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Common names needed in backcountry

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I admit I’m a bit more of a snow dork than most. I can attribute this to teaching more than 60 avalanche classes the last four years and the fact that I dig snow pits constantly (I blame the need to dig on my inner landscaper). I do my best to send the Colorado Avalanche Information Center valid snow pit information and photos of avalanches I come across during my daily travels. As a frequent user of the CAIC, I feel compelled to submit observations when they are relevant. As an educator, I try to encourage students to send observations, explaining the reason why their information is so essential to the forecasting center.

On one hand, I’d like to share some statistics about the CAIC to inspire others to submit observations to the Avalanche Center:

• We have one dedicated backcountry forecaster for the Vail/Summit zone. Our zone is Eisenhower Tunnel to Eagle. One forecaster, 2,200 square miles of mountains to predict accurate avalanche danger. Our forecaster is also partially responsible for the Steamboat/Flattops zone.

• The Aspen/Grand Mesa zone is 2 million acres (slightly smaller than Yellowstone National Park); one forecaster, four 14ers, the largest mesa in the world and many more high peaks.

• The North and South San Juan zones are 13,000 square miles. One backcountry forecaster. Just for reference, the country of Switzerland is 16,700 square miles.

• The Front Range zone is 130 miles from one end to the other. The three main office forecasters, who run backup for the other eight zones plus other duties, share the responsibility for forecasting no less than four major touring areas (Rocky Mountain National Park, the Never Summer mountains, Cameron Pass and Berthoud pass).

You might be asking, what’s my point? I’ll paraphrase the sentiment of one of the forecasters. The expectation is that the forecasters give the public the most accurate information possible about the snowpack and avalanche danger in their targeted areas. However, the forecasters are limited to the facts they either gather in person, from beta submitted by various ski patrols or from the extremely limited observations submitted by the public. In order for the forecasters to get you more definitive information, we as backcountry users need to send observations for them to disseminate. When you give, you get more precise forecasts. I timed how long it took to do a basic submit the other day, photo included — three minutes. All the forecasters need is information on what you saw (in your own context), elevation, aspect and basic area.

The second matter I’d like to broach is the multiple names we have for various areas in our forecasting zone. Clearly information sharing is indispensable for all outdoor users in our area. Ice climbers freely share beta on our local ice, Nordic skiers let each other know when the Eagle-Vail track is “in” and we generally do a pretty good job on getting information out about the snow conditions on Forever.

Conversely, when we do see observations on CAIC about East Vail, Vail Pass or other local haunts, the names tend to be ambiguous. A few weeks ago, VSP reported an avalanche caused by a cornice (Cathedral Cornice) failure in East Vail (Gen X bowl). I’ve been skiing East Vail since I was a freshman at CU (which was a very long time ago) and, to be perfectly honest, I had to make some calls to confirm where the slide was. This led to me start thinking about the multiple names we have for various out of gate areas plus the Uneva zone.

I propose we do our first all-backcountry community event and come up with common names for East Vail, Uneva and the Shrine zone. Maybe this could lead to a greater sharing of observations about snow conditions in the backcountry which, in turn, would give our local forecaster plenty of information to make our zone forecast as solid as possible.

Kelli Rohrig


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