As backcountry skiers and snowboarders venture into avalanche-prone terrain in higher numbers, and as the global pandemic places additional strain on local health care systems, the importance of a detailed daily avalanche forecast has perhaps never been greater than it is entering the 2020-21 winter season.
The pressure doesn’t faze Blase Reardon, however, even as he steps into his new role as executive director of the Flathead Avalanche Center (FAC), replacing outgoing director Zach Guy, who this summer returned to Colorado after serving at the helm of the local center for the past four years.
With more than two decades of forecasting experience, Reardon has worked to promote avalanche safety in data-rich regions like Colorado and Utah, as well as data-sparse regions like Montana. Throughout the span of his career, Reardon has witnessed the transformation of avalanche-forecasts from telephone recordings to email blasts, websites to mobile apps and social media.
Prior to stepping into his new role leading FAC, Reardon served as the lead forecaster for the local center in Hungry Horse, and before that helped pioneer the avalanche-forecasting program on Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
He honed his backcountry avalanche forecasting experience at the Sawtooth Avalanche Center in central Idaho and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center near Aspen, while earlier in his career he researched climate change and glaciers for the U.S. Geological Survey in and around Glacier National Park.
Originally from Ohio, Reardon earned an MFA in creative writing at the University of Utah and has studied glaciology at the University of Montana, a pedigree that comes in handy authoring technical articles on snow science and glaciology and editing “The Avalanche Review,” among other writing projects.
Drawing from that breadth of experience, Reardon hopes to help fill some of the data gaps in local public backcountry forecasting while promoting informed decision-making in the backcountry.
The difference between his new role as a public backcountry forecaster compared to his job forecasting avalanche hazards for spring plowing operations at Glacier Park is “you can’t afford to be wrong in that job as an operational forecaster,” Reardon said.
“Here I can write an avalanche forecast and tell people exactly where the hazard is and people might still make the decision to put themselves in that dangerous environment,” he said.
“The pressure on me as a forecaster is to get it right, as right as I possibly can, because if I do my job well I might save someone’s life,” Reardon added. “And you very rarely get the feedback of doing something right, because the person whose life you saved may not even know that they made a decision that kept them out of an avalanche because they heard something in the forecast.”
The Flathead Avalanche Center operates through the U.S. Forest Service, although it also receives financial support from Glacier National Park, the Montana Recreation and Trails Program, and its nonprofit partner, the Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center. FAC operations are based out of the Hungry Horse Ranger Station in Northwest Montana, and include a staff of four avalanche specialists and a professional observer.
“We had many highly qualified applicants for this competitive role, and I am incredibly pleased that Blase has accepted this critical position,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele said. “The Avalanche Center, its services and our nonprofit partner Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center continue to provide a great service as demand for winter recreation increases in our community. We look forward to continuing to provide this valuable service, and Blase will fit into this role very well.”
Most of the center’s engagement with backcountry users takes place digitally, through its online platform at flatheadavalanche.org. The website houses all of the avalanche forecasts, observations, media, reports, and other information supplied by the FAC. According to FAC’s annual report, this past winter’s website statistics reflect the most dramatic growth since the site was launched in 2012, with a 43% increase in unique visitors compared to the previous season.
Website page views have more than doubled since 2015, and the list of email subscribers who receive daily forecasts surpassed 1,050.
The FAC also increased its social media presence, churning out content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube in an effort to reach a broader audience.
Another recent development equips forecasters with a more complete set of weather data with the installation of new weather stations at Tunnel Creek in the Middle Fork Flathead River corridor, an area that is extremely popular for its backcountry skiing access, but which was beset with a dearth of data.
Until July, there was a hole in the region’s weather data, with the nearest weather station in the Swan Range and in Glacier Park, leaving forecasters guessing how much snow fell in the Flathead Range until they ventured out in the field.
The new weather stations will monitor snowfall as well as wind data, bolstering the local forecasts with much-needed information in a data-sparse region.
“We are excited to hear Blase has accepted the position as the new director,” said Friends of the Flathead Avalanche Center Operations Director Emily Struss. “Blase brings decades of forecasting experience and an ability to engage with diverse audiences in writing and in storytelling. He has spent his life dedicated to avalanche safety and education, and we have no doubt he will continue to do great things serving as director.”
“We will miss Zach Guy and the leadership and energy he brought to this program,” she added, “but know Blase is a fantastic choice to fill his boots. Winter will be here before we know it and the team at FAC and FOFAC are excited to begin planning for the upcoming season with Blase at the helm.”
For more information visit flatheadavalanche.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Reardon had earned his degree in glaciology from the University of Montana. While he has studied glaciology at UM, he doesn’t yet have a degree.