On November 13, 1998, Michel Trudeau, the 23-year-old son of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the younger brother of current PM Justin Trudeau, died in an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. The high profile tragedy meant that Canadian Avalanche information centers would never be the same. In Canada, Trudeau’s death gave avalanche awareness national attention and, in turn, national funding. Since 1998, Canada’s avalanche information centers have been united under one well-funded roof known as Avalanche Canada (avalanche.ca). Today, because of that funding, Canada has more consistent, and certainly more widespread, avalanche forecasting and education offerings than the U.S. But it took the death of somebody famous to make it happen.
The information that local avalanche centers provide is critical to backcountry skiing. While it’s possible to safely navigate the mountains without the knowledge they deliver, it forces travelers to operate in a bubble, with only their personal observations of the snowpack as data points.
I routinely deal with both dynamics. When I’m ski touring around my home in Jackson Hole, I have the benefit of a vibrant U.S. Forest Service avalanche center that’s rich with observations and analysis from federally funded forecasters and their privately funded ski resort counterparts, as well as often daily observations from Jackson’s large guiding community. When I’m ski guiding in the Arctic, though, I’m nearly alone. There are no relevant forecasts. There is no clearing house of avalanche observations. It’s just myself and another guide operating without the benefit of any third-party review of our assessments. That knowledge gap means that even well trained guides go into defensive mode and stay there. Operating in such a knowledge vacuum is unacceptable for the growing backcountry skiing public. But outside of the ski touring hotspots of the Wasatch, Jackson, Bozeman, and parts of the Sierra and the Colorado Rockies, reliable observations and forecasting are few and far between.
As a ski guide, I’ve been trained not to simply rely on my own assessment. We arrive at our plans for the day only after an entire team of guides at the morning meeting reaches consensus. We pick the brains of our coworkers who were out the day before. I especially value the argumentative types, who disagree with my assessment—they expand my avalanche worldview. To guiding operations, avalanche forecast centers supplement that working knowledge. To most recreational backcountry skiers, they’re all they have. It’s the data you need to be an informed backcountry skier.
Forecast centers have your back. But in the U.S., even the big National Forest avalanche centers operate on shoestring budgets, augmented by the vital “Friends of” non-profits that help keep observers in the field. Elsewhere, centers are run with limited state funds or as woefully underfunded non-profits. Famed avalanche forecaster Knox Williams once wrote of this that, “There is inadequate government funding (at both the federal and state levels) to maintain these programs, so their survival depends on alternative and creative means of finance. This includes grants and donations, fundraisers, corporate financing, grassroots (individual) support, and fee-for service billing.” Knox, I need to point out, wrote those words in 1998. The same year that Trudeau died and Canada reinvented its system.
Until the U.S. pursues a similar path to Canada, your donations to local avalanche forecast centers are often the only hope of keeping the information flowing. Let’s not wait for a headline tragedy to elevate the issue. Go to avalanche.org to find your local center and then find out what you can do to help. Write a check, offer your field observations if you have the training, hell, bake some cookies for the fundraiser. Just keep the centers alive, because in the end that’s what they’re trying to do for all of us.