The Evolution of Avalanche Forecasting on Mount Washington
Informing Safe Mountain Ventures
Intrepid backcountry skiers and snowboarders regularly ski in avalanche terrain across the Presidential Range for the entire winter and spring seasons. Ice climbers, winter hikers, and mountaineers travel in avalanche paths outside of Huntington and Tuckerman ravines. To meet the increased use and support informed decision making, the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC) has expanded avalanche forecasting to nearly the entire Presidential Range. Safety for everyone who enjoys this expansive area is the top priority; this article explains the details behind the decision.
FORECASTING AREAS - CURRENT VS PREVIOUS
The newly expanded forecast zone encompasses nearly the entire northern Presidential Range and includes seven consolidated micro-scale forecast zones in Huntington and Tuckerman ravines.
The legacy 18-zone micro-scale avalanche forecast that provided a route-by-route avalanche forecast for each gulley in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines will NOW only be used in the spring.
ackcountry skiing is exploding in the Northeast. Ski companies are investing in research and development, delivering innovative, lightweight, high-performance backcountry skiing and snowboarding equipment. Organizations such as the Vermont Backcountry Alliance and the Granite Backcountry Alliance are organizing armies of volunteers to develop new gladed backcountry zones across VT, NH, and Western Maine. On Mount Washington, skiers are increasingly expanding out from the typical Tuckerman Ravine ski routes and spring corn ski season. Intrepid backcountry skiers and snowboarders now regularly ski in avalanche terrain across the Presidential Range over the entirety of the winter season. Ice climbers, winter hikers, and mountaineers continue to climb and travel in avalanche paths outside of Huntington and Tuckerman ravines.
To meet the increased use and support informed decision making, the U.S. Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC) is expanding avalanche forecasting to nearly the entire northern Presidential Range for the 2018-19 season.
Historically, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center provided a daily “micro-scale” avalanche forecast for each of the main ski routes in Tuckerman and climbing routes in Huntington. Starting at 6 a.m., each winter day, snow rangers would analyze the latest weather observations, data from snow plots, and make visual observations of each of the 18 forecasted routes to publish the daily avalanche forecast by 8:15 a.m. Each route was assigned a danger rating of low, moderate, considerable, high, or extreme. The rangers posted these assessments using color-coded signs on “slat boards” at Hermit Lake, Harvard Cabin, and Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. The forecast provided further detailed information about the weather, expected avalanche problem, and other potential hazards for the day. These narrative-only forecasts were posted online and provided in printed form adjacent to the avalanche information boards. This unique micro-scale rating system allowed people with little or no avalanche education to make quick route decisions based primarily on the danger ratings without a deeper understanding of the nuances of size, distribution, and the likelihood of triggering expected avalanche problems.
Mountain travelers in the rest of the Presidential Range relied on their own research of the weather and snowpack, trip reports from others, and extrapolations from the micro-scale forecast to make decisions about avalanche hazards. Human-triggered avalanches continued to occur outside of the two popular ravines. Skiers, riders, and climbers getting an early start were often on the trail before the avalanche bulletin was posted. This micro-scale forecasting—which served its purpose prior to refinements in forecasting and avalanche education—was unique to Mount Washington. Other avalanche forecast centers across the Western U.S., Canada, and Europe provide mountain range scale forecasts that provide tools to understand the probability and size of potential avalanches across the elevation and cardinal aspects of the larger areas.
This season, the MWAC began providing an avalanche forecast that covers most of the Presidential Range, consistent with other forecast centers and the North American avalanche danger scale. The new forecast area includes the Gulf of the Slides, surrounding ravines and the alpine terrain accessible from the summit of Mount Washington, the western flank and northern edge of the range, and the avalanche slide paths and ice climbs in Crawford Notch.
Snow rangers make a detailed assessment for seven zones—replacing the 18 forecasted routes—in Huntington and Tuckerman ravines, and provide an avalanche forecast for the new forecast area with information on the avalanche problem, size, probability of triggering, and the extent to which unstable snow may be found in the terrain. Additionally, they provide a summary of the weather forecast with implications for changes in avalanche conditions throughout the day. The avalanche center has moved the target for publishing the forecast to 7 a.m. The new forecast also includes graphical tools to understand the avalanche problem, probability, and likely size to complement the written narrative. An observations page allows forecasters and the public to share photos and descriptions of avalanche activity and unstable snow conditions observed in the field.
The new system does not provide a danger rating for each gully or route; instead, it provides information to help people identify the avalanche problem type wherever it is found in the terrain. Publishing the bulletin at 7 a.m. requires forecasters to rely more on the prior 24-hour weather and previous day’s field observations, rather than a morning field observation.
