LAKE TAHOE - Using a smartphone to find out what's underneath your feet may seem a tad bit unnecessary. Unless, of course, what's underneath your feet is a set of skis and a mountain peak covered in potentially hazardous snow.
Since 2003, Sierra Avalanche Center has provided critical information to backcountry enthusiasts on snow conditions, and the likelihood of that snow sliding dangerously downhill.
And, as the popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding expands, the nonprofit hopes to continue its growth with the sports, said Jenny Hatch, the center's recently hired program director.
From July 15, 2011, to April 28, 2012, the center's website was viewed more than 400,000 times by 80,000 visitors, according to the center's latest annual report. The numbers represent a 30 percent decrease from the 2010-11 season. The drop is attributed to a late start to the season and low snowfall.
But the center's website did notch one milestone last year, a new record for single day page loads - 13,553 on March 2.
A mobile application providing the avalanche center's daily advisory is among the plans for this year, Hatch said. She said the center hopes to have the app ready by the new year.
Sierra Avalanche Center, which receives a portion of its funding from the U.S. Forest Service, also hopes to increase its endowment from $25,000 to $300,000 this year to have a more stable funding mechanism, Hatch said. The center enlists two forecasters and two observers in the production of its advisories, which include observations of terrain between Yuba Pass to the north and Ebbetts Pass to the south.
Fundraising efforts, including discounted ski days at area resorts, currently provide much of the center's funding.
The center's avalanche forecasters operate out of the Tahoe National Forest near Lake Tahoe's North Shore. Eventually the center would like to establish a dedicated physical space or outreach center, Hatch said.
Ultimately the goal of the center is "changing the culture," surrounding backcountry skiing in the Lake Tahoe region, Hatch said.
The area has a reputation for relatively safe snow conditions. But that reputation can mislead, Hatch said, noting recent avalanche fatalities.
"You have control of how you engage the hazard, so it's really important to be educated," Hatch said.
Thirty-four avalanche deaths were recorded in the U.S. during the 2011-12 ski season, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Two of the fatal avalanches happened in California, including one near Lake Tahoe on March 2 that killed 29-year-old Olympic Valley resident Benjamin Brackett.
Learn more about the center at sierraavalanchecenter.org.