The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 1, AUTUMN 1997
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

UTAH AVALANCHE FORECAST CENTER

Our Philosophy

Utah - A Different Kind of Place

by Bruce Tremper

We're lucky here in Utah. We know because our license plates tell us we have the "Greatest Snow on Earth." Which, of course is a damned lie if I've ever heard one. There's all kinds of places which have "greater" snow. The eastern side of the Rockies, for instance, gets lighter density snow-Alberta, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico - but the trouble is being far from the ocean it doesn't snow very much. And the West Coast gets more snow, or at least more water equivalent of new snow, but it tends to be, as they say, kind of on the heavy side. Utah, so the theory goes, gets the perfect combination between the two.

There's also plenty of other places on Earth which have "greater" snow but nobody lives there. How can you say that the interior of British Columbia doesn't have the Greatest Snow on Earth? The helicopter companies have been making a fortune on their snow for years. But Utah lays claim to the Greatest Snow on Earth mostly because there's so many people here to ski it and promote it so that even more people can ski it. There's a million people who live smack at the bottom of the Wasatch Range - all within a 15 minute drive to the ski areas.

Maybe you don't consider a million people plus a big, steep, snowy mountain range famous for its snow to be a lucky combination. But if you're an avalanche forecaster you certainly do.

There's 12 ski areas crammed together, six of which could all be connected together into one giant ski area with the addition of just two more chairlifts. With open borders at all the ski areas this also means very easy access to the backcountry, which turns it into what I call an urban backcountry. After a sunny powder weekend, you can hardly find any slopes in the entire range which are not completely tracked out. There's literally moguls on many popular slopes. With people crawling all over this little mountain range it also means that there are no secrets in the Wasatch. No secret powder stashes, no secret extreme descents and no secret avalanches. Either they call us right away or it travels down the canyons thorough the grapevine, eventually we hear about most of the avalanche activity within a couple of days.

If that's not enough, each of the 12 ski areas and the Utah Department of Transportation have their own avalanche teams with their own battery of automated wind, temperature and precipitation gages. The Utah Avalanche Forecast Center computer calls each of these 15-20 automated stations every hour, every 15 minutes in many cases, and the data instantly appears on our computer monitors and on the Internet. With the Olympics coming in four more years, there's another 10-15 more automated stations yet to be installed. We also talk to all the avalanche directors each day from each ski area, DOT and helicopter skiing company, either over the phone or via computer. And we talk to about 15 of our own backcountry observers which we pay about $10 per day to call information into us. Then there's the State Parks snowmobiler groomers which report conditions each morning. Did I mention that our staff of seven spends half of our working hours in the field as well? Perhaps you're getting the idea here. There's an astounding density of avalanche and weather information in northern Utah. Perhaps more data from a relatively small mountain range than anywhere else on earth. Lucky for us.

Because of this luxury, our avalanche bulletins can contain a large amount of detail. We never give blanket avalanche danger ratings (there's a moderate danger in the Wasatch Range today). We not only give customized forecasts for each section of the range but also for separate canyons and we break it down a certain terrain description, for instance aspect, elevation, steepness, amount of wind loading, anchoring, etc. Each day we know that hundreds of people will go into the backcountry and it's our job to communicate the pattern of instability we see. In other words, avalanche danger is almost never uniformly spread over a mountain range, but it varies according to all the usual terrain parameters, aspect with respect to wind, aspect with respect to sun, steepness, elevation, slope shape, anchoring or any other pattern we see. And the finally luxury of large numbers of people afoot in the backcountry is that you find out very quickly if you're wrong.

The Delivery

But just because people hear it doesn't mean they listen. In other words, if it sounds like a government recording, people get bored, they won't remember what you say, and they just quit calling after awhile. Our philosophy has long been to present the recorded avalanche bulletins in an entertaining way so that people will most likely remember what they hear. We have become rather well known for making our advisories fun to hear. We try and use all the standard tools of effective writing and speaking such as using active voice and first person, using examples and stories to illustrate points, using humor where appropriate, and reading the advisories in a natural voice, like talking to a friend. They're informal, chatty and funny yet informative. But we do it mostly because it makes our job fun.

