A tour with Sierra Avalanche Center

As Schwartz drives the truck over a rise and around a bend in the road, Mt. Rose and the neighboring ski resort 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 several different aspects that range in elevation from approximately 8,800 – 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 possibility of loose, or wet snow avalanches. Time, elevation, temperature and aspect – in regards to sun exposure – are all key components to our observations.

It’s just after 9 am 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 (SAC) 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 towards 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 remotes weather sensors above 8,000 feet have shown overnight lows up into the mid 40’s. 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. More than just bonding the snow, the refreeze at night promotes the growth of California’s world famous spring corn snow. Without sub-freezing nights, snow basically rots and begins to fall apart or globs together in large balls known a pinwheels. These conditions can be unsafe and are generally not much fun to ski. However, the quality of our turns are 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 is 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 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 several different aspects that range in elevation from approximately 8,800 – 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 possibility of loose, or wet snow avalanches. Time, elevation, temperature and aspect – in regards to sun exposure – are all key components to our observations.

As we skin 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 USDA 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, they 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 the raising funds to that make these operations possible. In this way, forecasters have no alternate roles or distractions; their sole function is the production of 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, several factors make it a unique organization in the American avalanche forecasting community.

To begin with, the Forest Service only contributes roughly 20% of the funds and/ or resources needed to keep SAC running. The other 80% comes from contributions from 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 many 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. In return, SAC receives money from these sales. In addition, SAC has worked with Teton Gravity Research and Powder Whore during their movie releases 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 dollars 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 west shore. Much to my chagrin, I was unexpectedly stopped at the northern gate of SR89 Emerald Bay. When I hopped out of the car to speak with the Sheriff on site, he informed me that a 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 spring time 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.

How to use the site:

Go to sierraavalanchecenter.org and explore the various pages that provide diverse information about snow pack conditions, weather observations, avalanche incident reports and educational information. This site is incredibly user friendly, providing wiki-links for all snow specific terminology, including illustrations, pictures and video. Additionally, all advisories and related information are archived for reference.

How you can get involved:

SAC is always looking for additional observations from people traveling in the backcountry. Don’t be discouraged by a lack of formal education in this regard. Take pictures and video of the snow surface and pit profiles and submit them to the center. You will add to the data set as well as inform yourself when the following day’s forecast comes out.

Donate:

SAC needs your help. There is no contribution too small. Simply go to their web site and click on the donate menu.

Snowmobiles:

Though not directly addressed in this article, sledders make up a large portion of the backcountry/ snow sports user group. Broglio encourages any and all sled groups in the area to contact SAC for information, partnership, and education. This report is in no way exclusive to muscle-powered snow sports.

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