Eye on the mountains | SierraSun.com

Eye on the mountains

Paul Raymore
Sierra Sun
Photo by Josh Miller/Sierra SunAn aerial view of the peaks around Donner Summit, many of which are the starting zones for notorious avalanche paths.
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The well-publicized search for victims of the Jan. 14 avalanche near The Canyons ski resort outside of Park City, Utah was officially called off last week. The deadly slide has, however, thrown a spotlight on the danger posed to backcountry enthusiasts by the lurking threat of avalanches.

By the time the search for victims of the avalanche was called off, only one body had been recovered, but officials initially feared that up to six additional skiers had been trapped by the snow.

In the Sierra Nevada warmer temperatures and a deeper “maritime” snowpack contribute to an avalanche hazard that decreases significantly after new snow has been on the ground for a couple of days, experts say. However, during a storm cycle or after rapid changes in the weather, the risk of deadly slides still run high on slopes around Truckee and Lake Tahoe.

Bob Moore, the winter sports specialist for the U.S. Forest Service at the Truckee Ranger District, and Brandon Schwartz, the field agent responsible for hazard assessment, are the team in charge of issuing avalanche advisories for an area of the central Sierra stretching from Yuba Pass in the north to Sonora Pass in the south.

With the help of Diane Minutilli, a Forest Service information assistant, Moore and Schwartz keep the Forest Service’s Web page up to date with the latest avalanche hazard rating, as well as weather information and safety tips for backcountry travelers. They also update a code-a-phone call-in line at (530) 587-2158 which provides most of the same information via recording by 8 a.m. every day.

“We put out avalanche advisories and a snow conditions report on nearly a daily basis,” Moore said. “They are posted on our Web site, and we attempt to do it by 7 a.m. every morning.”

Those advisories are based on field data that Schwartz gets by backcountry skiing throughout the region, digging test pits to study the stability of the underlying snowpack, and calling other avalanche professionals and weather specialists in the area.

A typical day for Schwartz starts at 5 a.m. on storm days or 6 a.m. otherwise. He will wake up and check the weather forecast and what has happened overnight in terms of precipitation, wind speed and direction, and temperature changes ” all of which will form the basis for his avalanche hazard rating.

With a range from low to moderate to considerable to high to extreme, the U.S. Avalanche Danger Scale attempts to provide an easy-to-use system for classifying the types of avalanche conditions that travelers might experience in the backcountry.

After the forecast for the day is decided upon, Schwartz typically spends several hours out in the field, often in an area between Castle Peak, Mt. Anderson, and the west shore of Lake Tahoe observing conditions at the snow surface and within the snowpack. Sometimes what he sees will convince him to update his earlier forecast, and those updates are posted to the Web site as soon as possible.

“It’s science to a degree,” Schwartz said of his job. “It’s a great intellectual challenge for me to try to be really accurate for all the other backcountry users out there that are going to be looking at the forecast and using that as the start of their hazard assessment for the day.”

Schwartz said he doesn’t know exactly how many people use the forecast, but sometimes he’ll conduct informal polls of other backcountry users when he encounters them in the mountains.

“I see them and ask if they checked the page in the last two days before coming out. And about 75 percent of the time they say yes,” he said.

Those numbers don’t surprise Moore at all.

“What we have seen is a lot of growth in need [for avalanche forecasting],” Moore said. “The public solicits our forecasts, our advisories and our reports. The messages and feedback we receive is probably just a half of a percent of the people who are getting into it. And every time we put out an advisory, we get a lot of e-mails coming back from people asking questions, thanking us, or giving us comments, remarks or additional information for the advisory.”

While the popularity of backcountry travel around Lake Tahoe has been growing rapidly over the past few years, funding for the Forest Service’s avalanche forecasting services has been drying up.

“The Forest Service, historically in the West, provides avalanche forecasting services for backcountry areas in Utah, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, California … wherever it’s needed. And it’s mainly to protect public health and safety,” Minutilli said.

But with a shrinking Forest Service budget and needs in many other areas, Minutilli said the avalanche forecasting team just hasn’t been able to do everything they would like in terms of forecasting and public education.

To help meet that need, a friends group called the Sierra Avalanche Center was formed last year to help the Forest Service provide its avalanche forecasts.

Modeled on similar groups throughout the West, the Sierra Avalanche Center’s mission includes getting the word out about current snowpack stability information to the public; providing educational information, knowledge and understanding of avalanches to recreational users and groups; and increasing communication in the region to reduce the impact of avalanches on recreation, industry and transportation through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.” (from Sierra Avalanche Center flier).

As a nonprofit organization, the center will be able to fund-raise and help with public education on avalanche topics.

According to Phil Caterino, president of the Sierra Avalanche Center board, “Once we looked at it, is seemed like the best way to [to support the forecasting] was to set up a separate 501(c)(3), which is the Sierra Avalanche Center, to work in a partnership with the Forest Service, so we could fill in the gap for them both in funding and on the education side.”

Caterino said the center can solicit funds to make sure the program continues.

“What we really want to do is set up an endowment so we make sure the program doesn’t have to go hat-in-hand year after year and season to season,” he said.

Before the Sierra Avalanche Center, the central Sierra was one of the only areas in the country with frequent avalanche danger that did not have a dedicated avalanche center. Similar groups currently exist in the Mt. Shasta Ranger District and across the country in Utah, Colorado, Montana, Washington State and on the east coast.

“We always let Bob [Moore] carry the load on it, so it got us all off and we knew there would be a report up that people would see,” Caterino said. “But with this budget shortfall and the possibility that Bob will retire sometime, it really kicked everyone in the pants, and we said if we’re going to do this, this is the time.

“This will bring us up to the level we should be at with the rest of the nation,” he said.

Caterino and Moore both hope the Sierra Avalanche Center’s fund-raising efforts will allow the center to pay for a full-time avalanche forecaster during the winter. That is estimated to cost approximately $30,000 in addition to the resources already being provided by the Forest Service and to expand the amount of public avalanche education currently being provided.

Caterino hopes to see an influx of donations start to come in from corporate sponsors as well as backcountry enthusiasts now that the center has laid the groundwork for its fund-raising mission.

According to Schwartz, the group is forming at just the right time.

“I think the Sierra Avalanche Center is terrific. It’s really needed for this area to be able to provide full-time resources and forecasting because I think that the number of users here is increasing at a rapid rate and it’s only a matter of time before more things start to happen without greater resources in place to educate the public.”

Schwartz said he has seen “a lot of complacency in backcountry travelers,” not only in the Sierra but elsewhere.

“One of the scary things about the Sierra is that on most days, folks who are uneducated can get away with poor decisions; and that’s habit forming,” he said. “You start to see a decreased sense of risk when, over and over again, you expose yourself to risk with no results.

But with that complacency, people can often put themselves in a position that exceeds their knowledge, Schwartz said. And that, he said, often ends in “severe consequences.”

Preventing such a scenario, which could easily be very similar to that which played out earlier this month in Utah, is what Moore, Schwartz, Caterino and all of the other people involved with the Sierra Avalanche Center hope to accomplish.