“A nice story of Colin and the good work he does on RMP,” rŌbert
Highway Forecasters: Unsung Heroes of the Backcountry World
It’s a universal routine: Meet up god-awfully early at the only open coffee shop in town, get an Americano to go, a brioche to top of your breakfast smoothie, then spend way too much on a lunch wrap—again (you keep promising yourself you’ll stop). Blurry-eyed, you discuss last night’s plan, make some small adjustments, pile everybody’s gear into one car, park all the others in a two-hour zone for the entire day, and you’re off. Where to? The “pass,” of course. The ubiquitous ski-touring zone that nearly every ski town has. Maybe it’s Teton Pass, Kootenay Pass, Galena Pass, or Rogers Pass, but it’s where you’re going, and it’s within about an hour away.
The only obstacle now is it just snowed 6 inches; will the road be open? You jump on the sixth and final app you need to look at before launching out for a “simple” day of ski touring and confirm, yes, you’re free to travel. Phew. Thank Odin for all the good people behind the information technology you rely on to go backcountry skiing. But what about the people behind the actual road?
Recreational ski-tourers owe a lot to all kinds of support networks, but highway avalanche forecasters are, for some reason, somewhat forgotten in that mix. Maybe it’s because their job isn’t actually to facilitate the obsession that’s ruining your relationship, but to make sure everybody else driving that same corridor gets to where they’re going safely. And if a handful of granola-munchers get to use the road to go play in the problem looming above it, well, that’s incidental. Nonetheless, without those sentinels of the highway servicing the greater traveling public, we skiers would have much fewer options to go walk up mountains.
Colin Mitchell is one of those stalwart road warriors, and if you’ve ever nailed a day at Colorado’s Red Mountain Pass in the last 5 years, you owe him a beer. Mitchell is one of three forecasters keeping U.S. Route 550 rolling, along with making sure the little town of Silverton doesn’t get cut off from Ridgway or Durango.
“It’s not the glory end of the business, but it’s a lot more interesting,” he says, having traveled a fair ways from his humble ski-patroller beginnings at Eldora Mountain Resort back in 2002. For him, forecasting—along with teaching avalanche courses—was always the most stimulating part of the job.
“I started patrolling to ski and meet women,” the now 54-year-old avalanche whisperer confesses. “But I found out that the most satisfying part of the job is helping people.”
Having always been a stoked backcountry skier, Mitchell went from patrolling to ski-guiding, then, in 2012, landed a job forecasting at a mine in Chile because he spoke fluent Spanish (from working construction jobs and traveling). After that, he ended up forecasting for a spell in Gulmarg—a Chamonix-style backcountry ski station in Kashmir, India. There, he issued daily avalanche bulletins used both by the military and local guiding operations.
Ultimately, though, he wanted to settle down and have a home life, and highways offer some of the most stable and thrilling workplaces in the avalanche industry.
“We have 80 odd avalanche paths that are active on that corridor,” Mitchell explains about Red Mountain Pass. “It’s up there for highway corridors in the lower 48 … There aren’t many other areas that have this many paths in this small of a zone. It’s a very exciting mountain road—it’s varied and exposed.”
The town Silverton, where he lives, would be completely cut off in winter if it weren’t for the mitigation work that’s the core of his job (along with only two other forecasters for that road).