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 are 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.

Why Are Observations So Important?

NWAC issues avalanche forecasts for a geographic area of roughly 15,000 square miles, mapped as 10 backcountry zones each with unique weather and snowpack characteristics. Monitoring conditions in such a large area as they constantly evolve throughout the winter is a massive undertaking that is always enhanced through collaboration. The best avalanche forecasts result from joint efforts between NWAC, professional partners, and individual community members like you.

Observations play a critical role in the avalanche forecasting process. As Maya Angelo said: “You can’t really know where you are going unless you know where you have been.” Observations define current conditions and validate the current forecast. The clearer the current picture is, the better all of us are able to anticipate what will happen next. When forecasting avalanche hazard, there is no such thing as too many observations, just a more complete picture from which to start. More observations can make patterns easier to identify, and often increase confidence in a forecast. Observations help avalanche forecasters communicate public safety information, and help all backcountry users make more informed decisions on where and when to ride.

Viewing and Submitting Observations

The Recent Observations page is a free public platform on NWAC’s website where users can view and share information about recent snow, weather, and avalanche conditions, as well as avalanche incidents. NWAC Staff submit observations to the page regularly, as do a wide variety of avalanche professionals throughout the region. Backcountry recreationists of all disciplines (YOU!) are strongly encouraged to submit observations. The Recent Observations Page was designed to allow anyone to share useful information, regardless of experience level or avalanche training.

Please be respectful when submitting information to the Recent Observations Page. Keep observations relevant and concise, and refrain from swearing, profanity, or including personal information. If you have information about an avalanche fatality, please do not post it to the Recent Observations Page. Contact NWAC by email at forecasters@nwac.us or call 206-526-6165.

How to View and Submit

You can view and submit observations using a mobile device or computer. Visit nwac.us, find the Observations tab, and select Recent Observations to view information and Submit an Observation to share information. In the submission form, fill in the required fields, answer Yes or No prompts, attach photos, and add any other pertinent information in writing.

What to Submit

Most Important:

  • Location, date, and what you directly observed
  • Avalanches you saw or triggered
  • The presence or absence of obvious signs of unstable snow like shooting cracks and collapses
  • Photos 

Other valuable information:

  • Weather observations
  • Snowpit and stability test results
  • Riding conditions
  • How steep was the terrain you rode/skied?
  • Which aspects or elevations did you ride on or try to avoid?
  • How cautiously or aggressively did you travel?
A skier-triggered avalanche (D2) that occurred 03/08/20 on Mt. Ann (north aspect, 5000ft). The avalanche failed within new snow 6-8in deep, 50ft wide, and debris ran 150ft downslope covering the uptrack. No one was caught in the avalanche. (Kit Moffit Photo) Information about recent avalanches you saw or triggered is most important. Include details about location, aspect, elevation, avalanche size/type/width/length.
Evidence of a human-triggered cornice avalanche that occurred 01/09/20 on Mt. Herman (east aspect, 5500ft). Two people were caught and carried in the avalanche, but uninjured. (Zack McGill Photo) A picture is worth a thousand words. 

When to Submit

Submitting observations in a timely manner is critical. Ideally, field observations are submitted the same day they were gathered. Snow, weather, and avalanche conditions are dynamic, and observations become less relevant and expire over time.

Thank you for contributing field observations. NWAC could not exist without your support and engagement. Your participation directly impacts the avalanche forecast and benefits the greater backcountry community.

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!

Beacons

We recommend using a modern beacon with 3 antennas, and no older than 5 years. 

  • Put brand new batteries in the beacon, check for loose battery terminals and corrosion. Visually inspect the beacon for cracks, screen damage, or other signs of damage.
  • Check functionality of toggle switch between Send, Search, and Off.
  • Perform a Function Check.
  • Perform a Range Check
  • Check your specific beacons model to see if there have been any firmware updates or recalls. 

Probes

We recommend a dedicated avalanche probe of at least 270cm in length. 

  • Toss the ends out and put it together! 
  • Inspect for any cracks or bent pieces, and for frays in the cord/wire. 
  • Tension the probe and check that the locking mechanism works well. There should be minimal play between pieces after it is locked.

Shovels

We recommend an extendable metal shovel.

  • Put the shovel together, and extend the handle. 
  • Check that the locking mechanisms work smoothly. 
  • Check for general condition and appearance, there should be no cracks or bent pieces as these could be weak points if digging through hard avalanche debris.

Helmets:

  • Check your helmet’s general condition, appearance and put it on, making sure the chin clips are functional.
  • Inspect for any cracks or dents, and make sure the internal connections and suspension system is secure.

There is no doubt that a helmet can help keep you safe, but it’s important to wear the right helmet for the activity. As a winter enthusiast, I typically rotate between a quiver of three different helmets: A ski helmet, a snowmobile helmet, and a climbing helmet. A brief understanding of what these helmets are designed for and their limitations will help you choose the right ‘lid’ for the day.

Look for the following ratings:

  • Downhill ski: EN1077
  • Snowmobile: DOT- FMVSS 218 and/or Snell
  • Climbing: EN12492

Additionally, the use of Multi-Directional Impact System (MIPS) technology is worth considering. MIPS allows the head to move inside the helmet, which can reduce the amount of rotational forces which may otherwise be transferred to the brain. 

Airbag Packs:

Put the pack on and check that all appears as it should, clip up the harness strap.

