Field Observations: Sharing Information Helps Build a Better Avalanche Forecast

Video Tutorial

by Andrew Kiefer

A Community Approach

NWAC constantly works to improve and evolve the avalanche forecast to better serve the backcountry community. Our goal is to provide an accurate, reliable, and useful forecast for everyone. But, we can’t do it alone, and we’re calling on you for help. An essential component of the avalanche forecast is field observations – information backcountry users obtain during every outing in the mountains. Your willingness to share these observations is extremely valuable for the greater backcountry community, and an opportunity for you to help NWAC build a better avalanche forecast.


The New NWAC App

Robust technology and communications are crucial to ensuring we can give people the best access to our entire lineup of forecasting and weather products. Creating platforms serving our users like you is crucial to our work at NWAC. After all, the forecast, weather station data, and observations are only helpful if you can read and apply them.


Building a New Type of Weather Station

The NWAC mountain weather station network is the largest of its kind, and this fall we were able to expand our network even further. Adding a new weather station to the mix requires months (and sometimes years) of planning with a number of stakeholders, and requires significant time and financial investment. It is thanks to the support from our community that we were not only able to purchase the equipment but also increase the staff hours needed over the off-season. These resources allowed us to take on building a weather station unique from all others in our network.  

Maintaining and expanding our network of weather stations is key to our forecasting. “NWAC’s automated weather stations are the observations that keep on giving. When access to the mountains is difficult for us and our partners, the weather stations are there to at least give us some idea of what is unfolding,” said Avalanche Forecaster Andy Harrington. More stations mean better insights into what is happening in the mountains 24 hours a day. 


Recreate Like a Pro

For the vast majority of us enjoying days out in the snowy mountains is a hobby, albeit a sometimes all consuming one. So when planning for and executing your trip plans, you may not be approaching it from the lens of systemic rigor that those paid to work as snow and avalanche professionals do. But if you aspire to big days in the mountains, finding the best snow, and reducing risk while gaining reward, it’s worth looking at some of the big-picture practices that avalanche workers, ski guides, and other mountain professionals bring to the table on a daily basis.


NWAC’s Short Film: The Bottom Line

We made a movie! The Bottom Line is NWAC’s first short film and tells the story of what it takes to create an avalanche forecast. Avalanche forecasters Irene Henninger, Lee Lazzara, and Matt Primomo take you along starting in the field and ending at the computer synthesizing information into the avalanche forecast.

Click here to watch

Director: Nick Meilleur

Producer: Molly Scudder

NWAC Forecasters: Irene Henninger, Lee Lazzara, Matt Primomo

Additional footage: Tommy Yacoe

P.S. Can you spot any places you like to ride in the video?

NWAC’s Weather Station Network

By Andy Harrington

Did you know that NWAC manages the largest automated weather station network of any avalanche institution in the United States?

These stations are located throughout our forecast zones, providing tabular and graphical weather and snowpack information to not only avalanche professionals, but to our entire community. Snow depth, precipitation, temperature, wind speed, and wind direction are the core measurements recorded. Other measurements are available depending on the station. Currently there are 50 stations in the NWAC network; 13 of these stations are managed and owned by WSDOT. Many of these stations date back to prehistoric times when phone lines and paper chart recorders roamed the earth. We have worked hard in recent years to upgrade our network and nowadays, you will find cell modems, radio relays, and fast ethernet connections delivering us almost real-time data about what is happening in the mountains.


Other Important Gear

In Get The Gear, we review the three essential pieces of avalanche equipment: transceiver, probe, and shovel. While everyone must carry these three items, there’s other gear that’s also very helpful to have with you in the backcountry. Some items like helmets are for individual use while other items could be for the whole group.


Pre-Season Preparation

Photo by Scott Schell

Snow, rain, snow, rain, rain, rain, SNOW!

That pretty much sums up November and early December for anybody in the Cascades and Olympics itching for their winter fix. If you’re like us, that means you’re also impatiently checking weather forecasts, pulling out and prepping your winter gear, buying yourself early holiday presents, cutting skins, or tinkering with the sled.

However, one of the most valuable ways to prepare for the season is to refresh your avalanche knowledge base. Below are some tips from our staff at NWAC to shift you back into the backcountry mindset.



Winter Hiking and Snowshoeing in the Cascades

By Irene Henninger

If you’re keen to get out for a winter hike, the Cascades have got a lot to offer. No matter the season it’s a good idea to plan for your trip and prepare. The 10 Essentials, a list of critical items for survival, are the standard recommendation for taking with you on any outing. In addition to preparing for an unintended mishap, snow in the mountains can add another layer of fun and challenge to your day.

An unsuspecting summer trail winds through this valley, not far from Highway 2.

Early Season Safety Equipment Checks

By Matt Primomo

A safety equipment check should become standard practice for everyone. These inspections are easy to do and can be a great refresher. In this article we’ll do a run-through on what to look for and how to do these safety checks. You can use an equipment check as an opportunity to familiarize yourself and partners with the intricacies of each other’s gear. We’ll look at essential avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe) and recommended equipment (helmets and avalanche airbags). All said, keep the big picture in mind. The goal is to avoid having to use this stuff in the first place!

Avalanche gear and equipment. Early season must haves.