Finding a crowd-free Tahoe | Learning about avalanches from the experts
Special to the Tribune
It’s just after 9 a.m. and I’m riding in a white Forest Service truck with Brandon Schwartz, one of two avalanche forecasters for Sierra Avalanche Center. The sun is already up, and despite the record amounts of snowfall this year, bare ground is showing in places and water is draining across the road. Today I’m going out on a ride-along to see how avalanche forecast observations are performed and what goes into the production of a daily advisory.
When I called Sierra Avalanche Center to request the opportunity to take a tour with one of their forecasters, I thought that I would simply get a look at the field-data-gathering processes. However, what I got was an inside look at what it takes to operate and maintain a non-profit organization that partners with the Forest Service to provide public safety information to snow enthusiasts free of charge.
As we head roughly northeast on the Mt. Rose Highway en route to Tamarack Peak, I ask my host why he has selected this particular area for today’s observations. Schwartz tells me that he’s interested in the impact that last night’s temperature inversion has had on the snow pack at higher elevations. He goes on to explain that the majority of the forecast area’s remote weather sensors above 8,000 feet have shown overnight lows up into the mid 40s. Conversely, lake level lows were at or near freezing.
The lack of a refreeze disallows the free water in the snow to solidify and bond the pack together. Without sub-freezing nights, snow basically falls apart. These conditions can produce large pinwheels and eventually wet slides. These conditions are not safe and are generally no fun to ski. However, the quality of our turns is not SAC’s concern. What is their concern is our understanding of the safety and stability of the snow pack on which we make those turns.
Before making this trip with Schwartz, I wrongly assumed that SAC forecasters were out in the field at the crack of dawn each morning gathering information for that day’s advisory. The fact is that the field data are gathered almost 24 hours in advance. On the following morning, the forecaster combines the previous day’s observations with current weather information and raw data from remote weather sensors to produce a more accurate forecast.
As Schwartz drives the truck over a rise and around a bend in the road, Mt. Rose and the neighboring ski resort of that name become visible. We park in a pull-out bordered by a 4-foot-tall, dirty snow bank. It’s hot out. I switch my beanie to a ball cap and ditch my mid layer in the truck. We cross the road and head up the hill to start a circuit that will allow us to investigate snow conditions on a variety of aspects that range in elevation from about 8,800 to 9,800 feet.
Unlike a casual observer, Schwartz is intimately familiar with the snow pack. He is not out there trying to create a forecast from scratch. He knows what the stability issues are and where those concerns are likely to occur. The function of our tour is to observe how severe these issues may be and where these changes are the most pronounced. Today we’re looking at free water in the snow pack, the depth of refreeze (if any) and the likelihood of loose or wet snow avalanches. Time, elevation, temperature and aspect – in regards to sun exposure – are all key components to our observations.
After skinning around, making ski cuts, digging below the snow surface, taking pictures and shooting some video, our talk drifts away from snow science and into the realm of finance. I ask about the structure of the center, the role that the U.S. Forest Service plays, and how sponsorship from the private sector factors into the equation. For this information, Schwartz directs me to the president of the board of directors, Justin Broglio.
Officially, Schwartz and his fellow forecaster, Andy Anderson, are employees of the Forest Service. Accordingly, forecasters draw a distinct line between their primary function of producing user-friendly Web and telephone based advisories for the public and that of the board of directors in raising the funds that make these operations possible. In this way, forecasters have no alternate roles or distractions; their sole function is to produce the forecast.
At a later date, I made contact with Justin Broglio who took the time to fill me in on the details of fund-raising, private sector sponsorship, government partnership and the future goals for the center. On the surface, SAC is very similar to other avalanche forecast centers in North America. However, a couple of key characteristics make it unique.
To begin with, the Forest Service contributes roughly 20 percent of the funds and/ or resources needed to keep SAC running. The other 80 percent comes from contributions made by both businesses and individuals. Broglio explains that in most other forecast centers, those numbers are reversed. As a result of this budget shortfall, SAC’s board of directors has devised an innovative system of fund-raising that works with local ski resorts and other snow-related industries to fill the gap.
The primary source of funds comes from SAC’s partnership with most if the ski resorts that fall within the forecast area. These generous resorts donate lift tickets that are resold to the public at a discounted rate at snowbomb.com. SAC receives the money made from these sales. In addition, SAC has promoted Teton Gravity Research and Powder Whore movie premieres in the area and receives a portion of the proceeds. All other donations come from individual donors – people who want to give back to this amazing and invaluable resource.
When asked if current funding could be relied upon into the foreseeable future Broglio responded in the affirmative. Accordingly, he and the board of directors are looking forward with ambitious, though not unrealistic, goals for the center. The board wants to solicit enough funds to create an endowment in the range of $1-2 million that would produce permanent funding for at least a portion of the center’s annual expenditures.
Currently SAC employs the two aforementioned forecasters, plus two sub-contracted professional observers. With a forecast area that stretches from Yuba Pass in the north to Ebbetts Pass in the south, a staff of four is stretched pretty thin. Augmented funding would allow for the hiring of additional full-time forecasters that would produce more area-specific data in the remote reaches and periphery zones of the forecast area.
After wrapping up with Schwartz, I headed back home via the West Shore. Much to my chagrin, I was unexpectedly stopped at the northern gate of Highway 89 near Emerald Bay. When I hopped out of the car to speak with the sheriff’s deputy on site, he informed me that an SUV was just pummeled by an avalanche coming across the road – the car and driver were still in the process of being dug out. As a result, the road was closed and would remain so for the weekend.
For those of you who have little concern for springtime avalanche conditions, this event will hopefully have a sobering effect. Play it safe, people. Check the report before you head out into the backcountry, have a plan that includes alternate routes of ascent and descent and use your noggin to make deliberate observations of what is right in front of you. With this in mind, we can all keep it fun and safe, knowing that we will live to ski another day.
– Nicholas Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra Nevada and writing about his experiences. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more at http://www.tahoepulp.wordpress.com.