By “keeping up with the Jones,” a pioneering nonprofit has helped keep fatalities few even as advanced equipment and opportunity send backcountry numbers soaring.
Feb 9, 2021
CRESTED BUTTE — A few days after the ski hill closed in March, Than Acuff went for a backcountry tour up the popular Schuylkill Ridge.
“It was mind-blowing. Shoot-the-lock-off zero backcountry protocol. Total bedlam,” the longtime local journalist and executive director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center said. “We were breaking trail and there was like a conga line behind us. People were dropping in on top of each other. I was skiing down and this guy goes flying by me on his snowboard, holding his dog. At that point, I was like ‘Wow. We need to get ahead of this curve.’”
Within hours, Acuff was back at the avalanche center office, making plans for aggressive outreach, hoping to connect with as many backcountry skiers as possible. The outreach is the latest for the community-focused, nonprofit avalanche center, which, every day of the winter for the past 20 years, has delivered what is likely the most in-depth, hyper-local avalanche forecast in the country.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center divides its forecasts across 10 zones in the state, each covering hundreds of square miles. The U.S. Forest Service’s 15 avalanche centers cover even larger swaths of snowy mountains. But Crested Butte’s homegrown avalanche forecasting team covers just four river drainages, offering daily video, radio and social media avalanche advisories that include weather forecasts, avalanche hazard analysis and travel advice.
After Acuff’s encounter with the hound-hauling boarder, the center has expanded this season’s outreach to include trailhead meet-and-greets with avalanche forecasters and online “fireside chats” with avalanche scientists around the country. There’s even a giant sign at the entrance to town, sharing the latest avalanche danger rating with everyone driving into the end-of-the-road community.
“We want everyone, guests and locals alike, to know we are here so they can glean information from us,” Acuff said.
The Crested Butte Avalanche Center’s 20th anniversary coincides with an explosion in backcountry travel, fueled in part by lightweight equipment, high-powered snowmobiles and powder-hungry skiers searching every peak for soft snow. And the messages from CBAC are being devoured. Daily videos of snow pits or Instagram posts of avalanche activity harvest 2,000 views or more.
“That’s pretty impressive for a valley of 3,000,” said lead forecaster Zach Guy, a snow scientist who ranks as a local hero for his tireless reporting from the snowiest corners of the Gunnison River Valley.
It can snow a half inch overnight on the Taylor River while pummeling Scarp Ridge up by the former town of Irwin with 30 inches. It can be hard for the CAIC’s Gunnison Zone forecast to capture the avalanche hazards from that snow in a single forecast. CBAC breaks its forecasts into two zones that offer a more detailed look at snowpack dangers on the slopes that spill into four main river drainages in the Gunnison Valley. The state’s annual persistent slab problem — a season-long layer of rotten, faceted snow lurking deep in the snowpack that sheds increasingly large avalanches as snow piles up — can look much different across the valley.
“We can highlight more accurate, hyper-local conditions versus the broader brush that’s used for such a big region like the entire Gunnison Zone,” said Guy, whose team of forecasters wakes well before dawn every day to snowmobile and ski to gather information for their assessments.
The center divides its forecasts into two zones. But even with the local focus, it offers somewhat generalized information, urging skiers to do their own fine-detail assessments before venturing onto avalanche-susceptible slopes.
That’s good, said Doug Krause, a nationally renowned snow scientist and avalanche forecaster working for Irwin Guides and The Eleven cat-skiing operation above Crested Butte.
There can be disadvantages of diving too deep into forecasting, Krause said. Offering in-depth stability assessments in small areas or even on individual runs can lead skiers to skip their own decision-making process, Krause said.
“Delivering observations in a way, way, way drilled-down level, that’s a mission that avalanche centers were not designed to fulfill and it becomes a slippery slope,” Krause said. “I’m sure everyone who works at an avalanche forecast center will say the last thing they want to do is give anybody slope-specific forecasting. They want to zoom way out and give watershed, basin, range forecasts, not ‘Dude’s Run’ or whatever.”