  • Put the pack on and check that all appears as it should, clip up the harness strap.
  • Check that all stitching, zippers and pack material are in good shape.
  • Deploy the airbag. Once deployed, check the airbag material for leaks or holes. Have a plan in place on where you can get a refill!
  • Refer to the individual owner’s manual for more details on what else to inspect, such as canister connections, battery systems, and their related components.

A Few Thoughts:

  • With all safety equipment, each piece of gear has a lifespan. At some point there comes a time when the equipment will need to be retired. 
  • Remember to practice with your gear! Practice makes perfect. Create good habits by practicing with your equipment the way you normally travel in the backcountry.
  • Most importantly at the end of the day, keep the big picture in mind. The end goal is to avoid having to use this equipment in the first place. Don’t let the fact that just because you are armed with all this safety equipment allow you to take higher risks in the mountains.

NWAC’s Statement on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Over the last year, as we updated our organization’s mission, we’ve held considerable conversation about our vision and our values. NWAC is a community-powered organization that serves many different user groups who access the backcountry in the Pacific Northwest. At times over our history, those groups, or cross-sections of them have sometimes been on opposite sides of policy debates, user conflict issues, and other contentious issues surrounding winter recreation. Last year we began the work to clarify our exact values as an organization to help navigate challenging situations: 

NWAC is…

  1. …Collaborative: We are a public/private partnership between the US Forest Service Northwest Avalanche Center and the non-profit Northwest Avalanche Center that functions as a cohesive team to achieve our shared mission and vision. We nurture our professional partnerships, respect their expertise, and constantly seek out new ideas, technologies and opportunities for growth.
  2. …Community-Powered: We are a community-supported organization; we exist because of the community of backcountry users and a coalition of partners, and we serve them with pride and gratitude.
  3. …Inclusive: We encourage and support all participants who recreate in the winter mountains. We aspire to be an inclusive and diverse organization, to serve and reflect the needs of an ever-changing community across our five core user groups.
  4. …Credible and Approachable: We strive for expertise and accuracy in our products, portraying the winter environment and risk realistically. We create opportunities to learn from and engage with professionals, to share the factors that lead to avalanche incidents. We advise, forecast, and report on avalanche information, risk, and incidents without judgement or shame.
  5. …Transparent: We serve the community with free and open access to weather and forecast data for safe decision-making. As a learning organization, we seek and value feedback on our products and processes. We strive to add a personal element to bring our organization to life for the community. 

These guideposts have helped us navigate the uncertainty of the current pandemic. It has also helped guide us in understanding our role in upholding systemic racism and what meaningful action we can take as an organization whose mission is to support people going into the winter backcountry. We believe fostering inclusivity is paramount. As an organization that provides messaging and outreach for all who recreate in the backcountry, it is through inclusivity that we can support systemic change. That belief is at the core of NWAC’s statement below, in line with our organizational values:

To Our Community:

We have always strived to create resources available to everyone, however, we acknowledge that we too participated in upholding systemic racism through our belief that we could not impact it and should stay in our lane. We recognize this ability to not see and to remain silent is a privilege. As part of our larger conversation around our organizational values we are examining our structure and looking for ways we can make concrete steps towards a more anti-racist and inclusive world. 

At NWAC we use voice and messaging guidelines to filter all our communications ensuring that our content, be it the forecast or social media post, is clear, expert, and helpful. When we reexamined these guidelines, we understood one of the key elements we have been missing is inclusivity. For too long the outdoor industry, especially backcountry recreation, has been a predominantly white space, with largely white voices amplified. We know that as an organization we have contributed to the systems in place that limit the vastness of the outdoors to one voice. The backcountry is for all and it is time the voices representing the outdoor industry better reflect that sentiment.

We will contribute to anti racist work in the outdoor community by focusing on specific areas within our own organization. We approach this with humility, acknowledging our own complicity and with the understanding that we will make mistakes. We will not let that deter us from continuing this work. We have begun with the following areas:

  1. Reevaluate our brand partnerships
    – Moving forward we are committing to only partnering with brands who share our organizational values
  2. Formalize our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee to a standing committee
    – We will vote during our August board meeting to move our DEI Committee to a permanent committee on the board
    – The committee will have members from the board, nonprofit and Forest Service staff, and we will be seeking out  DEI professionals to guide us
  3. Diversify our Board of Directors
    – We will integrate the work of our DEI and Recruiting Committees to expand the reach of our postings and reevaluate systems and processes that may have limited applicants in the past
  4. Hire and support a diverse workforce
    – Evaluate our hiring practices to ensure both language and process do not exclude certain groups, as well as creating a process that ensures we have the widest reach for potential applicants.
  5. Amplify diverse voices on our platforms 
    – Focus on partnering with a wider range of athletes, influencers, and brands to lend our platform to the Black, Indigenous and People of Color voices in the       backcountry
  6. Work to support and partner with other organizations that facilitate access and education of the outdoors to underrepresented communities
    – Dedicating paid staff time to volunteer with organizations that advance diversity, equity, and inclusion
    – Expand organizational support for programs and non-profits that reduce barriers to the backcountry for underrepresented communities
  7. In the evaluation of all programming we are including a lens of equity and inclusivity moving forward:
    – Reevaluating our curriculum’s use of language and imagery
    – Weighting additional programming towards underserved communities

We are making a commitment to enduring change. We recognize this is just a start and there are many challenging conversations ahead. We believe this must be a community effort and we look forward to working on this together. Please reach out to us with any questions, comments, or concerns.

Sincerely,

NWAC Staff and Board