From the Lead Snow Ranger

Welcome and thank you for visiting our website developed in partnership between the US Forest Service’s Mount Washington Avalanche Center (MWAC) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (MWVSP). The goal of our organization and this site is to increase visitor safety on Mount Washington during the snow covered months.

The MWAC is operated by the Androscoggin Ranger District of the White Mountain National Forest and is the only American avalanche center east of the Rockies. With the rich history of skiing and climbing here, it is also the oldest backcountry forecasting program in the country.

The Center’s public safety priorities are three fold:Slatboard

  1. Our first and main focus from Oct/Nov until the end of May is the daily Avalanche Advisory for multiple forecast areas in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines. Once  the daily advisory is complete, our minds shift to field time and data collection for the following day’s advisory.
  2. The greatest difference between the MWAC and other avalanche centers in the west is our responsibility as the lead agency for Search and Rescue. On December 1st of each year the Forest Service takes over responsibility from the State of New Hampshire for all incidents in the Cutler River Drainage on the east side of Mt. Washington which includes our entire avalanche forecast area.
  3. Our third emphasis is as an eastern professional avalanche resource for anyone who needs assistance. This entails reviewing university projects, giving talks and slide shows, participating in avalanche courses, assisting reporters, working with our volunteer search and rescue groups, etc. We reach out to the public with presentations on rescue, snow science and mountain safety in multiple venues including the Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop.

For all of the Snow Rangers we never could have imagined being in an avalanche forecaster/rescuer role for a federal agency, but in hindsight it all makes sense. Love of the natural world, outdoor pursuits, and helping people have, one by one, sent us down the path of public service. Doing work we enjoy and making a positive difference for tens of thousands of people each season keeps us motivated. Succeeding as a Snow Ranger for the Mount Washington Avalanche Center takes more than technical skills, it takes a true concern and compassion for the visiting public. It accentuates the Forest Service mission of “Caring for the land and serving people”.

Nationally, the role of Snow Rangers has changed dramatically over the years, from field going forecasters and avalanche control specialists to administrating permits for ski areas on public lands. Retired USFS Snow Rangers visiting from Jackson Hole and Little Cottonwood Canyon have commented that we have a unique and special program that incorporates tradition and technology. We have kept important aspects of our tradition to provide the best service to our unique concentrated high visitor use.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s focus on field contacts with climbers, skiers, hikers, and riders to pass along recommendations and safety information is the core of our daily program. We believe these interactions are the best way to connect visitors with the land while making them aware of the multiple hazards they may encounter. Our ability to improve and meet varying demands is directly related to your questions, feedback, and suggestions over the years. Ultimately we are here for you, so always feel comfortable approaching us and asking any questions you may have. Please come back to frequently to get the latest mountain hazards and snow stability information. We look forward to seeing you in the mountains!

Frank Carus, Lead Snow Ranger

Mount Washington Avalanche Center – How we generate our forecasts 

Our days regularly begin at home in the pre-dawn hours, analyzing weather reports and forecasts. We’ll take this info with us to Pinkham Notch for a forecasters meeting at 6:30am. We’ll talk about the snowpack and weather forecast, and update each other if we’re coming back in after a couple days off, then head up the mountain as soon as we can.

Usually, we head into Huntington Ravine first. We’ll go as far as we safely can, in order to take a look at the gullies. We’re typically looking for evidence of avalanche activity, new wind-loaded snow, old wind-scoured snow, and anything else that will help steer us toward making an accurate assessment of the conditions. We also collect snow and weather information from a snow plot that we maintain with the caretakers at Harvard Cabin. We then take all of this information and post a forecast specific to Huntington Ravine at the Harvard Cabin.

The next stop is Tuckerman Ravine. Here we look for the same types of things we looked for in Huntington. We also maintain a snow study plot at Hermit Lake where we measure the snow depth, snow density, crystal types, temperature, etc. All of our snow and weather data is observed and recorded in accordance with the Snow Weather and Avalanche Observational Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the United States (SWAG). Often, there is a difference between the snow and conditions reported at the summit and what is found at our snow plots. All of the information we’ve collected throughout the morning, along with recent field observations and a long history of forecasting in the Ravines, gives us a picture of how dangerous the snowpack might be.

After we post the advisories, we may hike or ski up into the ravines to get our hands into the snow. There’s no better data to collect than  firsthand observation. Unfortunately, unstable conditions or low visibility don’t allow us to do this every day. These observations are significant information for the forecast we’ll put out the following day.

Schedule of forecasts
Winter often arrives early in the mountains and we start issuing advisories or a general bulletin as soon as the snowpack has the potential to produce significant avalanches. Usually, the season will start with “Information” postings, then we usually issue a General Bulletin as snowfields begin to grow. Each General Bulletin is posted for no more than three days, after which a new one will be issued. General Bulletins are issued when instabilities are isolated throughout the entire forecast area. It’s important to realize that avalanche activity may occur within these locations before a 5-scale forecast is issued.

When the threat of instabilities exceeds isolated locations within the forecast area, we will move to issuing advisories using the 5-Scale Danger Rating System. You’ll notice on every 5-scale advisory there is an expiration date and time. This is to ensure that you know you are receiving the most accurate and up-to-date information we have. Each advisory will expire at midnight on the day it was posted.

Another tool for you is the “Weekend Update”, a blog post sometimes issued on Friday afternoons during the spring ski season. This is supplementary information designed to help people plan for their weekend. It’s important to note that the Weekend Update does not replace the posted Avalanche Advisory; it is a supplement to it containing the most recent information we have. Social media provides another format for sharing information and our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter feeds are a good way to add one more piece to your trip planning puzzle.

It is important to understand that our advisories are intended to be used as tools to help you make your own decisions in avalanche terrain. They should be used along with safe travel techniques, snow stability assessments, an understanding of weather’s effect on the snowpack, and proficiency in avalanche rescue should your assessments prove wrong. As the field of snow science grows and backcountry travellers continue to become educated in the basics of avalanche safety, we will try to stay current and provide the most accurate information that we can to help you make better decisions in the mountains.