The goal is to provide information that empowers climbers, skiers, and riders to make informed decisions, manage their own risk, and choose appropriate terrain for the day. Mountain travelers, now more than ever, need to perform their own assessments in the field to confirm the avalanche problem and select a route.
The avalanche forecast should be a starting point for individual field observations and decision making as people head into avalanche terrain.
Forecasting for the entire range requires that the snow rangers travel and observe the snowpack around the range. One trade-off for this is search-and-rescue response times for accidents and incidents in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines. Over the winter season, the rangers may not be in the Cutler River Drainage to respond immediately to an accident on weekdays. They do plan on anticipating busy times in the Cutler River Drainage and being close-by when possible. Additionally, there are full-time caretakers at Hermit Lake and Harvard Cabin that can initiate a search-and-rescue response. The snow rangers will still be in charge of coordinating the response and activating other search-and-rescue teams as the situations dictate. Winter travelers should be prepared to provide immediate first aid and transport for their own party and carry enough warm gear to wait hours for a rescue party to respond. The best tool to help people survive and thrive in avalanche terrain is to provide information and encourage safe travel. An earlier advisory, that covers a larger and increasingly popular area will assist in better decision making, reduced occurrence of accidents, and readers who are better prepared to understand similar forecasts when traveling to ski.
During the annual spring pilgrimage to Tuckerman Ravine, the MWAC will shift focus back to the Cutler River Drainage. Starting at the end of March or beginning of April, the snow rangers will circle the wagons at Hermit Lake and do what it takes to provide for a safe experience for the spring crowd.
This will likely mean using the slat boards to communicate the simplest message to the largest number of people in the form of slope scale ratings.
Expanding the scope and scale of the avalanche center’s responsibility will put a strain on already tight resources. The Friends of Tuckerman Ravine (FOTR) is stepping up to expand their support for MWAC and will be reaching out to the backcountry ski community for help. Making the full vision a reality requires additional resources and infrastructure. Every dollar that FOTR contributes towards infrastructure and operational costs frees up federal government dollars to pay for snow ranger salaries. Some of the short-term goals of FOTR include purchasing and installing snow telemetry (SNOTEL) infrastructure around the range. These sites will provide real-time snowpack data for forecasters, mountain guides, skiers, riders, and climbers to asses conditions and inform travel choices. Another goal is to expand operational funding of the MWAC to enable hiring an additional seasonal snow ranger.
Over the next year, FOTR will be hosting outreach events and ramping up fundraising campaigns to support the expansion to range-wide forecasting. The 19th annual Tuckerman Inferno pentathlon, the organization’s largest fundraiser, will be held April 13, 2019. Plans are in the works for a summer trail-running event on Mount Washington, and crowdfunding campaigns to fund additional SNOTEL sites around the range. For more information and to donate to support expanded forecasting in the Presidential Range, visit www.friendsoftuckermanravine.org.
Avalanche forecasters don’t visit every area they forecast! It just isn’t practical to visit every location in any range in the country that has avalanche forecasts. Workloads and daylight won’t allow it, and low-use areas are probably that way for good reasons. The MWAC field days will likely follow hot spots of use. Though some places will rarely be visited by a forecaster, the forecast will be helpful to identify and avoid avalanche problems. Identifying patterns is part of the process and keeping up with snow and weather history and the day’s forecast helps folks stay out of trouble, and hopefully, find the goods.
The MWAC Needs Your Help
Post in social media, and tag @mwacenter in your Instagram and Facebook videos with snow and avalanche observations. Send them an email at email@example.com, or post observations at www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/submit-your-observations. Observations don’t have to be pro level; a video goes a long way toward providing context. What did you find on the surface? Did you dig? Perform some stability tests?
Your time or money will expand their capacity. Follow the MWAC and FOTR on social media and keep your membership up to date. Answer the call to volunteer at events and service projects, support crowdfunding efforts and participate in outreach and fundraising events.
Positive or not-so-positive, we need to hear from you. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org anytime.
Mount Washington and the Presidential Range has world-class skiing, climbing, and mountaineering opportunities for prepared enthusiasts. As the conditions improve and avalanche paths develop around the range, snow rangers will be out in the field collecting data to support informed decision making in the mountains. When you see them, stop for a chat. They love to share their knowledge, help folks stay safe, and point people to the goods.
Catch this article in the Winter 2018/19 printed edition of Mt Washington Valley Vibe available at any of these locations around the region.