Snow geek keeps backcountry skiers safe | AspenTimes.com
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Snow geek keeps backcountry skiers safe

Brian McCall probably uses his avalanche probe more than anyone else in the valley: When looking for the best place to dig a pit, the local snow safety expert probes for rocks and various types of snow layers. (Joel Stonington/Aspen Times Weekly)
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Summit County and Pitkin County are a close first and second, respectively, in the unglamorous contest for most avalanche deaths in a county since records started being kept in the 1950s. And since Pitkin County gets fewer backcountry travelers than neighboring Summit County, Aspenites have the dubious distinction of living in the most dangerous county for avalanches in the United States.Until last year, avalanche forecasting for the Roaring Fork Valley was handled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. But it often lacked accurate information or enough details for hut travelers and regular backcountry users. For example, Ashcroft often would have the same forecast as Marble, where the average snowfall can be double. Enter Brian McCall, who may well be the biggest snow dork in the entire Roaring Fork Valley. It’s possible he likes looking at snow crystals and digging pits more than he likes skiing sick pow. But those are the requirements of the job when you’re director and founder of the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center, started last year to fill a gap in avalanche forecasting for the area. It’s a job that takes more attention and passion than what it might seem on first glance: the backcountry skier’s dream job.

McCall’s day starts around 5 a.m. every day, when he sits in front of his computer at the Forest Service building in Aspen to give his forecast by 7 a.m. On a busy day, he’s taken a few dozen phone calls and dozens of e-mails before most people hear the alarm go off. Everyone wants to know how it looks out there, if it’s safe to hit the backcountry for some turns.The two hours it takes to put out the forecast is packed: McCall crunches weather forecast numbers; checks websites that show weather for the high-mountain areas around Aspen; reads observations sent from other snow professionals, friends and recreational skiers the day before. And perhaps most important, McCall reviews notes from his own observations the day before.On Feb. 1, McCall woke up to an above-average day. It had snowed 5 inches at Ashcroft, 8 inches on Ajax and 10 inches in Marble the day before.”Days like this are super fun,” McCall said. “I walked into the office and had calls from all over the valley, plus a few more statewide.”According to McCall, the new snow was not bonding well with the old top layer; a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) in Marble observed 22 avalanches.That report could not have been more different than the one that came in from Ashcroft. In Marble, there was enough new snow to slide. At Ashcroft, an additional 6 inches of snow was needed to put conditions in the danger zone. Still, the new snow combined with significant wind in certain places led McCall to raise the avalanche danger rating to considerable on all aspects. “There are a ton of weather stations down from last night so that makes it harder to pin specific aspects,” McCall said that morning. “Our biggest concern is the new snow [and] old snow interface.”Once McCall has written out the forecast, he leaves it on a recorded message and posts it to the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center website (www.rfavalanche.org). He also e-mails the forecast to the center’s donor list.As a forecaster, McCall is generally conservative. He pins up a considerable rating, but that doesn’t mean he won’t go into the backcountry. In fact, his destination that day was Marble. Under the heading “riding conditions,” the CAIC forecaster wrote, “freaking unbelievable. As long as you’re on a slope under 32 degrees. Hard to breath.””We don’t put that in the forecast or there’d be a frenzy,” McCall said. “You are sometimes playing this game of angles where 31 would be OK and everything above 35 degrees is triggering something.”

Above Ashcroft and below Yellow Boy, between the trails to American and Cathedral lakes, is a valley where people rarely go in winter. But Jan. 31, McCall skied there to do some observations and dig pits.



“I live out of my field book,” McCall said, pulling out an array of instruments from his backpack. “I’ve got a few more toys than most people carry into the backcountry.”It takes roughly an hour for McCall to dig a pit and examine the snow. He measures the height of significant snow layers, records the size of snow grains in each layer, takes the temperature of the snow at various depths, measures the water content of the snow, and does shear tests. Since conditions vary on aspects that face different points of the compass, McCall digs multiple pits to see if one layer is weaker than another and, hence, more dangerous. The pits he dug near Ashcroft had a weak top layer with a lower layer that looked like it could slide under enough pressure, for example. Some of that played out when McCall observed a slide path that went down to older layers in a 2,000-foot avalanche that went across Express Creek Road and into the creek below.

In starting the nonprofit Roaring Fork Avalanche Center, McCall left his job on the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol.The U.S. Forest Service gave him office space and insurance for his operation but little else. So McCall has sought out grants from both the city and county, as well as large donations from individuals.




The funding has been used for new equipment and McCall’s salary. It has also gone toward making McCall’s dream of creating the United States’ first-of-its-kind clearinghouse for information a reality. In Western Canada, snow professionals get an e-mail or fax in the morning with observations from the previous day. In return, they send in their observations to the avalanche center. Here in Aspen, it has been mostly a you’re-on-your-own philosophy.”There might be a day where there are four or five guides in the backcountry, and no one is sharing observations,” McCall said. “I’ve definitely tried to take that project on. But getting people to participate has been a challenge.” Still, the center is gaining momentum, as people learn how easy it is to post observations themselves or send in data. For McCall, the more information collected in a central place, the easier it is for people to make plans and travel safely in the backcountry.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.com


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