CBAC follows that advice, offering backcountry forecasts for two diverse zones while urging skiers to use “cautious route-finding and conservative terrain selection” when danger escalates, leaving skiers to use their head, not just the forecast, when playing safe in the snow.
A beacon for nonprofit centers
The CBAC is not that different from most major Forest Service avalanche centers, with a staff of seven, including three full-time forecasters. Other community-focused nonprofit avalanche centers in Oregon, Alaska and New Mexico may have only one full-time forecaster, supported by volunteers.
“We may be a bit of a shining example for nonprofit avalanche centers,” Guy said. “That’s because the community here really backs our products and it’s a two-way street. We really try to give everyone what they want and need.”
The center relies on both memberships and sponsors. More than 30 local and even national companies help support the center. The towns of Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte also help, alongside Gunnison County, foundations and the local recreation district.
“Without that support for the last 20 years, we would not be in existence,” Acuff said.
Alan Bernholtz co-founded the Crested Butte Avalanche Center as a nonprofit in 2001. He was a ski patroller at the resort and deeply involved in avalanche research. He recognized the challenge of far-away forecasting for the complex, and wildly popular terrain around Crested Butte.
He gathered a crew and started putting out daily reports that focused intently on weather forecasts for the valley.
“That was where we were really different. We started to pay attention to weather, not just the snowpack. We wanted to be a center that was providing information not just to the handful of aggressive backcountry skiers, but everybody in the community,” said Bernholtz, who also served as mayor of Crested Butte in the early 2000s. “Because of that focus on everyone, when we went out asking for support, we got a lot of money to keep going.”
The crew back then still put out avalanche forecasts in addition to its weather reports, relying largely on reports from skiers around the valley. Any time a backcountry skier submitted an observation of avalanche activity or hazards, their name was entered into an end-of-season raffle for a new pair of skis.
“Not crappy skis, either. We would buy them whatever ski they wanted,” Bernholtz said. “That helped us gather so many observations. That’s continuing today and … I think it’s better than it’s ever been. It’s exactly what the community needs”
Traffic up, but not accidents
In the past decade, a host of new tools has enabled skiers to more deeply probe the backcountry. Skies are wider. Bindings and boots are lighter. Snowmobiles have doubled in power, giving thumb-throttling explorers the ability to venture far from tracks and roads.
And with those advancements, avalanche forecasting has grown more professional and standardized. Highly educated scientists like Guy condense complicated scenarios into digestible, easy-to-understand messages for recreating masses. And the past decade of avalanche forecasting continues to have a tangible impact.
While difficult to quantify, there’s no question that backcountry travel in the winter has exploded in the last decade, with the number of users up exponentially. That’s evidenced in backcountry gear sales — especially this winter, with early season sales of things like avalanche safety equipment and touring skis up 76% over the previous year — as well as overflowing trailhead parking lots and ski tracks on distant peaks.
But despite the growth in backcountry travel in the winter, avalanche deaths have not really moved much since the early 1990s. The five-year average for annual avalanche fatalities in Colorado has stayed between five and seven for nearly 30 years, with a couple outlier periods where it peaked at eight and dipped to three. (The Crested Butte area is not immune to those statistical anomalies either, with four avalanche deaths since January 2019, including the burial of a well-respected local in December.) But the state and national avalanche fatality numbers have not matched the dramatic rise in traffic.
“So if you were able to project just on a per-capita fatality basis, I’d say we have reduced the number of fatalities by a factor of 10,” Guy said. “I think half of that is education and half of that is forecasting.”
The CBAC avalanche scientists used to travel on foot. Now they have two snowmobiles and even a truck and trailer to spread the forecasters across the drainage.
“Just keeping up with the Jones,” Acuff said of the adventurous skiers who explore his valley.