Life as an avalanche forecaster
January 25, 2016
SUMMIT COUNTY — It's a blue-sky Wednesday morning on Mayflower Gulch, a popular backcountry area near Copper Mountain, and while other backcountry users traipse past in search of powder, Scott Toepfer has dug himself a handsome 3-by-4-foot snow pit.
The veteran Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster runs a series of tests, sawing off columns of snow, tapping the surface to see where the weaknesses lie and even measuring snow crystals through a magnifying lens. In one test, he slides the long saw into what he sees as a weak layer some 2 feet below the surface. In a split second, the layer cracks horizontally across and a 100-pound block of snow leaps out from the cross section Toepfer has cut and lands at his feet.
"This means that even in a low avalanche-risk area, a slide is still possible," Toepfer said.
Toepfer can talk snow all day. It's his job, after all, and here in the avalanche-prone Colorado backcountry, Toepfer and his Colorado Avalanche Information Center colleagues are on the front lines of providing avalanche-risk information, using field tests and weather forecasting technology to help backcountry users plan their trips and, hopefully, get home safely.
It's a job that requires dedication, long hours and early mornings, and it is laden with a high-stakes responsibility — of course, it doesn't hurt that part of the job description is backcountry skiing several days a week. Toepfer explains that forecasters try to get all the information out there through a variety of outlets in a timely manner. It's up to individuals to make their own decisions when it comes to what they'll ski and how prepared they'll be, but the forecasters are well aware that what people decide to do with the reports and warnings can be a matter of life and death.
"This is why people can't outrun avalanches, and why if you get buried, you can't breathe," said Toepfer, gesturing to the dense slab of snow that just fell out of his snow pit. "Even on days where the risk is labeled 'low,' people tend to forget — there may be a low probability of a slide, but the consequence if there is is really high. A number of people can ski something just fine, but someone can hit a weak spot and set something off."
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A lifelong skier, Toepfer takes stock of the surrounding peaks and points out several small slides that he thinks took place one to two weeks ago. He observes the slow, smooth, lens-shaped clouds that are moving in over the jagged peaks and notices that a number of contrails are lingering in the air. It all points to changing weather patterns, he said.
There's the fun part, too. He decides to skin up a mellow slope nearby, taking some measurements on a windblown cornice at the top before making tracks in the powder.
"I certainly don't want anyone to get the impression that I don't love to ski," he said.
Toepfer is among 15-plus Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters who cover 10 areas around the state. Besides the glorious part of being out in the field, their job also includes weather forecasting at the Boulder headquarters, teaching avalanche safety classes around the state and keeping tabs on slides and avalanche-related injuries and deaths.
Possibly the biggest unsung heroes of the organization are the highway forecasters who work with the Colorado Department of Transportation to mitigate avalanche risks on the states interstates and highways. If it's dumping snow through the night, you can bet one of the highway forecasters are up and keeping tabs on the conditions so that the state's roads stay safe and open.
The forecasters come from a number of backgrounds and span the age spectrum from mid-20s to 60, but almost all have extensive ski-patrol experience and graduate educations in subjects like meteorology, geology and snow science. (Yes, that's a master's program.)
Toepfer is from Iowa, but he came out to Colorado to do some skiing and take a break from college in 1974. He landed at Arapahoe Basin, where he found himself on the same chairlift as the resort owner, who offered him a job as a breakfast cook. That began a long string of winters at Colorado's resorts, and he remembers his first encounter with an avalanche while full-moon skiing on Loveland Pass. A friend was caught and buried up to his neck in the debris
"I had no idea what an avalanche was. I don't think I'd even heard of an avalanche before," he said.
Toepfer eventually spent 17 years as a ski patroller at Arapahoe Basin and Vail and overseas in New Zealand and France. He decided to go back to school for meteorology and started with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in winter 1992.
"Snow was always my interest, and avalanches come as part of that. And weather is always a very important part of the forecasting process, so it all comes together," he said.
Working the weather
It's 4 a.m. on a Friday, frigid and pitch dark, and for Toepfer, it's time to start forecasting avalanches for the state.
He's rolling into work at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Boulder, where the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecasters take turns rotating through field and office duty. He's not the only one there — it's quiet, but the forecasters are wrapping up their graveyard shifts. He clicks through the weather models, looking at screens that tell him information about the humidity, jet streams and temperatures, providing satellite and radar images and forecasts for the state.
Other forecasters begin chiming in at 4:45 a.m. via Skype to compare information and give their reports. On this particular Friday morning, the consensus is that most of the high country got a few inches of snow and saw some high winds overnight.
The avalanche danger is getting bumped up in many areas from low to moderate today, and there's a lot of chatter about that decision. They take into account the fact that new snow is on its way and that strong winds are developing.
Toepfer sends out a one-minute recorded update on the conditions to the radio stations and updates the website with the day's new information. The rest of the morning is spent writing condition reports for different regions and sorting through field observations from backcountry users.
It's been a relatively quiet avalanche year so far, but January is in the thick of the season. There have only been five reported avalanche accidents so far this winter, and no fatalities. Toepfer said that in his 22 seasons with the center, there's never been a year when there hasn't been at least one avalanche-related death, but he remains hopeful, as more people get educated and technology and reporting advances.
"I'd love to see a season without an avalanche death. That would be amazing. I might retire after that," he said.
Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.