Avalanche Center to Skiers, Snowmobilers: 'Friend Me'

Dec 19, 2011

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HOST INTRO: The Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center has a new friends group that aims to raise the center's profile and to enhance fund-raising from private donors. The center will also soon be looking for even more friends on Facebook. It's all part of an effort to prevent tragedies in the backcountry. Rebecca Huntington has more.

REBECCA HUNTINGTON: Snowfall predictions can make Jackson skiers and snowboarders act like teen-age girls at a Justin Bieber sighting.

(Screaming sound)

HUNTINGTON: Long-time Jackson meteorologist Jim Woodmencey played that noise to illustrate the Bieber-like mania that he's been hearing for La Nina. Indeed many of the skiers and snowboarders, who packed a Snow King Resort conference room, to hear Woodmencey's annual snowfall prediction, are hoping for a repeat of last winter. That's when La Nina, a pattern of unusually cool ocean temperatures, translated into epic snowfall. But Woodmencey, speaking at Avalanche Awareness Night, the ritualistic kick-off to Jackson's ski season, had a sobering message.

JIM WOODMENCEY: So this is similar, not exactly the same, but similar to the weak La Nina year we had in 2000-2001... And it was actually one of the most fatal years that we've had here in Western Wyoming.

HUNTINGTON: Seven people died in avalanches that year.

(Wrenching sound)

BOB COMEY: Got it, ok that one is ready to go the field.

HUNTINGTON: At the Bridger-Teton National Forest Avalanche Center, director Bob Comey is gearing up for a busy season. He's changing the terminals on a battery that powers one of 17 remote weather stations. He says the center's operations have increased exponentially along with advances in snowmobile and ski equipment over the past decade.

COMEY: That's enabled a lot more people with a lower level of travel skills in the backcountry to get into avalanche terrain really quickly. In fact, most of our fatalities occur very close to trailheads.

HUNTINGTON: While this avalanche lab is federally funded by the U.S. Forest Service, forecasters here also rely on partnerships, grants and donations. And thanks to private donations they've been able to enhance their services and more upgrades are on the way with the formation of a new friends group, overseen by 10 new board members.

COMEY: Well the Friends are providing the financial support to get this done, otherwise we'd have no chance, we'd have no funding for this stuff.

HUNTINGTON: Some of the biggest changes will include upgrades to the center's website.

COMEY: We've got a new thing just for field observations, so if you go out and see unstable conditions, which could be whoomp-fing snow, when the snow collapses... shooting cracks, blowing snow, you can go to our website, tell us where you went, when you were there, and what you saw.

HUNTINGTON: The center is also gearing up to use social media to help spread the word... Avalanche Forecaster Mike Rheam says he's excited to start using social media like Twitter and Facebook to update rapidly changing conditions like snowfall and temperature. Even so, he cautions that a meaningful avalanche advisory cannot be distilled down to 140-character tweet.

RHEAM: We want to give quick information and make it really easy for people to see right away and be posted, but we don't it to go down to these one-word definitions where it's moderate today or it's considerable today.

HUNTINGTON: Ream says backcountry users will still need to go to the j-h-avalanche.org website and read more detailed reports in order to make good decisions. Already, the center's website sees more than half a million hits each year.

HUNTINGTON: Back at Avalanche Awareness Night, snowboarder Shane Lindsay says he will be checking the website this season before venturing into the backcountry...

LINDSAY: I'm new to the backcountry since I've moved here, it's kind of a website that you check anytime you go out. You need to know what's going to happen that day or what the conditions are going to be like.

HUNTINGTON: One of the Avalanche Center's new board members, David Defazio, says the goal is to get as much real-time information out to as many backcountry users as possible.

DEFAZIO: They'll be able to pick up the phone or pick up their iPad and have access to the greatest amount of knowledge anybody has probably ever had the access to in any ski town. And they can make better choices, and hopefully you know we can prevent some tragedies that we've seen in the past.

HUNTINGTON: Ultimately, the fate of backcountry travelers will still be decided by how they choose to use that information. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Rebecca Huntington in Jackson.