As we embark on a season unlike any other, one proving to show more and more folks heading out of bounds and into the backcountry, I have become something of a backcountry 'subject matter expert' in my friend group. I will be the first to say that I am in no way an expert, but I do have years of extensive experience and training in many of the facets of backcountry touring - and as such, I am always inclined to pass on advice, guidance, and other tips to friends, friends of friends, and anyone else who reaches out. Well, to an extent. Ask me a question, and you'll almost always find me pointing in the direction of the real experts...usually with a bit of my own two-cents on gear, courses, and the like.
One of the primary experts that I love to direct folks to are our incredibly valuable network of avalanche centers across the country. In addition to backcountry alliances, guiding companies, AIARE and their course providers, and other snow-centric organizations, avalanche forecasting centers are undeniably at the forefront of snow knowledge and avalanche safety. They play a pivotal role in educating the community on both a local and timely basis, and as such they help to keep all of us backcountry travelers safe and informed.
In this article, I will break down some of the most common questions I get about avalanche forecasting and the forecasts themselves. This is meant to be an introduction to the topic rather than a deep dive, and I highly recommend doing further reading, research, and practice to gather a good understanding on the importance of these forecasts - especially depending on your location.
What is an avalanche forecast?
To put it simply, avalanche forecasts are just as they sound. Similar to a typical weather forecast you would find online or in the news, an avalanche forecast is a look at the conditions presented in a specific area or region, on a given day. In the height of Winter, many avalanche forecasting centers will publish daily reports to their sites every evening (NWAC publishes theirs at 6PM PST each night) to be read and applied to the next day.
What information does an avalanche forecast take into account?
Avalanche forecasting centers pull together a conditions report for backcountry travelers to refer to before going out, and this information is garnered through various practices depending on the location, the center itself, and the resources and capabilities of that center. This can include team-members (known as forecasters or observers) preforming on-snow analysis, automated stations located in key areas of the region that collect information on snow, wind, and weather, and feedback and reports from the backcountry community as a whole.
These forecasts do not cover the weather or the overall conditions expected, but rather the current snow pack conditions seen with additional insight on how 1) the current snow pack and layers is looking and 2) how the predicted weather patterns will continue to affect these conditions and layers.
Precipitation, sun, temperatures, and wind do have major impacts on snow, and because of this an avalanche forecast will reference the weather throughout - but it focuses mainly on what that weather means for the snow conditions and possible risks that one can run into while out in the backcountry.
Some brief (key word) examples of weather's toll on snow pack, put in lay-mans terms: high winds can create wind slabs, or a type of unsupported snow overhang that could break apart with force; rainy and warm temps can lead to the snow melting and consolidating, leading to a dense layer of snow under your feet. These two examples are pretty common here in the PNW.
How accurate are avalanche forecasts?
To be perfectly clear, avalanche forecasting is extremely complex. There are a myriad of factors to take into account, and while they are incredibly insightful they are not always 100% accurate. Think about it: each aspect, slope, and zone in a range or on a specific mountain might present different conditions (and subsequent risks) and to have current and accurate information on a daily basis for every possible nook and cranny is just not feasible. Avalanche forecasts do their best to get the most information available, analyze it, and break it down into a user-friendly guide to what you will likely find out there.
But as with all things in backcountry education, it is always essential to err on the side of caution. If you see green (or low risk) on your avalanche forecast, this doesn't mean you're all good to go. This means that the conditions are looking pretty good in that specific region based on the information the avalanche center has, but you still need to keep your head, stay on your toes, and be ready for anything. The risks of an avalanche could be low per a recent forecast, but you should always have safety and good decision making as your #1 priority.
How do I find my local avalanche forecasting center?
It is essential that you find the right avalanche forecasting center for your area or upcoming plans. Looking at an avalanche forecast in Oregon when you're going touring in Washington is not going to work in your favor. Even checking the forecast for one region versus another, even if located right next to each other, can lead to catastrophic results.
Luckily for all of us, the internet has made our lives as backcountry enthusiasts much easier to plan for. Avalanche.org is an awesome place to begin your search, as it lays out the entire United States in one interactive map and links you to each individual avalanche forecasting center based on where you're looking to go.
For you Canadians out there: Canada has a similar setup which you can find at Avalanche.ca.
I find this a great way to visualize the entire country in terms of snowpack and avalanches, as with just a quick glance you can gain a lot of information: for example, not all mountains and backcountry areas necessarily have avalanche forecasting centers (most notably, New England only has Mt Washington Avalanche Center reporting for the one mountain in NH); some regions have more prominent avalanche centers and coverage, and some centers will have many different regions within their reporting while others won't (the entire state of California has four different avalanche regions, while many smaller states will have double digits).
^ Screengrab from avalanche.org on 12/4/20. Not shown is Alaska.
The moral of this story is that each state, region, and avalanche center will work differently. I won't get into why that is, as that's a novel in itself, but to learn more I encourage you to not only visit your local centers' website but spend some time reading and digging into their unique resources to better understand why and how they do things.
Here is a list, by state, of all of the Avalanche Centers in the United States:
- Bridgeport Avalanche Center
- Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center
- Mt Shasta Avalanche Center
- Sierra Avalanche Center
- Flathead Avalanche Center
- Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center
- National Avalanche Center
- West Central Montana Avalanche Center
- Central Oregon Avalanche Center (Central Oregon)
- Northwest Avalanche Center (Mount Hood)
- Wallowa Avalanche Center (Eastern Oregon)