The Layers of Avalanche Awareness
An Interview With Utah Avalanche Center Director Mark Staples
Karsyn is a writer and insatiable adventurer. She finds inspiration in the mountains—climbing, skiing, or running—and enjoys sharing her experience to get others outside. @karsynansari
“Good morning, this is Mark Staples with the early morning mountain weather and avalanche forecast for Thursday, February 6 …”
This is how I start every morning before a dawn patrol—by calling into my local avalanche forecasting center, the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center (UAC), to hear the advisory for that day.
If that reference to the Forest Service caught you off guard, here’s an interesting fact: The UAC, like many avalanche centers in the U.S., blends a government agency with a nonprofit arm in order to enable fundraising, help manage the educational component, and ensure the longevity of the center.
When you check the avalanche forecast before you head into the backcountry, the info you’re privy to is made possible by a team of forecasters who work tirelessly and get up early—like, really early.
Avalanche forecasters spend their careers in tune with the snowpack, tracking weather, documenting avalanche activity, and looking at data. When an avalanche does occur, they write up the report and communicate with transportation departments to keep travel safe for the public in avalanche-prone areas.
After having used his forecast many times to inform my travel decisions in the backcountry, I actually had a chance to speak with Mark Staples, Director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. With 13 years of forecasting under his belt, Mark has valuable insight only years of experience can deliver. Here are his thoughts on where we’re at with avalanche awareness and how sharing stories can make our community more avy savvy.
Karsyn Ansari: What made you choose forecasting as a career?
Mark Staples: I didn’t necessarily get into this because of avalanches. I got into this because I wanted to ski powder and hike out into the mountains. So I figured I better learn something about avalanches.
I remember so clearly—I think it was in a class—putting my shovel in the snow and digging a snow pit. And when I realized that everything I was seeing—all the layers in the snow—was a complete record of all the weather up until that point, I was absolutely fascinated and still am.
I got a degree in engineering as an undergrad and then I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I moved to Bozeman, Montana, and I learned that a lot of the snow science, a lot of the research in avalanches, was being done in the engineering department and I was just really interested in it. So, I decided to go back to school for a master’s degree in snow science.
What’s a day like in the life of a forecaster?
The short answer is it’s 24/7 of eating, breathing, sleeping, nonstop thinking about snow. It’s walking to your car in the morning, regardless of what you’re doing that day, and noticing the way the snow sticks to your window or where the frost is, and you’re thinking about what that means in the mountains. It means you’re on the phone with ski patrol or a guide service or other forecast staff at 7am or 7pm talking about avalanches. That’s really the heart and soul of it. Whether we’re in the office doing the forecast or out in the field collecting data, it requires constant attention and focus on the snowpack.
What can someone do to support their local avalanche center?
We rely on fundraising events, so participating in these events is huge. It’s not just participating in terms of economics, but it means participating to become part of this community. The other thing that can help us out a lot is submitting observations to your forecasting center every day you go out.
As much as submitting observations helps us, it’s also the greatest thing anyone can do for their own personal learning. Every day you go out, make some sort of relevant observation about the snowpack. Go home, think about it, submit an observation, and maybe attach a picture. It causes you to reflect back on what you saw, and eventually make your own forecast as you start to understand what you’re seeing and how it correlates to the weather.
With the huge rise in the number of people heading into the backcountry, do you think there’s also been a rise in avalanche awareness?
Totally—It’s the avalanche centers, the ski patrollers, the educators, retailers, manufacturers—everyone has been a part of this and it’s pushed the level of awareness up.
We’re still going to see accidents because we’re human, but overall the number of fatalities has remained fairly flat despite skyrocketing use in the backcountry. So there are way more people out there, but the same numbers are dying. That means the rate has gone down.
Maybe we’re lucky, but I think rescue technology is better and people know how to use it. People have more information at their fingertips to hopefully make better decisions. So, I’m hopeful. All of us in the outdoor industry and everyone recreating is doing a great job. But we’re human, so mistakes are going to be made, unfortunately.
In your opinion, is there anything we can do better in promoting avalanche awareness?
We’re still trying to figure out what we can do better. In terms of the avalanche industry, we’re doing a really good job because being smart about avalanches has become cool.
On a personal note, the one thing I wish we could find a better way to do is to share the stories of all these accidents. I say that because I’ve been to the scenes of a lot of fatalities. I’ve walked in the footsteps or the skin track of the person right before they triggered a fatal avalanche. I’ve talked to their friends and family who were with them moments before they died. And I carry those lessons with me, from every single fatality, when I’m out in the mountains.
It’s not anything super profound. It’s just simple stuff. I’ll want to zip across a short little steep section of slope, and I’ll remember someone who died doing the exact same thing. I’ll just take five minutes, put my skins on, and go up and around that section of slope. I would love to share these stories of accidents so we can all learn from them.
What’s one thing you’d like to say to backcountry travelers, new and seasoned alike?
This is from Karl Birkland, Director of the National Avalanche Center: The line between a slope that’s safe and one that’s not is very blurry. If you try and live too close to it, you’re going to wind up on the wrong side of it one day. So, you want to give yourself a margin for error. There’s so much we don’t fully know about avalanches, so you have to take that into account.