Get to Know Your Local Avalanche Forecaster
Editor's Note: The avalanche conditions described are not current, visit CAIC's website for the most up to date information on local snow conditions.
Mornings for Jason Konigsberg, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center's (CAIC) Vail and Summit County forecaster, start early - and with lots of coffee. He typically is at the organization's Leadville office at Colorado Mountain College by 4:30 a.m., where his day begins by looking at what happened overnight (how much snow has fallen, wind and temperatures from the past evening), and any reports of avalanches or other signs of snowpack instability that backcountry users have submitted on the avalanche center's website over the past 24 hours. After taking in the most recent information about what's been happening weather-wise, he logs into a group meeting with CAIC forecasters from around the state to discuss what everyone's seeing with their particular snowpack.
"We talk about what we think the avalanche danger is going to be, we question each other, and overall, it’s a good collective thought process," he says.
He then confers with forecasters from bordering zones, like the forecaster who predicts the avalanche rating for the Sawatch range, about any similarities or differences between the neighboring areas, and why discrepancies might be occurring. From the data gathered by collaborating with peers and current weather information, he then writes the daily forecast that becomes (or ought to become) as habitual a part of a backcountry traveler's day as his or her morning cup of coffee. The average time the report hits the press? Sometime between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m., and nearly a pot of coffee later.
For Konigsberg, a comprehensive understanding of snow that has led to a career in avalanche forecasting may involve hours behind a computer - and countless pots of coffee - but is also born out of years of backcountry skiing, and being involved in avalanche mitigation work as a ski patroller in both Utah and New Zealand. After chasing winter for years and doing local, resort-based forecasting, he retired his avalauncher - a trusty explosive device used by avalanche mitigation workers - and joined CAIC to help with the public outreach side of getting snowpack information to backcountry travelers.
Information about Colorado's snowpack, which is displayed in a zone-based map via CAIC's website, is often useful for making life-saving decisions in the backcountry for countless skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, and other travelers who venture into out-of-bounds terrain. Each zone displays a color-coordinated rating system based on the risk level for avalanches, with a more detailed breakdown by slope aspect and elevation available by clicking on the map region. While early mornings involve time at the desk, fieldwork remains a crucial part of understanding conditions, taking inventory of recent slides, and collecting data from areas that haven't seen much input from the public.
"If you combine work and recreation, I’m probably out there 6 days a week, and for official work days probably about 3-4 days a week of field work," says Konigsberg, "I have a pretty stringent plan of what I’m doing on work days, and I'm digging more snow pits than I’m skiing."
The snowpits Konigsberg has spent time both digging and analyzing this season have told a different story than what he normally sees, partly due to warmer-than average temperatures, and the frequency and severity of storms that have buried most of Colorado for the past month.
"The normal pattern for Colorado is that you have smaller storms, and then you have big stretches of nice weather in between," he explains, "This year we’ve had a really dry fall, and not as many bad layers have developed in the beginning of the year from cold temperatures in between storms."
It's an observation that has forecasters like Konigsberg optimistic for this year's avalanche danger thus far, as Colorado typically has the distinction of having one of the more dangerous snowpacks in the world. Warmer temperatures and an incessant amount of snow have Colorado's peaks exhibiting some of the stability characteristics of the Pacific Northwest and northern California, both areas that see far higher snow totals than Colorado with - typically - a fraction of the avalanches triggered in Colorado. Although that optimism is by no means an indication that we're in the clear; he still advocates for caution in the backcountry because of some weak snowpack layers that can produce large, dangerous avalanches, as indicated by an avalanche forecast still rated as "Moderate" that has produced multiple avalanche warnings and some notable slides during the last storm cycle. One such avalanche destroyed a historic cabin in Summit County. Another covered both sides of I-70 - twice in one day. Yet another swept a backcountry skier off a cliff and onto a highway in Silverton, where he was unburied by a motorist who happened to be an avalanche rescue pro. The season is also long from over, and the rest of this winter's weather will determine what type of snowpack the 2016/17 season is remembered for.
"The good thing is that we’re building a deeper snowpack, and more snow over time is a good thing," he explains, "But, the weather will definitely dictate the rest of the season. What could be bad is if we go into a long two week drought period where we have sunny skies, clear skies at night, cold nights, and then we can see the surface rapidly change into that sugary snow - faceted snow on the surface - and then once we load that we could have a whole other problem."
The ensuing problem from such weather patterns is storm slab avalanches, built by heavy deposits of snowfall on a "sugary" layer that makes a slab of fresh snow on top slide as if it were rolling on ball bearings. Only time will tell, however, and in the meantime, Konigsberg will be digging pits in the back country, and looking for public input to help provide a more comprehensive analysis of what's lurking in the Vail and Summit County area snow.
"I think there’s a misconception that people think we’re looking for really technical information, but we look at the snowpack the same way everyone else does; we start at the top and look for recent avalanches and obvious signs of instability like shooting cracks and sounds of collapsing, whumpf-ing noises, we kind of funnel information the same way everyone else does," he says, "It’s the public’s forecast, so the information that they give us helps us put out a better forecast for them."
In the meantime, if you see Konigsberg around the Leadville area, or anywhere else in the field, you should probably buy him a coffee, or at least offer a bag of beans towards the unofficial CAIC coffee fund. You probably won't be awake when it's consumed, but it just might save your life.