Blase Reardon, who starts on Friday as the state avalanche forecaster for the Aspen and Grand Mesa zones, is new to Colorado but has spent more than a decade studying the snowpack in other mountain communities.
His experience in Utah; Flathead County, Mont.; and Ketchum, Idaho has engendered a fascination with the science behind avalanches and snowpack, as well as a love of mountain communities. Reardon said he thinks that background will help him hit the ground running as he takes on the task of communicating avalanche conditions to backcountry users in this diverse, active and dangerous region. He takes over on Nov. 1 for Brian McCall, who had been the Aspen area’s avalanche forecaster for the last seven-plus years.
The Ohio native’s attraction to the discipline started when he moved to Utah for school, and took up backcountry skiing.
“As a skier, you either quickly or not quickly realize you have to learn something about avalanches,” he said. “I fell in with some good folks and it sparked a real interest.”
Reardon comes to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center from the Wood River Valley in Idaho, home of the Sun Valley ski area in the Sawtooth Mountains, where he was a forecaster with the Sawtooth Avalanche Center. The zone averages about 250 inches of snow a year, and like Aspen and Grand Mesa, sits on the edge of a desert.
Besides close-knit communities of mountain enthusiasts, the areas have other things in common, Reardon said, including a propensity for “persistent, weak layers” of snow. Caused by prolonged snaps of cold and dry weather, these granulated layers are the bane of backcountry skiers, because of the unstable, avalanche-prone conditions that develop on top.
While working in Idaho, Reardon said he honed his communication skills. In the avalanche forecasting business, experience is often measured in the technical “hard skills” used to understand the snowpack, but the public forecaster has to be able to communicate those conditions in concise ways that are engaging, he said.
Prior to Idaho, Reardon did avalanche work in Whitefish, Mont. During that time, he provided a daily avalanche report in the spring for crews in Glacier National Park who were working to clear Going to the Sun Road, a famous drive across the Continental Divide that is closed in winter. The air in the northwest is much wetter than Colorado, and Reardon became acquainted with deep, wet-slab avalanche conditions.
Similar to Independence Pass, the Going to the Sun Road intersects massive avalanche paths, and workers needed daily advice on whether certain areas were safe for plowing. The road “is a giant terrain trap,” he said, with sheer cliffs off the side.
The park is a big, wild place, and Reardon had the unique opportunity to spend a lot of time there in the winter. He saw grizzly bears, wolverines and other native critters, and “got used to skiing with pepper spray,” he said.
Reardon also worked with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Global Change Research Program, on a study documenting the shrinking footprints of many of the national park’s namesake glaciers.
Between Whitefish and Ketchum, Reardon got to work on his master’s degree from the University of Montana in glaciology. He is wrapping up his thesis now, which takes an in-depth look at a glacier in Glacier National Park, and how its surface and mass changes from year to year, based on the amount of water coming in and going out through the seasons.
CAIC’s winter forecasting season is set to launch on Friday, along with a redesigned website. Reardon said he sees forecasting, particularly for such a large area, as something that works best as “a kind of crowd sourcing,” where users report conditions they experience. Reardon also will be writing the forecast four mornings a week, and spending one day a week in the field. When he’s not writing the morning forecast, it will come from CAIC’s central office in Boulder.
“The way I see it, it’s my job to tell people the one or two ways they are most likely to die in an avalanche on a given day, and point people toward appropriate terrain on a given day,” Reardon said.
Due to its central location between Aspen and Grand Mesa, Reardon will be based in Carbondale. He said he’s excited to begin exploring the local mountains.