The Evolution of Mount Washington Avalanche Center Forecasts

As those who attended ESAW and recent MWAC outreach events have heard, our forecast zones are changing this year. The primary drivers of this change are changing use patterns, a desire to be consist with the use of North American avalanche danger scale (and other forecast center messaging), and a desire to provide information to folks venturing into other aspects and elevations around the area. Beginning this year, we will provide an avalanche forecast for most of the Presidential Range, shown on the map below.

Along with an overall expansion, we have reduced the number of forecast zones in Huntington and Tuckerman Ravine from eighteen to seven to more accurately use the North American danger scale in the forecast. Additionally, our goal is to have our forecast available online by 7am every day. We will also be rolling out some graphical products to help our readers retain the information, as well as to clarify the written narrative found in our text.

It’s important for you to realize, and to help spread the word, that expanding our forecast zone requires that we move away from micro-scale forecasting. Slope scale forecasting has been the historic norm here and has some advantages but also has a tendency to remove some of the decision making burden from the climber or skier. Rather than providing a danger rating for each gully, we will provide information to help you identify the avalanche problem type wherever it is found in our forecast zones. This will allow you to align your mitigation strategy to the terrain and the character of the avalanche (or long sliding fall as is, unfortunately, often the case). We will continue to provide an assessment of the size and distribution of the problem as accurately as possible and strive to effectively communicate our degree of uncertainty in our forecast. Now more than ever, you will need to perform your own assessments in the field to determine the size and distribution of the avalanche problem.

An earlier forecast means a more weather-based avalanche forecast. We will no longer be able to make field observations just before final decisions are made on the danger ratings. We will rely on the previous day’s observations, made either by us or by the public, combined with the usual weather products. Posting the advisory at 7am means that we will not be able to fine tune our forecast assumptions by looking at the terrain. This is nothing new for us since poor visibility often robs us of this opportunity. Essentially, you will need to use our forecast as a starting point for your own field observations when you travel into the terrain.

Forecasting for the range means that we may be slower to respond to a call for rescue. There is no guarantee that we can save a life even if we are in position at Hermit Lake or nearby in Huntington and ready to respond to a call. Asphyxiation in an avalanche burial is likely to occur within 20 minutes of burial. An avalanche death by trauma or by asphyxiation has roughly even odds. Our best tool to help people survive and thrive in avalanche terrain is to provide information and encourage safe travel. We hope that an earlier advisory, covering more areas which are seeing more use and more incidents will assist in better decision making.

In the past year, 96,430 people read our advisory on a personal computer, phone or tablet (compared to 17,000 users 10 years ago). Last year, around 48,400 people used their phones to read the advisory 118,000 times. We still post a printed, paper copy of our advisory in several places on the mountain, but very near to where we post it on the avalanche information kiosks (or slatboards as we call them), cell phone signals are strong enough for a dawn patroller or winter camper to pull up the advisory. While we intend to continue printing out a paper copy of the advisory, at least for another year, the practice doesn’t seem to make sense in the long term. Usually one of us, especially on weekends and holidays, will still be in the Cutler River Drainage, and at the Harvard Cabin, for face to face conversations. Wave us down and we’ll be happy help you find the right slope or climb that suits the weather and snow conditions.

Avalanche forecasters don’t visit every area they forecast! It just isn’t practical to visit every location in any range in the country that has avalanche forecasts. Workloads and available daylight won’t allow the trip to those low use areas which are probably seldom visited for good reasons. Our field days will likely follow hot spots of use. Though some places will rarely be visited by a forecaster, our forecast should still be helpful to you as you look for avalanche problems. Identifying patterns is part of process and keeping up with snow and weather history and the day’s forecast can help you stay out of trouble and hopefully find the goods.

What we need from you:

  • Observations – Tag us in your Instagram videos with snow and avalanche observations, send us an email or find us on Facebook. Your observations don’t have to be pro level, but a video goes a long way toward giving us some context to your observation. What did you find on the surface? Did you dig? Perform some stability tests? Did you get results but ski the slope anyway? Did you fall into an ice dam? All of these are great for us to pass along so take a minute and share your info. We’ll be creating a new tool on our website to make the process easier and to make your post public soon.
  • Support – Your time or money will expand our capacity. Last year, we asked for help with a power inverter and battery setup at the cabin and several folks hooked us up and accomplished in a few days what would have taken us weeks. At my talk last week in Portland, 20 people won some stuff, learned a couple things and ponied up four hundred bucks to Friends of Tuckerman Ravine to support our mission. We’ll need that kind of support and more in the future. We have plans for remote weather stations at several locations and we’ll be looking for support to buy and install them. Stay tuned for opportunities and don’t be surprised if you see an online beg-a-thon, auction item, or Gofundme campaign for remote weather stations in the near future.
  • Feedback – Positive or not so positive, we need to hear from you. Send an email to mwactucks@gmail.com

There are many pros and cons to the move but in balance, we think that the public will be better served by the new approach. The exception to the new plan will be the annual migration of skiers hiking to Tuckerman Ravine in the early spring. At that point in the season, we will circle our wagons at Hermit Lake and do what we can to provide for a safe experience for that crowd.  This will likely mean a return to the slat board to communicate the simplest safety messages. It will also mean a continued campaign to talk people out of sitting under teetering frozen waterfalls. This spring, you may also see one of us in the Gulf of Slides, the Ammo, or Oakes Gulf serving a different crowd. And you may see us training in Crawford Notch State Park when it is just too darned cold to climb in Huntington Ravine!

As we move into the season, look for these changes and give us your feedback. We will be looking for examples of what works and what doesn’t with our new products and approach.

Let it snow!

-Frank