Forty years of forecasting and saving lives

by , Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Over the past 60 years, Pitkin County has been the leading region in North America for avalanche fatalities, with Colorado setting the dubious mark of most deadly avalanche state in the country, claiming nearly 250 lives. During much of this time, a small group of dedicated individuals has been focusing their efforts on understanding the science of snow, forecasting avalanche danger and working to educate the ever-growing number of backcountry users. The 2012/2013 winter season marks the 40th anniversary of forecasting for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), although the roots of the organization can be traced back to the 1950s and a small group of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) employees known as “snow rangers.”

A storied history

One such ranger was Art Judson, who is credited as the founding member of CAIC. Judson initially worked in the Arapaho National Forest, and by 1962 he had transferred to the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station located in Fort Collins. During his tenure there he helped to develop the Avalanche Warning Center, and by the 1972/1973 season his department was issuing daily avalanche forecasts and advisories that were transmitted to the National Weather Service via teletype. The job grew on Judson, who said, “The more people that got killed, the more I thought it was important.” 

Judson, who is now 79, credits a large portion of the initial avalanche research funding to the mining industry. With many mines located in slide-prone areas, the mining companies needed to protect their workers both on-site and as they traveled on roads to their jobs. According to Judson, after the president of American Metals of Climax witnessed a large avalanche directly outside his trailer at the base of a mine, his company began to lobby Congress for federal funding to understand and forecast avalanches. 

“Without American Metals of Climax there would be no CAIC,” Judson said.

At the same time, Colorado ski areas and the highway department were pushing for help from the government to protect their workers. As an example, Judson recalls receiving phone calls in the middle of the night from highway department officials asking for forecasts because so many of their plow drivers had been killed by avalanches.

In 1983 the USFS decided to cut funding for the Avalanche Warning Center, which prompted Knox Williams, Judson’s colleague, to shop around for a new home. Williams convinced the Colorado Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to house the organization, and CAIC was officially born, although it had been operating in practice for 10 years. Judson retired from the USFS in 1985, and Williams went on to serve as the director of CAIC until 2005.

First in the country, still unique today

Today, CAIC is located in Boulder alongside the National Weather Service. The 14 forecasters employed by CAIC cover 10 zones throughout the state, with seven of the forecasters solely dedicated to the highway avalanche program. An intergovernmental agreement dictates the relationship between CAIC and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT). While CDOT maintains the roads and makes the decision to open and close them as necessary, CAIC advises on avalanche issues and helps train CDOT staff. As such, CAIC receives almost half of its yearly $850,000 budget from CDOT. The remaining forecasters at CAIC focus on the backcountry, with three of them working out of field offices throughout the state.

This combined structure of highway and backcountry forecasting makes Colorado unique relative to other states, where the norm is for a state government to manage avalanche forecasting for the roads, and for the USFS to forecast backcountry avalanches within a given forest. CAIC claims to be the oldest public avalanche forecasting program in the U.S., and ironically, its history led it down the path of a hybrid organization that takes on the role of both the state and federal government, even though it receives no direct operational support from the feds. Ethan Greene is the current director of CAIC, only the third in its 40-year history, and earned his Ph.D is geosciences while studying snow microstructure. He believes his organization is able to maximize efficiencies because one group is using the same set of tools to analyze and forecast avalanches for both roads and the backcountry.

Recent legislation raised the possibility that CAIC would once again move, from its current home within the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS) group inside the DNR, to the Colorado School of Mines. However HB13-1057 was passed last week and signed into law on Thursday by the governor, dictating that CAIC will remain within the DNR.

Everyone needs friends

Even though CAIC falls under the purview of a state agency, it has a unique funding structure. In addition to the 50 percent of its budget provided by CDOT, another 25 percent comes from a severance tax paid by the extraction industries, mainly oil and gas. The remaining portion of the budget is supported through donations, primarily from the nonprofit Friends of CAIC.

Friends of CAIC was started by Brian McCall, a former backcountry guide and Aspen Highlands patroller who is now a CAIC forecaster, along with two others in 2005. Originally named the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center, within two years the organization changed names and transitioned from a local to a statewide group with a focus on avalanche education and the goal of fundraising for CAIC.

The life of a forecaster

Today, McCall is in his seventh year as one of the three forecasters who works remotely for CAIC and is responsible for the Aspen and Grand Mesa zones, with the Aspen Zone consisting of the Roaring Fork Valley, the Crystal River Valley, the Fryingpan Valley and the Holy Cross Range. A typical day for McCall begins at 4:30 a.m., when he prepares the daily avalanche forecast. The forecast is developed using data from the previous day’s observations, weather data and snow information from the National Resources Conservation Service’s automated SNOTEL stations. The end result is a daily report that can be accessed for free on the CAIC website, and users can also opt to receive it via email.

 Chris Council/Aspen Daily News
Brian McCall, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, teaches an avalanche awareness class sponsored by Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) on a recent Saturday morning on Richmond Ridge. A large portion of McCall’s job entails educating the public, and in this case he donated his time to MRA. In the photo above, McCall is demonstrating how to use a compass to determine the aspect of a snowpit.

