Frank Carus, Director, Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center

Avalanche centers across the country are gearing up for winter operations and preparing to issue avalanche forecasts. Skiers, riders, climbers, snowshoers and hunters venture on to steep snow covered slopes with greater frequency as snow levels begin to drop and access to those steep slopes becomes easier. When do forecast centers begin to issue avalanche forecasts?  When the first snowflakes fly? When the first avalanche occurs? When x number of skiers descend locally known and relatively obstacle-free slopes?

These are questions avalanche centers have grappled with for decades. The answer to these questions are dependent on a number of factors that include public and employee safety, public messaging best practices and financial realities. 

Last year, BTAC rolled out a new website and with it, the ability to issue a new class of avalanche forecast. This General Snow and Avalanche Information Product, also known as a General Bulletin, provides some information about weather and snowpack to help backcountry travelers make informed decisions about when and where to travel but lacks the detailed information about avalanche problem location and sensitivity, travel advice and overall danger rating daily that is contained in an daily avalanche forecast. 

The General Bulletin, combined with the daily weather and precipitation data (aka the “Big Sheet” on BTAC’s website) plus field observations create a snapshot of conditions that can be the starting point for your own risk analysis. For some, the risks of hooking a tip on a submerged rock or stump, falling or blowing out a ski edge on a rock or worse, tilt the equation towards an early start to the backcountry skiing and riding season. The daily exposure of BTAC staff to those risks during field work is hard to justify given the limited use and limited value of a daily forecast. Further, periods of high pressure and low precipitation at most elevations in the early season yield the type of avalanche conditions that may warrant a low danger rating for days or even weeks on end. The message fatigue that often results can render the ratings meaningless in spite of the fact that small avalanches can have nasty consequences in a low tide snowpack. 

BTAC staff returned to work in November and are preparing to forecast beginning on December 1st. If weather conditions remain high and dry, we may delay the start of forecasting for the reasons stated below. It’s more likely that we will begin forecasting by zone and elevation as access improves and the snowpack continues to grow in depth. Now is a good time to inspect your beacons battery compartment for corrosion and install new batteries (high quality batteries of the dimension specified by its manufacturer), inspect and assemble your probe and shovel and consider signing up for an avalanche or wilderness first aid course if it’s been a while since your last training. We hope that this year’s El Nino weather pattern brings a deep and stable snowpack soon!