We also deliver the message in several different ways to accommodate a public with a wide range of avalanche skills and a corresponding wide range in need for detail. There's a simple, easy-to-grasp one-page graphical presentation of the avalanche danger scale available on the Internet and by fax (available for the first time this season). This is the winter equivalent to Smoky the Bear which lets people know the general avalanche danger at a glance. After that, we do a more detailed live interview on two different public radio stations each day. Finally, for those who need lots of detail, we record seven different customized bulletins for each section of the northern Utah mountains and also the La Sal Mountains near Moab. In the heavily used Salt Lake City area, we have two recordings-a three minute and a very detailed six minute recording.

We Keep Our Noses in the Snow

We also believe in diversified avalanche forecasting. In other words, local forecasts recorded by local people. Avalanche forecasting is much more of an art than it is a science. And because of this, computers never have, and most likely never will, be able to forecast avalanches. For instance, how are you going to design a robot which can ski around in avalanche terrain, dig snowpits, feel the snow, smell the wind, feel the mood of the day, make friends with all the other people in the backcountry and get them to call in important information to you, make friends with all the other avalanche workers and cooperate closely with them, access 40 years of personally-stored data, integrate all the pieces of data together and creatively write and deliver an avalanche advisory? This is a job that only a human can handle, and not by sitting in an office all the time.

We believe that whoever records the avalanche advisory must have been in the backcountry looking at the snow in the previous day or two. We usually don't go to ski areas except to access the backcountry because the snow inside the ski areas gets skied and bombed so much it often bears no resemblance to the backcountry. We also don't forecast for places which we do not visit on a regular basis for the same reason that a bowler won't be very good if they can't see the pins. In both Logan and Moab, local people record the local advisories. The Salt Lake based staff of six simply can not visit Logan and Moab often enough to know what's going on. The Salt Lake staff covers from Ogden to Provoabout an 80 mile section of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains and by far the most heavily used section. A part time staff of three records the bulletin in Logan three times per week and the Salt Lake based staff records it the remainder of the week. (We hope next season to have enough money for local Logan staff to record the bulletin 7 days per week.) In Moab one full time forecaster issues bulletins for the La Sal Mountains.

The New Kids on the Block

Finally, the demographics of avalanche victims have changed significantly in recent years. If we look at the most recent five years of data, we see that snowmobilers lead the list of avalanche fatalities followed by climbers and then by backcountry skiers. Snowmobilers especially make the perfect avalanche trigger not only because they weigh more; because of advances in power, traction and lighter weight, snowmobiles can go virtually any place a skier can and they can cover 100 times the amount of terrain in a day than a skier. Likewise, snowboarders are rising rapidly on the list because they can access the backcountry more easily with the recent invention of split apart snowboards and lightweight and high-tech snowshoes. Also, there's a lot of crossover in the sports. It's not unusual to ride a snowmobile into an area to access skiing, boarding and climbing terrain. Sometimes you do all four sports in the same day.

The changing demographics have not been easy for us. Being skiers and climbers by training and choice, we have had to tame whatever deep seated bigotry we may have had towards the newcomers in the backcountry. We've all learned to ride snowboards and we increasingly climb aboard the hung-clogging, stink-belching, eardrumshattering snowmobiles. OK, I didn't say we had to like snowmobiles, but we have had to adapt to stay current. We're hiring more snowboarders and snowmobilers as observers and instructors. And we're designing and teaching courses especially for them. Turns out that underneath the helmets and baggy pants they're people just like us. Imagine that.

This is our philosophy and it seems to be working. More people call the UAFC recorded bulletin each year than any other avalanche service in North America, and the number keeps increasing each season by 10-20 percent. There's also an insatiable demand for avalanche education and avalanche information by not only Utahns but by the national and international media. For whatever reasons, we end up on TV alot, and we take each one of these opportunities to "preach the avalanche gospel." Which is good because we barely have enough money to run our program each season, much less run a national or even local public relations campaigns-to educate the masses about avalanches.

I guess we shouldn't complain. The public likes us, we save lives and we love the work. Now if there were just some money in it. It would be the perfect job.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 1, AUTUMN 1997
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA