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.


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.

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: