‘There is no such thing as an average day’: What it takes to forecast an avalanche in Colorado’s backcountry
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the identities of two skiers who were originally misidentified in captions.
When considering some of the most intense and high pressure careers, it can be easy to gravitate toward nurses, doctors, surgeons or some other health worker profession.
Perhaps one of the most stressful — and often overlooked — jobs in Colorado and other mountain communities is avalanche forecasting. Not only do forecasters have to accurately forecast the avalanche risk for the Colorado’s backcountry, but forecasters are also faced with the weight of keeping the public safe.
Despite the sometimes stressful job, Colorado Avalanche Information Center director Ethan Greene has found a way to make avalanche forecasting a career for himself and his family.
Greene became the director of the center in 2005, but has been working with snow and avalanches since 1990.
“I originally started getting interested in avalanches because I was spending a lot of time in avalanche terrain,” Greene said of his start with the center. “It was really originally for my own personal safety. As I learned more about avalanches I got more involved with avalanche work.”
Once with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Greene says he gravitated towards the public safety side of avalanches.
“I really enjoy providing information and education to help people make their own decisions rather than making decisions for other people,” Greene said.
Over the last 18 years, Greene has slowly learned that there is not a typical day as an avalanche forecaster. Instead, Greene’s work day is often varied depending on what the information center needs.
“There is no such thing as an average day,” Greene said. “I spend time with the forecasters, talking to them about things they are struggling with and things they need support from the organization on. I spend time with the Department of Natural Resources to talk about how the program should evolve.”
Greene also noted that on a given day he could be talking with other government groups at the county, state or federal level. Occasionally Greene will also pop over to speak in front of a kindergarten class or work in the field in order to look at the snow first hand.
In other words, the life of an avalanche forecaster is brimming with activity.
Another aspect of the job that Greene helps to oversee is the creation of daily avalanche forecasts. Every afternoon, forecasts are created for the next day in order to inform the public of potential avalanche risks.
“We start with a baseline of what we put out yesterday and what new information has come in,” Greene said of the daily forecasts. “Then we are really looking at matching up what the current avalanche problems are. Are the observations that we are getting consistent with our picture for yesterday?”
Greene says a lot of times he and others at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center will put out questions to members of the staff at the end of a forecast cycle in order to address areas of uncertainty to collect data later.
The main stress of the job comes from accurately predicting the forecasts to ensure individuals are safe when out in the backcountry. After nearly two decades of work, Greene says the pressure of keeping others safe never really settles to a manageable level.
“We all kind of take it day by day,” Greene said. “We are used to working in stressful environments. Everybody kind of has their own approach to manage that. I am not sure if anybody is really that good at (managing the stress), but we do our best.”
This year the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center are putting in significant work to do outreach at popular trailheads.
Justina Liss, the trailhead outreach program coordinator with the Friends organization, spends four days a week out at local trailheads to inform and educate the public.
“We are trying to provide educational resources and that is great especially for new people,” Liss said. “The other thing that we are trying to focus on with people who have experience is what else they can do.”
Liss says she and Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or the center itself, are always encouraging others to stay sharp on their avalanche skills or submit observations from their time in the backcountry.
“Going to the beacon parks, practicing their rescue skills, going to talks where they can listen to people talk about the snowpack,” Liss said. “Kind of keep the gears turning.”
Liss also makes sure individuals test their gear prior to heading out into the backcountry on one of the beacon checker signs that her organization put in at trailheads this year.
“They serve as a good reminder for folks to make sure that the beacons are actually on and in transmit mode,” Liss said of the beacon checkers. “When you walk up to it with the transmitter on, it will give you a beep sound and it will also have some lights that will light up on there.”
For Greene and Liss the best part of their jobs are helping people safely navigate Colorado’s beautiful scenery.
“It is helping people,” Greene said of the most fulfilling part of his job. “Seeing people out and hearing them talk about things that are in the forecast when I am not working are sometimes the best part of my job. It makes me feel like we are having some sort of impact.
Friends of Colorado Avalanche Information Center thanks the National Forest Foundation, onX Backcountry and Vail Resort EpicPromise for helping fund its programming.
For the current avalanche forecast or other avalanche information, visit Avalanche.State.co.
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