Skiers in the Aspen area submit fewer reports to the state avalanche forecaster than those in many other parts of Colorado, despite the fact that Pitkin County has the highest avalanche fatality rate in the state.
Two of the four avalanche deaths in Colorado this winter were caused by slides in Pitkin County, and avalanches have killed 44 people here over the last 60 years.
Yet according to data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), which employs 14 forecasters throughout the state, the Aspen zone forecaster has received fewer field reports over the last two seasons than forecasters in other Colorado avalanche zones with high rates of backcountry traffic.
“Quite a few from the Gunnison area, a lot from the San Juans, Vail, Summit County, Steamboat,” said Brian McCall, Aspen zone forecaster for the CAIC, as he reviewed a list of field reports in his Carbondale office on a recent morning.
“Certainly something we would love to see is just more participation from the community. We’d love to see folks getting more of a dialogue going about conditions in the backcountry,” he said.
Field reports, which skiers can submit by filling out a form on the CAIC website, might include broad descriptions of an avalanche event witnessed in the backcountry, or a detailed breakdown of the structure of the snowpack.
McCall says such reports make his daily avalanche forecasts more complete, and play a critical role in giving him a clearer picture of a zone far too vast for him to cover on foot.
The Aspen zone encompasses a huge swath of territory, including the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys, the Frying Pan Valley and the Holy Cross mountain range.
McCall typically rises at 4:30 each morning to prepare the zone’s daily forecast, which incorporates field reports, weather projections and data from automated snowfall measurement sites throughout the state.
As of late February, there had been 126 field reports submitted in the Aspen zone so far this season, compared to more than 250 in the northern San Juans and nearly 190 on the Front Range. Even the Summit zone came in ahead of Aspen, with more than 150 reports.
But perhaps most striking were the 300 reports submitted in the Gunnison zone, which includes Crested Butte. That’s more than double Aspen’s number, in an area with a smaller population.
“Crested Butte has a very intimate culture, meaning that most people backcountry ski at some level there, and everyone is in the same circle,” said Dirk Bockelmann, general manger for Aspen Expeditions, an Aspen-based backcountry ski-guiding outfit.
“It seems like in our zone it is so varied that you have these little niches. You’ve got your group that skis in the Marble zone and they don’t come up to Aspen, and vice versa.”
Most of the reports that McCall does receive come from other forecasters or professional guides like Bockelmann.
Aspen Expeditions’ guides share with each other avalanche observations over email, and every message is also sent to McCall.
After seven years on the job, McCall has a few ideas of his own about why the public isn’t more motivated to share what they see in the backcountry.
“You know certainly, we’re all busy, and I think it’s hard to take something that might be your weekend recreation and turn it into a little bit of a job in the evening, submitting these observations,” he said.
Britt Ruegger, a guide for Aspen Expeditions who also teaches avalanche courses at Colorado Mountain College, agreed. Even for a dedicated snow science enthusiast like himself, he said, it can be tough to squeeze in a field report between his day job guiding and night work in Aspen restaurants.
And Ruegger said there aren’t many backcountry users out there who are committed enough to snow science to file regular reports.
“People have this general, recreational approach, people who haven’t done as much [avalanche] course work, where they’re just kind of out, and they’re not thinking every day that they’re going to go home and file a report,” he said.
McCall said he has heard from some users that the process of submitting an observation to the CAIC website can be daunting at first. But the agency is designing a simpler form for next season, and even now users without much time can elect to send a “quick form” rather than a detailed report.
Another common deterrent to reporting from the public is that skiers can be territorial — those who know where to find the finest powder stash don’t often jump at the chance to share it.
“I know a lot of times I hear folks that are worried about giving up their favorite stash in the backcountry, and certainly they don’t have to do that,” said McCall. “They can give a very vague description of where they were at, even just a general drainage, and we don’t share information about routes either.”
Many local guiding companies in the Aspen area get around this problem by sending McCall their observations, but ask that he not include photos or descriptions of the areas where they were gathered.
That secretive approach is common in the U.S., according to Bockelmann. But in Canada, whose national forecasting system is considered to be the gold standard in the field, he said the guides take a different approach.
“You have various competing guide services that all share information with each other,” he said. “You wouldn’t see that very much in the United States. When you’re truly competing for market share, and you’re struggling to do so, you tend not to work well with each other.”
And Bockelmann thinks there may be another cultural reason why McCall sees so few avalanche reports from Aspen skiers. Even if they were caught in an avalanche, he said, some of them may be ashamed to admit it.
“There’s a lot of history here with amazing mountaineers and backcountry users at the top level compared to other places in the world. Because there are so many in such a small area, I’m sure there is that fear of being judged, should you just go out and have a close call, or observe a close call, or anything like that,” he said.
Bockelmann and McCall both agree that the CAIC could do a better job of advertising its forecast, especially to younger skiers, who statistics show are the ones most often killed in avalanches in the U.S.
But McCall says the biggest hurdle is for backcountry skiers to realize that when they submit a report, they’re not just aiding a state agency — they’re also looking out for their friends.
“It can be really valuable not only for the forecasters, but for your fellow backcountry travelers, for your buddies who might be skiing in a different area in the valley,” he said.
The daily avalanche forecast, along with field reports and accident reports from recent avalanches, can be found at www.avalanche.state.co.us .
This story was the result of a collaboration between the Aspen Daily News, KDNK Community Radio and Aspen Journalism, which arranged for funding for the story. A shorter version of this story aired on KDNK on Thursday. Log onto kdnk.org to listen.
Avalanche reports submitted
to CAIC, by Colorado zone
Avalanche Zone/Year 2011/12 2012/13
Gunnison 207 311
N. San Juan 396 252
Front Range 211 189
Vail/Summit 201 154
Aspen 110 126
S. San Juan 108 96
Avalanche deaths by county, 1951-2012
Clear Creek 25