Risky business: Sierra Avalanche Center’s mission is to inform the public
The Sierra Avalanche Center is not a typical public service found in just any town.
Nearly every day of the winter, and especially on high avalanche risk days, forecasters and observers from the public-private partnership grab their gear, sometimes shoveling out their thickly snowed-in driveways in the darkness of the morning. They then head to the mountains, regardless of road conditions, in search of the avalanche problems of the day in order to keep the region informed about the potentially deadly dangers that are unique to snowy mountain communities.
If a person wanders into the backcountry, triggers an avalanche, and manages to get themselves buried under several feet of thick snow debris, they have no more than 18 minutes before their time of death. According to David Reichel, executive director of the Sierra Avalanche Center, due to the heaviness of snow in the Sierra, the time allotted for a person’s life may be as short as 10 minutes. He also said that if a person gets caught in an avalanche, it is likely that their only hope of survival is to be uncovered by a partner due to the immobility that people experience when they are buried.
SAC Board of Directors President James Brown was once buried by an avalanche himself while ski touring in Canada.
“I was fortunate enough to be working with another guide who is super talented and had me back on the surface in less than two minutes … I probably have a couple thousand days in the backcountry and if you spend enough time, something’s gonna happen … it was a closer call than I wanted it to be and the feeling of helplessness can be overwhelming.” Brown said.
These are the exact incidents that SAC wants to help the community avoid.
According to Brown, the Truckee-Tahoe region has been one of the largest meccas for backcountry skiing since the 1950s, thus presenting a need for a quality avalanche center that could produce a daily forecast first thing in the morning before the sun even has a chance to rise. A couple of forest service employees established SAC in 2004 with great support from the backcountry community, one of whom – Brandon Schwartz – currently works as the lead forecaster for SAC through the U.S. Forest Service.
The priority and purpose of SAC is to produce the avalanche forecast every winter morning, which includes two basic components, Reichel said. The avalanche danger — low, moderate, considerable, high, or extreme — and then what avalanche problem or problems backcountry users are likely to encounter that day.
“Both of those parts of the forecast are super important,” Reichel said “I think some people just look at the forecast danger and say ‘oh, it’s low,’ or ‘oh, it’s moderate,’ and then they kind of tune out. But knowing what specific avalanche problem is out there is critical for knowing where you can go and where you need to avoid.”
Reichel also noted that problems can be identified with different variables that are important to look for; such as loose wet avalanches which can gradually become an issue as the sun heats the snow throughout the day. This causes the top layers of snow to soften into lubricated loose grains which can then move downhill and gather more snow as it travels.
Regarding loose wet avalanches, “…If you get up and are having a good time and get back to your car by noon, there’s going to be very little avalanche problem, but if you start your day at 11 now you might have more risk exposure than you’d like,” he said.
As the jobs of observers and forecasters are to assess the current and future avalanche hazards by traveling through the snow-covered backcountry, they do everything they can to mitigate risks by carrying a beacon, shovel, and probe — items used to find and recover victims after having been caught in an avalanche. When it comes to assessing hazards, they often look for test slopes which are smaller mounds of snow that, when triggered, may show an observer what would happen on the much larger slope and whether or not they are safe to cross.
Brown stated that SAC has come a long way since its first inception, when those who wanted the forecast would have to call a number. These days, backcountry users can get a quick glimpse of the forecast by following SAC on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, or by visiting their website to view the full and in-depth avalanche forecast.
“The avalanche community in general has come a really long way from making avalanche decisions based on colloquialisms …” Brown said. “… people used to say, as long as you don’t ski 24 hours after a storm, you’re OK. And while there is a certain grain of truth to that, that’s obviously not a good decision-making tool. So we’ve come a long way in educating our community at large and in the Tahoe area, but with the recent influx of new backcountry skiers we’re constantly adding new members that don’t have any formal education who maybe don’t know what the Sierra Avalanche Center does. So it’s a constant uphill struggle to keep the community educated.”
Both Reichel and Brown agree that the higher backcountry use is due to increased technology in the ski and snowboard industries, as well as its rising popularity on screen and also on social media. Most recently, the biggest spike in backcountry use was due to the lockdowns in 2020, creating an even larger need for accurate forecasts.
“To have an avalanche that involves people, you need to have people. The backcountry around here is relatively crowded, there’s a lot of users and so anytime you have a lot of people having fun in the winter environment there’s some risk associated with that … that’s a reality for our zone.” Reichel said.
In order to keep up with the increased need for backcountry safety awareness and information, SAC holds regular events and also provides annual scholarships for both backcountry users and professionals to continue their education in avalanche safety courses.
Local ski coach Tyler Homen from Roseville received $900 in 2020 for his Pro I avalanche course from SAC, and intends to use what he learned to further educate the kids he coaches about the importance of avalanche safety.
“(The Sierra Avalanche Center) is invaluable to our community. It’s an amazing way for people to get resources before going out in the backcountry.”
Homen said he instructs people to check the avalanche forecast every day before going out.
“For locals, it provides a good indication of what our snowpack is doing over time and you become more in tune with the mountains.”
Those interesting in supporting the avalanche center can visit http://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/donate or attend events held in support of the avalanche center, such as one clinic being held in light of Backcountry Safety Awareness week — 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 17 at Palisades Tahoe in the Alpenglow Expeditions Classroom, 1985 Squaw Valley Road. The event will host influential skiers and snowboarders in the community — such as Michelle Parker, Jeremy Jones, and Elyse Saugstad — who will be speaking about avalanche safety.
Elizabeth White is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at email@example.com
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