It’s just before 6 a.m. and Erich Peitzsch, the director of the Flathead Avalanche Center, is at his computer in his office at the Hungry Horse Ranger Station, scrolling through projected hourly models of cloud coverage across the valley. The sun won’t rise for an hour, and outside it looks like the stars are shining through. No clouds yet. But unless some roll in, the early spring sun could bake the mountains and create conditions for loose-wet avalanches, characterized by a release of unconsolidated wet snow or slush.
Peitzsch, who is crafting the day’s advisory, has most of it nailed down. Based on other weather data, the snowpack’s recent performance, and field tests he conducted in the Whitefish Range the day before, he’ll recommend that backcountry users look out for wind slab avalanches in areas where heavy winds have loaded the slopes up with thick layers of snow. He’ll also note persistent slab avalanches at higher elevations, where almost two feet of snow sit precariously atop a slippery layer of surface hoar. But he’s not yet sure if he should warn of loose-wet slides, or how much he should stress their danger.
Peitzsch and the center’s two other avalanche specialists, Todd Hannan and Mark Dundas, play this condition-analyzing, probability-weighing game every morning from November to May. Not quite like weather forecasting, avalanche forecasting is grounded in evaluations of the snowpack, reliant more on observation than projection.
Still, it’s their job to give skiers, snowmobilers, snowshoers, and other outdoors enthusiasts the tools to make decisions about how to move through the backcountry safely that day. And though the specialists often discuss their predictions and expectations in the evening, after returning to the office from the field, they also need to factor in overnight and incoming weather. That’s why there’s almost always a car in the parking lot and a light on in this office at 4 a.m., hours before the advisory publication deadline of 7:30 a.m.
By quarter past six, Peitzsch decides to include a wet-loose problem in the report, writing that if the skies remain clear as temperatures warm, they could become an issue. With space to include notes, the report is just as much about nuance and discussion as it is about the objective danger rating. At 6:20, he reads the advisory aloud for the hotline. He makes a few adjustments, checks a few more weather reports, and at 6:45, he publishes the report and begins to format the text and photos for a free, subscriptions-based email advisory.
“Then,” he says, “we start again.”
They repeat this process—field tests, discussion, and maybe a little head-banging or hair-pulling if the conditions are tricky—for every advisory, every day, which is a first for the Flathead Valley.
Concerned USFS rangers began compiling weekly snow condition reports in 1980, but for most of its history, the local center only produced one or two advisories every week—not for lack of want or need, but for lack of resources available within the finite Forest Service budget. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an average of 27 people die every year in slides across the United States, and Flathead backcountry users hope they don’t have to count one of their own among that number. More advisories means more informed—and, as the FAC hopes, safer—backcountry users.
Last year, the center produced a record four advisories per week, issuing reports on Tuesday, Thursday Saturday, and Sunday mornings. The center covers approximately 1,274 square miles, and includes the Flathead, Swan, and Whitefish Ranges as well as portions of Glacier National Park. It’s a region so big that Peitzsch, without the help of at least two full-time employees, couldn’t hope to fully study all the land, dig enough snowpits, and look at enough crystals to produce accurate reports on a day-to-day basis.
This year, thanks to additional funding from the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center, Glacier National Park, and grants from Montana State Parks and USFS Region 1, Peitzsch finally has that manpower. This fall, he hired Hannan, who spent two seasons with the center as a part-time specialist, on a full-time basis, as well as Dundas, who is new to the team this year.
Since ramping up the advisory schedule, Peitzsch said they’ve received “great, positive feedback. People are psyched. And for us, having that continuous flow, even though it’s a lot of work, it’s really nice.”
Now, it’s easier to keep tabs on the smallest changes in the snowpack, as well as longer-term trends. They can provide more precise, more consistent information. And though they start over with a fresh slate every morning, they’re not starting from scratch, scrambling to keep up with the constantly changing conditions.
“Our field days were a lot more chaotic, because there’s that hole in information,” Hannan said. “Not only was I trying to forecast what I think’s going to happen to the snow in the future, I had to backtrack and figure out what has been happening.”
That doesn’t mean the job is any less demanding now, though. Ultimately, Peitzsch and the others are scientists. Their hours are still long, and the rigor of the work means that their days hardly look like that of a leisurely ski bum.
“People think it’s all fun skiing and snowmobiling, but it’s not like there’s a patch of bluebird following us around,” Peitzsch said.
Though sunny days are few and far between, the forecasters regularly travel the remote backcountry for hours, stopping every so often to carefully study the snowpack. Equipped with knowledge of persisting trends, recent weather, and educated guesses, they head into the field with expectations of what kind of instability they’ll see, and they’ll search different aspects and different pitches until they find it.
If conditions and recent history indicate that there should be a buried surface hoar layer, and the first ten snowpits they dig show no sign of it, they’ll keep looking for information. It’s like a daily treasure hunt. And the forecasters are self-labeled dorks who can’t wait to see what the next snowpit will look like.
They embrace the heavy fieldwork. They welcome the challenge of sifting through the data and talking through their complexities to create a neat, informative product that appears on the Flathead Avalanche Center advisory page every morning, often long before the sun’s first rays even touch the snow.
For a daily report, visit flatheadavalanche.org or call the advisory hotline at (406) 257-8402.