When snow gives way: With public’s help, forecasters gauge risks

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— While backcountry skiers and riders are asleep, dreaming of the powder they plan to rip the next day, Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters are walking through the office doors, ready to start the day.

It’s 4 a.m., and John Snook and Spencer Logan, of CAIC’s Boulder office, are busy compiling observations that came in the day before. Snook, Logan and the other two forecasters at the office work together to have a weather forecast ready by 6 a.m.

Then their attention shifts to the snow. By 7:30 a.m., they are deep into snowpack discussions, jumping on Skype to video chat with the eight offices, three of which are backcountry specific and five are through the Colorado Department of Transportation.

But the CAIC offices and its employees can only do so much. Its website, www.ava

lanche.state.co.us, is designed to provide all the pertinent information necessary to traverse the backcountry safely, and it serves as a communication tool for those out there experiencing it firsthand.

“The public feedback is really important to what we do,” Snook said. “With four forecasters and several field forecasters, we can’t get to every corner of the state on a regular basis. The community is really good about sending in observations to us to help us piece together a big picture.”

By midmorning, CAIC forecasters are sifting through field observations from its employees and the public. But things don’t stop there.

At midday, snowpack discussions resume and another weather forecast is issued on the CAIC website. In a little more than eight hours, the entire weather and backcountry avalanche forecasts on CAIC’s site could look absolutely nothing like they did the day before.

And that’s just 25 percent of an avalanche forecaster’s job description.

“Part of our mandate is public education,” Logan said. “In Colorado, we’re really lucky because there are lots of guide services and colleges that are teaching (Avalanche Awareness and Safety) Level I, II and III. We are able to target the extremes.”

Becoming an avalanche forecaster takes years of education combined with actual backcountry experience.

Logan said forecasting of this kind essentially requires two degrees. One is in the classroom — likely a science degree with graduate school work in scientific research. The other is backcountry experience, possibly on a ski patrol unit. Logan said he logs 100-plus days per year in the backcountry.

That experience creates a networking web with other backcountry enthusiasts.

It’s a positive line of work that can come with fatal consequences, though.

“If you’re in this game and community long enough, you lose a lot of friends,” Logan said.

Snook said he thinks traversing backcountry terrain is no more dangerous than driving down Interstate 70 if it’s done with proper precaution. It’s a sport — an addiction, really — that can get skiers and riders in hot water, especially in their younger, daredevil years, Snook said.

“I think most people go through their young and bold phase where they push their limits,” Logan said. “That can be a very dangerous time because you don’t know where the line is until you’ve crossed it.”

And when things go bad and the phone rings, reporting someone missing in the backcountry, it is a grim reality of a profession Snook and Logan find so rewarding. Sometimes they even are called in to be part of the search and rescue efforts.

Other times, they simply “hold the fort down,” Logan said.

And hope.

“When someone dies in the backcountry, we look at ourselves and say, ‘Could we have done anything better?’” Snook said. “Can we provide better information out there?”

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