Perilous peaks – Avalanche danger underscored by recent deaths |

Perilous peaks – Avalanche danger underscored by recent deaths

TRUCKEE – The well-publicized search for victims of the Jan. 14 avalanche near The Canyons ski resort outside of Park City, Utah, was officially called off last week. The deadly slide has, however, thrown a spotlight on the danger posed to backcountry enthusiasts by the lurking threat of avalanches.

By the time the search for victims of the avalanche was called off, only one body was recovered, but officials initially feared that up to six additional skiers had been trapped by the snow.

In the Sierra Nevada, warmer temperatures and a deeper “maritime” snowpack contribute to an avalanche hazard that decreases significantly after new snow has been on the ground for a couple of days, experts say. However, during a storm cycle or after rapid changes in the weather, the risk of deadly slides still runs high on slopes around Truckee and Lake Tahoe.

Bob Moore, the winter sports specialist for the U.S. Forest Service at the Truckee Ranger District, and Brandon Schwartz, the field agent responsible for hazard assessment, are the team in charge of issuing avalanche advisories for an area of the central Sierra stretching from Yuba Pass in the north to Sonora Pass in the south.

With the help of Diane Minutilli, a Forest Service information assistant, Moore and Schwartz keep the Forest Service’s Web page up to date with the latest avalanche hazard rating, as well as weather information and safety tips for backcountry travelers. They also update a code-a-phone call-in line at (530) 587-2158 which provides most of the same information via recording by 8 a.m. every day.

“We put out avalanche advisories and a snow conditions report on nearly a daily basis,” Moore said. “They are posted on our Web site, and we attempt to do it by 7 a.m. every morning.”

Those advisories are based on field data that Schwartz gets by backcountry skiing throughout the region, digging test pits to study the stability of the underlying snowpack, and calling other avalanche professionals and weather specialists in the area.

‘Snow’ how

A typical day for Schwartz starts at 5 a.m. on storm days or 6 a.m. otherwise. He will wake up and check the weather forecast and what has happened overnight in terms of precipitation, wind speed and direction, and temperature changes – all of which will form the basis for his avalanche hazard rating.

With a range from low to moderate to considerable to high to extreme, the U.S. Avalanche Danger Scale attempts to provide an easy-to-use system for classifying the types of avalanche conditions that travelers might experience in the backcountry.

After the forecast for the day is decided upon, Schwartz typically spends several hours out in the field, often in an area between Castle Peak, Mount Anderson, and the west shore of Lake Tahoe observing conditions at the snow surface and within the snowpack. Sometimes what he sees will convince him to update his earlier forecast, and those updates are posted to the Web site as soon as possible.

“It’s science to a degree,” Schwartz said of his job. “It’s a great intellectual challenge for me to try to be really accurate for all the other backcountry users out there that are going to be looking at the forecast and using that as the start of their hazard assessment for the day.”

Schwartz said he doesn’t know exactly how many people use the forecast, but sometimes he’ll conduct informal polls of other backcountry users when he encounters them in the mountains.

“I see them and ask if they checked the page in the last two days before coming out. And about 75 percent of the time they say yes,” he said.

Increasing need, decreasing budget

While the popularity of backcountry travel around Lake Tahoe has been growing rapidly over the past few years, funding for the Forest Service’s avalanche forecasting services has been drying up.

“The Forest Service, historically in the West, provides avalanche forecasting services for backcountry areas in Utah, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, California … wherever it’s needed. And it’s mainly to protect public health and safety,” Minutilli said.

But with a shrinking Forest Service budget and needs in many other areas, Minutilli said the avalanche forecasting team just hasn’t been able to do everything it would like in terms of forecasting and public education.

To help meet that need, a friends group called the Sierra Avalanche Center was formed last year to help the Forest Service provide its avalanche forecasts.

Modeled on similar groups throughout the West, the Sierra Avalanche Center’s mission includes getting the word out about current snowpack stability information to the public; providing educational information, knowledge and understanding of avalanches to recreational users and groups; and increasing communication in the region to reduce the impact of avalanches on recreation, industry and transportation through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.” (from Sierra Avalanche Center flier).

As a nonprofit organization, the center will be able to fund-raise and help with public education on avalanche topics.

According to Phil Caterino, president of the Sierra Avalanche Center board, “Once we looked at it, is seemed like the best way to [to support the forecasting] was to set up a separate 501(c)(3), which is the Sierra Avalanche Center, to work in a partnership with the Forest Service, so we could fill in the gap for them both in funding and on the education side.”

Caterino said the center can solicit funds to make sure the program continues.

“What we really want to do is set up an endowment so we make sure the program doesn’t have to go hat-in-hand year after year and season to season,” he said.


In the past nine years, more than 230 people – an average of about 32 a year – have been killed by avalanches in several western states, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. In all but one year of that period, California snowslides killed at least one person, mostly in the Tahoe area. Following are some of the recent avalanche fatalities in California and Nevada:

Jan. 1, 2004

Joseph Gashler, a 37-year-old cross country skier, was killed when he and a friend were caught in an avalanche in the Castle Peak area just north of Donner Summit.

April 26, 2003

A snowmobiler was killed by an avalanche in Charity Valley near Carson Pass in Alpine County, south of South Lake Tahoe.

Dec. 15, 2002

A 25-year-old snowboarder, riding out of bounds east of the Mount Rose Ski Resort, was killed by an avalanche.

March 8, 2002

One man died in the backcountry outside Sugar Bowl when he and two others triggered an avalanche by standing on an overhanging cornice. None of the men was wearing an avalanche beacon.

Feb. 21, 2001

Two teenagers were killed by an avalanche as they skied out of bounds between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Feb. 6, 1999

A 21-year-old man was killed when he and three friends were caught in an avalanche while playing in the snow near Donner Summit.

– Sierra Sun

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