Each report follows the same format, with the first section giving a brief written description of the highlights and dangers of the current snowpack. The second section gives an avalanche danger rating based on a scale of 1-5, with 1 being “low”   and 5 being “extreme.” This part of the report also includes a graphic depicting the five-day trend of the “danger rose,”  as well as the current day’s “danger rose.”  This visual representation shows at a glance the avalanche danger for different compass aspects, as well as the danger below, at and above tree line. The final section of the report gives a more in-depth discussion of snow and avalanche conditions, followed by a 36-hour weather forecast.

Although McCall tries to get into the field several times per week to garner his own snowpack observations, it is impossible for him to cover such a large geographic area. As a result, the forecasters at CAIC rely on observations contributed by the general public, the ski companies and professional guides. The Aspen Skiing Co. submits regular reports from Aspen Mountain and Snowmass, although notably absent is Aspen Highlands, which abuts Highlands Ridge and the Castle Creek Valley. However, SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said that snow safety patrollers there are planning to make more consistent reports in the future.

McCall emphasized that the lack of data doesn’t make his reports less accurate, but it does make them less complete, and he will often go a week to 10 days without receiving any contributed observations. Dirk Bockelmann, the general manager at backcountry guide service Aspen Expeditions, attributes the lack of reporting to several factors, including backcountry users who want to keep their special stash private or who are too embarrassed to report a non-fatal/non-injury avalanche they may have caused, even though it is possible to submit a report anonymously. When speaking of McCall, Bockelmann said, “We understand that observations are indispensable to him.” Bockelmann and his crew emphasize the importance of observation reporting when teaching avalanche courses, he said.

After years of studying snow, McCall has developed a conservative approach to the backcountry, and has never been caught in an avalanche. CAIC has implemented safety protocols for its forecasters, such as filing travel plans in the morning via email, using a GPS-enabled SPOT locator to check in during the day, and sending a confirmation email at day’s end. But in the end, McCall said that “you have to choose your days really wisely.”

In addition to forecasting, a major component of the job is education, which also includes investigating all avalanche fatalities in the state. Another CAIC forecaster, Scott Toepfer, explained that the purpose is to understand the human factors that lead to fatalities or accidents, and use them as a learning tool for all backcountry users, as opposed to assigning blame. Toepfer said the work is hard on the staff, because oftentimes the victims are peers of CAIC employees, but they carry on because they feel strongly about the value of preventing future accidents.

One of the first questions asked of avalanche victims by forecasters is “did you check the forecast this morning,”  and the answer is often “no.”  McCall estimates that 80 percent of accidents happen in side-country areas adjacent to ski resorts. Without a season pass, McCall faces logistical challenges in accessing this terrain to do his field work, although his friends at SkiCo help him obtain day passes and have been lobbying for a more permanent solution.

Research has shown that many side-country users head out without the basics: a beacon, shovel and probe. When it comes to avalanches, 90 percent of victims trigger their own slides, McCall said. Of those who are killed, two-thirds will die from asphyxiation, while the remainder perish from trauma.

The value of education

Backcountry use is virtually impossible to track, largely because of the sheer geographic size and number entry points. However, from an anecdotal standpoint, the number of users has been on a sharp increase as evidenced by sales of specialized gear such as alpine touring equipment and snowmobiles, not to mention visual sightings of more users in what was once an environment of solitude.

Dr. Karl Birkeland is the director of the Forest Service Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont., who along with Greene attributes the information provided by CAIC and the USFS avalanche centers with helping to mitigate the number of deaths in the backcountry, even as use is on the rise.

“If we look at the number of avalanche fatalities, they are rising, but at a relatively slow rate,”   Birkeland said.

Beyond spending their days developing forecasts and researching conditions, CAIC employees spend a significant amount of their time giving presentations and working to educate the public. For example, McCall gives several snowpack presentations throughout the season to the local nonprofit Powder to the People. Mike Sladdin is the organization’s director and founder, and estimates his nonprofit has made over $10,000 in donations to the Friends of CAIC in the last six years.

“The more educated we are, hopefully we are saving our own lives,”   he said.



Local avalanche resources

• CAIC website:
• CAIC recorded hotline for the Aspen Zone: 970-920-1664.
• Mountain Rescue Aspen: A free beacon park is available to the public at Snowmass on the skier’s right of Fanny Hill. Accessible without a lift ticket, the state-of-the-art park allows for beacon practice.
• Cripple Creek Backcountry ski shop in Carbondale: Backcountry avalanche talk on Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 7:30 p.m. RSVP to
• Powder to the People: Next backcountry awareness discussion is Friday, Feb. 8, from 6-8 p.m. in the Rio Grande meeting room.
•Grassroots TV: Backcountry avalanche awareness talks sponsored by Powder to the People are taped and available for streaming (use search term “avalanche”):