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The sound of avalanche-control explosives had been firing down the Crystal Creek drainage, near Breckenridge Ski Resort, on and off all day. But now, skiing higher into the wind-ripped drainage, near treeline, a boom rocketed down the valley so hard that the opposite side called back with an echo, prompting avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer to pause and say:
“It’s a little disconcerting, isn’t it?” He resumed pushing his skis uphill and added, “That was a big one.”
He continued uphill, toward where he planned to dig a snow pit to analyze the snowpack, on the edge of what forecasters call “Ken’s Bowl” after a man who was killed in a slide there in the ’90s.
Toepfer is a 20-year veteran of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a Boulder-based group of snow scientists that reports daily on the avalanche danger in Colorado’s mountains. This winter, the CAIC has been reporting considerable to high avalanche danger so often that it’s prompted some forecasters to call the snowpack the worst in 30 or more years.
“It’s really bad,” said CAIC director Ethan Greene. “I don’t think you can really overestimate how bad it is…I’ve been reluctant to put an actual number on it, but certainly decades.” He paused to consider it, then said: “Thirty years is a pretty easy number to defend.”
“You can’t let your guard down this year,” he said. “You have to be very careful, and question all of your assumptions. If you’ve skied in this one area for five years and you’ve never seen an avalanche on this slope, ask yourself, could it happen this year?”
On Thursday, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued an avalanche warning for the Front Range and Vail/Summit County zones through noon Friday.
Find reports on snow conditions around the state and information on where to learn about avalanche safety and winter backcountry travel at colorado.gov/avalanche.
On any given day, Toepfer and the other forecasters could be behind a desk at the Boulder office, following the weather, going through reports sent in to the CAIC by backcountry travelers, writing the day’s report (usually by 7 a.m.). Or they could be teaching an avalanche education course, or talking to the media. But on Wednesday, Toepher was working in the field — in this case, near a popular destination for snowshoers and skiers, Francie’s Cabin.
A couple of miles up the trail, just shy of the cabin, Toepfer paused to peek into a gully. A day in the field usually means heading to where people recreate, looking for avalanche activity, getting an overall picture of the snow and also digging in close for a detailed look at the snowpack.
People often ski off the trail, down into this V-shaped gully to take a shortcut to the parking lot from the cabin, he said. But it’s a terrain trap — a place where avalanche debris will get trapped, thus burying a victim even deeper. This exactly the sort of thing they teach people to look out for in avalanche education courses, he said. That day, it was free of tracks, but Toepfer said he’d seen ski and snowshoe tracks up and down it in the past.
And the slope from the trail into the gully? Was it likely to slide? He leaned over to measure the angle.
“Thirty-seven degrees,” he said. “Right in that sweet spot for avalanches.”
He pulled back from the edge, saying he wasn’t comfortable going further down the slope.
“I don’t go into avalanche terrain by myself,” Toepfer had said earlier that morning. “That would be silly and stupid. And all the forecasters work under that premise as well. We don’t go into avalanche terrain. We’re looking through binoculars, we’re digging snow pits on mellower terrain.”
“Ideally, we’re always going out with a partner,” he said. “For me, I probably get 100 days in the field a year, and maybe one or two of those days, I’m out by myself.”
After backing away from the gully, Toepfer chose a safer place to dig a snow pit to analyze the layers in the snowpack in this area below treeline — the CAIC had reports of quite a few accidents below treeline this year, he said. His snow pit (which he cut with extraordinary speed) revealed why: A fat layer of old snow metamorphosed into bigger, squared-off crystals was providing a Jenga-like base for the rest of the snowpack.
That’s one of the main culprits behind this year’s especially high danger, Greene said.
“Primarily, it’s that the base layer is exceptionally weak,” he said. “Calling it weak is underselling it. It’s really, really bad. But we’re continuing to form weak layers between the storms.”
But understanding the snowpack (sometimes after covering miles of ground in the backcountry on skis) is only part of the job. The other part is getting the message out about the danger, and understanding the human element.
“The snowpack is wicked complicated, but at least you can go out there and touch it, feel it, thump on it,” Toepfer said. “And you can’t do that with the human head.”
“It’s the human element that we battle year in and year out, because we see people making the same mistakes year after year, decade after decade.”
Greene said last week, the forecasters saw dangerous conditions on the horizon for the holiday weekend. They did everything they could to get the word out, but there were several accidents over the weekend.
“We’ve had four people die this year when there were active avalanche warnings out,” Greene said.
The CAIC has 16 avalanche forecasters covering 10 areas of Colorado, Greene said.
“If you look just at the number of people we have and the amount of terrain we’re supposed to cover, there’s only one group in the world that even comes close — that’s British Columbia,” he said. “But there’s far fewer people in those mountains.”
“It’s quite difficult to cover the vast areas of Colorado with so few people,” Green said.
But those few people are dedicated. When Toepfer wakes up in the middle of the night to the sound of wind battering his home above Breckenridge, he’s working. He’s thinking about what that wind is doing to the snowpack. When he gets up in the morning — pre-dawn, he’s usually at work by 4 or 4:30 a.m., because those daily reports have to be up at 7 — he checks the thermometer and rulers for snow measurement on his deck, in addition to models from the National Weather Service and reports coming in from forecasters scattered across the state.
The weather and the avalanche forecast are always on his mind. “It’s a 24-7 job,” Toepfer said.
But despite the 24-7 nature of the job, and the fact that he’s done it for 20 years, or the potential for scouring wind and cold, it never gets old.
“Any day in the mountains is better than a good day in the office.”