but suddenly looking at the whole state was like being thrown into the Majors," he recalled.
In those days, CAIC made its forecasts without the benefit of the internet, relying on phones, faxes and good old-fashioned snail mail. And without the sophisticated weather modeling algorithms used today, predicting accumulations was also more difficult — although meteorology is still a game of chance.
"You're going to eat humble pie sometimes, that's just part of the game," Toepfer said. "You've just got to pick it up and do it again the next day."
In contrast to places like Switzerland — a country that employs around 100 avalanche forecasters — Colorado still relies on a small but dedicated cadre of 15-plus people to monitor conditions.
That can mean a lot of early mornings and long drives — but also plenty of backcountry skiing.
"That's been one of the greatest rewards of what I do," Toepfer said. "I got to ski all over the state and on some iconic lines, but I also got to find things serendipitously. There's always somewhere in the state where something's going off, because it's a big state. You don't often get to relax."
Forecasters have to hit the skin track in the wee hours of the morning to get their observations submitted in a timely manner, Toepfer explained. CAIC strives to disseminate that information as quickly as possible, although instead of the faxes and phone hotlines the group used back in the day, it now maintains a website with a region-by-region map of avalanche hazard levels.
One of the biggest challenges, Toepfer said, is making people aware of what the different levels of danger — low, moderate, considerable, high and extreme — really mean in practice.
Early last season, Toepfer interviewed a rider who had survived after triggering a large slide while out on a solo trip.
"He was a frequent user who always looked at the danger and he said, 'It was moderate so I thought I could go wherever I wanted,'" Toepfer recalled. "Well, moderate is 'heightened avalanche conditions,' so that doesn't mean you can go wherever you want."
Those post-avalanche reports are one of the most important things CAIC does, Toepfer said, although the group strives to keep them as non-judgmental as possible: They are learning tools, not inquisitions.
Conducting reports on fatal avalanches carries a heavy emotional toll, but it also serves as a sobering reminder of how dangerous backcountry skiing can be.
"Investigating fatalities wears on you, because those people are just like you and were out there doing what you love to do, too," he said. "That messes with your head."
On the whole, though, Toepfer said he is grateful looking back on all of the memories and friendships he has forged since the Mason City, Iowa, native started skiing at the ripe age of 4.
But just because Toepfer is retiring from CAIC on May 31 doesn't mean he has idle days ahead of him. He is considering getting back into patrolling, although whatever he does he's looking forward to more skiing and more time to spend with his 11-year-old son.
"I'm not going to go sit on a beach and drink umbrella drinks any time soon," he said.
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