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New avalanche center probes backcountry conditions

Brian McCall, director of the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center, discusses snowpits with participants of a Mountain Rescue Avalanche avalanche awareness workshop, held in January on Richmond Ridge. (Tim Kurnos)
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People heading into the Roaring Fork Valley’s backcountry to powder ski, tour or snowmobile have one of the best tools available in Colorado, thanks to a working stiff’s willingness to juggle three jobs last summer.

Brian McCall put in overtime throughout the warm-weather months so he could pursue his passion in the cold-weather months: forecasting avalanche conditions. McCall’s beefed-up bank account helped launch the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center this winter.

McCall, the director, and two part-time colleagues share valuable information on their website and a telephone recording about snowpack stability, avalanche forecasts and weather. They share comprehensive observations about conditions in the mountains from Independence Pass to outside Glenwood Springs, and from the Fryingpan Valley and Lenado area to McClure Pass and Marble.

“People have been thinking about a local forecast for 20-plus years,” McCall said.

“There’s a large population of backcountry users in this valley.”

McCall said the service was overdue. Pitkin County trails only Summit County for the unfortunate distinction of having the most avalanche accidents and deaths in Colorado.

The highly respected Colorado Avalanche Information Center provides general forecasts for sections of the state’s mountains, but it doesn’t have the budget to pay observers in each region where there is a lot of backcountry activity. Officials there see independent regional services like McCall’s as complements, not competitors, said Scott Toepfer, a mountain weather and avalanche forecaster for the CAIC for 15 years.

The stakes are too high to be territorial with such important information.

“More people die from this natural hazard than all others in the state,” Toepfer said.

Regional avalanche information centers also operate in Summit County and Crested Butte. The CAIC would also like to see them in the San Juan Mountains and Steamboat Springs.

“It’s hard work to come up with the money to run these seven days per week,” Toepfer said.

McCall anticipated that. The creation of the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center came too late last year to qualify for grants. That’s left the organization relying on in-kind aid from the U.S. Forest Service, privation donations and McCall’s savings.

“I knew that our first season would be rough,” McCall said.

The Forest Service donated space in one of its buildings at its Aspen compound and is paying the utility bills in the small office. The center also acquired tax-exempt status from the federal government, so contributions can be written off personal income taxes.

Even so, the operating budget is projected to run out by the end of this month, McCall said. He’s determined to run the center through the winter and possibly into spring skiing season, even at a personal loss. But McCall hopes it doesn’t come to that; he hopes supporters will donate.

The service is getting used. The website averages almost 400 hits daily from backcountry skiers and enthusiasts checking out conditions. McCall and his colleagues ” Jimmy Newman, a longtime former member of the Aspen Highlands ski patrol, and Lance Larry ” post an impressive array of information.

First comes the avalanche forecast, with commentary explaining how the center arrived at the rating. Someone planning a tour to a hut in the Fred Braun system might learn, for example, that the avalanche rating is moderate below treeline and considerable above.

The avalanche rating is followed by a weather forecast and an explanation of what the local forecasters have observed in the snowpack and how the stability is being influenced.

McCall said field observations are the key to the work. To call him an avid backcountry skier is an understatement. He makes it out five or six times per week.

“I don’t feel I could put out a good product if I wasn’t out in the backcountry,” he said. McCall tries to visit each section of the county at least once per month to assess the snowpack conditions. Larry and Newman also make regular trips.

At a minimum, new information makes it on the website Wednesday through Sunday.

The Roaring Fork Avalanche Center relies formally and informally on other observations as well. The ski patrols at each of the four Aspen areas and Sunlight contribute information regularly, as do local backcountry guides.

Less formally, website users are encouraged to send in observations from their trips, be it technical or purely a recount of their recreational experience.

“There are a lot of eyes out there,” he said.

Lou Dawson, an avid backcountry adventurer and respected author of guidebooks about Colorado’s mountains, said the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center provides good information on two fronts: avalanche forecasts and snow conditions.

“To travel safely in the backcountry, you need details,” he said. The center provides that with the avalanche forecasts and snowpack assessments.

It’s also a great tool to help a traveler determine where to go. Dawson said he recently planned a trip in Castle Creek Valley. He hadn’t skied there in some time and learned from the center’s website that the snowpack was thin and the layers weren’t all that stable. It helped steer him to McClure Pass as a better alternative at that particular time.

The local avalanche information can be found at http://www.rfavalanche.org. McCall said people planning backcountry trips are welcome to stop by the office, next to the Forest Service’s center at Seventh and Hallam streets, or call at 544-1058. It’s best to try to catch them before 8 a.m.

Supporters looking for a way to help the center should watch for details later this month about a fundraiser.

Contributions to the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center are always welcome. They can be made through http://www.rfavananche.org or by mail to Roaring Fork Avalanche Center, P.O. Box 11533, Aspen, CO 81611.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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