The making of Colorado’s daily avalanche report
“It’s the habits we get into that save our lives,” Scott Toepfer says as we’re heading up a ridge in Mayflower Gulch, a few miles south of Copper Mountain. Toepfer is a 15-year forecasting veteran at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and in this case he is speaking broadly about backcountry traveling. However, the reason I have joined him and fellow forecaster Ann Mellick today is to learn more about the process behind the CAIC’s insanely detailed daily report – and although unintended, the correlation between our habits and the report is undeniable: Thousands of backcountry users around Colorado have made a rule of relying on the CAIC’s report for years now.Like the coffee they drink before they strap on their skins and turn on their beacons, the daily report has become, for many, a vital step in a day’s travels. It tells you what aspects are skiing well, which areas received the most snow, what weather might be headed your way. And, of course, there is the grandest purpose of all: It helps you avoid being buried by a slide and floating off to the powder pitches in the sky.The reports are sent out by e-mail and posted on the CAIC’s website every morning around 6 a.m., for more than 180 consecutive days. Whereas they once included information on three main zones – the northern, central and southern mountains – as of last week the center began breaking it into 10. Some are more current than others – of the Sangre de Cristo Range, Toepfer says, “We don’t even know if people ski there” – but all zones’ reports include the primary elements: weather discussion, snow forecast, snowpack evaluation and backcountry avalanche danger (ranging from “low” to “extreme”).The kicker to the process is that there are only 15 full-time CAIC staff members, many of whom work exclusively to protect the state’s highways. (According to Mellick, there is never a moment when a car is not passing under an avalanche path on Interstate 70.)The forecasters themselves work between 60 and 90 hours a week during the winter, according to CAIC director Ethan Greene, but much of that time is spent in the office collecting and analyzing data. Their field work, while vital to the report, is limited.”A long time ago we used to say we wanted it to be 80 percent field time, 20 percent desk time,” said Toepfer, who earned his snow-safety stripes as a ski patroller beginning at Arapahoe Basin in 1977. “But now it’s probably shifting in the opposite direction.”
Plus, Mellick pointed out, “Even if all five of us (forecasters who work out of the CAIC’s Boulder headquarters) were in the same mountain range at once, we couldn’t see it all. We could make observations but not generalizations.”Which means the actual observations that help you plan your day (about 70 percent of them, according to Greene) come from random guys and gals around the state. They send in their reports primarily by e-mail but sometimes by phone, then the forecasters follow up – often just to thank the observer but sometimes to request more specific info, especially if the person is reporting an avalanche.Satellite communitiesIn places where there is a CAIC satellite office – including Crested Butte, the Roaring Fork Valley, Telluride/Ophir and Summit County – the process works differently than it does where there is none. In Aspen, for instance, Roaring Fork Avalanche Center director Brian McCall spends about five or six days a week in the field gathering data to send to Boulder, information complemented by that which he gets from local snow-safety workers (like ski patrollers, who are heavily involved with this process statewide).In the Northern San Juans, forecaster Mark Rikkers relies on his own field findings, but he also benefits from what he calls a “forecasters’ chat room” – a group of 30 or 40 longtime local backcountry users and guides who share their data over e-mail on a daily basis.”I would encourage other communities to do the same,” says Rikkers, a fifth-year forecaster with 22 years backcountry experience. “The bottom line is nobody knows a zone like the local users.”
Rikkers has built such a reliable network of observers, in fact, that sometimes the info arrives at his doorstep, unsolicited. One day last year he was sitting at home when a man knocked on his door and explained that he’d just driven past a slide on Molas Pass that spilled onto the highway. The man said he’d seen ski tracks entering the slide but none leaving, and while it turned out that the snowrider who triggered the slide had been dug out by a passing motorist, Rikkers’ findings at the scene greatly contributed to that afternoon’s report.In Summit County, where the local satellite office is run by Brad Sawtell and Nick Logan, the community input is far less than in other areas – despite the fact that Summit has historically been the most deadly county in the state. Sawtell and Logan aren’t complaining about having to be in the field five or six days a week to observe the conditions, but an increase in contributed reports would only serve to make the forecast more precise, Logan said.”We get hardly any, maybe a handful a year right now,” said the 24th-year forecaster, who often calls CAIC headquarters three times to report his findings during a tour. “I think we’re pretty accurate anyway, but I think we can be better with more input. We can’t be everywhere.”Developing a networkThe involvement of everyday citizens in producing the daily report came about approximately six years ago, when Knox Williams, who was the CAIC director at the time, realized his office was falling behind in its ability to produce the sort of report he wanted. The staff was smaller then, and backcountry use was increasing at too great a rate – a dangerous combination for avalanche forecasting.”There could be 200 or 300 people a day skiing the East Vail Chutes now, whereas it used to be five or 10 people,” says Toepfer, who estimates backcountry use has increased by 50-60 percent overall since he began forecasting 15 years ago.Williams charged Toepfer with developing a plan to recruit observers from around the state, and he did. Some of them he knew personally, others only through their reputations. The CAIC didn’t have much money to offer the observers (only a few of whom are actually paid), and they still only get $10 an ob. “It’s kind of insulting, kind of embarrassing,” Toepfer admits with a grin, “But we’d say, ‘Hey, it’ll keep you in beer for the winter.”
The total amounts to about $6,000 per year for citizen observers, according to Greene. To put that number in perspective, the Swiss avalanche forecasting center has about $780,000 set aside for its citizen observers, or about more than the entire $600,000 annual budget of the CAIC, which is a state agency but does not actually get any money from the state government (most comes from CDOT and oil and gas taxes via the Colorado Geological Survey).”There’s a passion that exists among snow workers that will make them do quite a lot with very little reward,” Toepfer says.The CAIC is always interested in gathering more reports from citizen observers, particularly in heavy-use areas like Summit, Steamboat (where the staff barely receive any) and Pitkin County.Forecasters know that backcountry travelers are often hesitant to send in their findings for certain reasons, but they promise anonymity to those who are caught in a slide, and as Toepfer explains, “We try to be very elegant about not giving away secret stashes.”Don’t be intimidated by the technical side of avalanche forecasting, either, they say. “The observations don’t have to be snowpack temperatures or sheer test results,” said McCall, the Roaring Fork director. “Just an observation of a great day touring with no avalanche sightings is a big help, too.”Devon O’Neil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (970) 668-4633.
To submit an observation to the CAIC headquarters in Boulder, go to avalanche.state.co.us and follow the simple instructions. To submit one to the Summit County office, e-mail email@example.com or call (970) 547-0056.It’s not just Ph.D speak …Some recent excerpts (to keep the travelers entertained):Dec. 19 – “There were a handful (well, 6, so add a thumb) of human triggered and natural avalanches reported over the weekend. The slides were on north and northeast aspects, near and above treeline.”Dec. 13 – “The Southern Mountains miss out on snow from these shortwaves, but get their turn this weekend. The models have a low digging southward along the west coast. A couple of jabs bring snow Saturday, with good uppercuts on Sunday and Monday.”Dec. 6 – “Our next ripple in the flow is over eastern ID this morning. It looks a bit more promising for the northern mountains, and if we can get a few more butterflies flapping over China, we could drag a little of the energy into the central mountains.”
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