Winter has a story, each storm like a chapter in a book. We spend a day with avalanche forecaster Jeff Davis, one of the world’s best, to see how forecasters read the snow.
By Margaret Hedderman
“Not everything is face shots and high fives,” says Jeff Davis, though something in his voice tells me there have been plenty of both. “It’s also lots of endless hours, looking at weather models, early mornings and late nights.”
Davis is a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and for the last three winters, he has worked in the San Juan Mountains evaluating avalanche danger and providing daily forecasts. Backcountry users should be as familiar with the CAIC as surfers are the tide report. The state government agency produces backcountry avalanche forecasts for 10 zones throughout Colorado, as well as separate reports for highway maintenance.
Before landing in the San Juan Mountains, Davis spent four endless winters working in snow safety and terrain management, alternating seasons between the Southern Hemisphere in New Zealand and the United States. He’s managed weather stations, launched explosives at mountainsides and spent hours digging snow pits in pounding snowstorms. The challenge of keeping pace with the dynamic, changing nature of snow offers an eternal learning curve. It’s no surprise, then, that many avalanche forecasters hold advanced degrees and are continually pursuing more education. It’s the kind of job you never stop thinking about.
Forecasters like Davis put the rest of us proud dawn patrollers to shame. Arriving at work between 3 and 5:30 a.m., CAIC staff around Colorado hold a daily Skype conference.
“We discuss what we think the day’s hazards are going to be,” Davis says. “We search as much data as possible, so we can produce the best forecast.”
By data, Davis means an assemblage of weather reports, recent avalanche activity and field observations. Forecasters look at snow accumulation, wind speed and direction, and temperature to predict how the weather will affect avalanche danger. This daily meeting helps them produce 10 unique zone summaries and forecast discussions, three radio recordings, 11 tweets and a social campaign by 8 a.m.
“After the morning hustle, we head into the field to gather more info for the next day’s forecast,” Davis says.
This must be where the face shots and high fives come in: Avalanche forecasters ski or snowmobile into popular backcountry recreation areas to collect first-hand observations. Mostly, that means digging a vertical pit in the snow to analyze the effect of different storm systems and to see how old layers of snow are changing over time.
“We’re looking at signs of natural activity to see how the snow has been transported by the wind, listening for cracks or audible collapsing,” Davis says. “We use all our five senses when we’re in the field to get a sense of what’s going on in the snowpack.”
Then it’s back to the office to write field reports, make videos and start on tomorrow’s report. Forecasters like Davis strive to be as objective and consistent as possible when determining avalanche danger. Using the North American Public Danger Scale, avalanche danger is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 – low to extreme – and offers advice on backcountry travel and safety.
“We are all responsible for controlling our risks and choosing how, when and where we travel in avalanche terrain,” Davis says.
He emphasizes the importance of always carrying the correct safety equipment, taking avalanche education courses and using that knowledge every time you go into the field. Create a hypothesis about what you think you’ll find: Wind loading? Persistent slab? Facet/crust layers? After your tour, it’s equally important to debrief with your group and discuss what you found. Was your hypothesis correct? Davis also recommends reading you local avalanche report from Day 1.
“I like to consider the snowpack to be a book,” he says. “If you just flip to the middle of the book, it’s hard to know what’s going on. But if you start now and read through April, you’ll have a better image of the snowpack.”
Forecasting for the 2018-19 season began Nov. 15. This year, the San Juan Mountains will receive two new backcountry forecasters – one for the North and South regions. After three years in the backcountry, Davis has moved into a highway forecasting position based in Silverton. He will primarily be responsible for Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank passes – some of the Colorado’s most avalanche-prone travel corridors.
“We work as a big team,” he says. “We’re really lucky to have such a knowledgeable staff here in Colorado.”