By Jason Sumner | Photo courtesy of Zach Guy
If you want to know what’s happening with the local snowpack, best go outside and see for yourself. That was the line of thinking that spawned the Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC), which started in a basement in 2002. Previously, Crested Butte area backcountry users relied on forecasts from the statewide Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). The CBAC offers a more detailed local forecast.
Today, the CBAC has grown into a highly regarded three-person operation (a director, plus two part-time forecasters) that issues daily avalanche advisories, danger ratings, expected problems, travel advice, and a forecast discussion for the expansive backcountry zone that surrounds the famous ski town.
“This is no knock against what they do, but the CAIC does much of its forecasting from Boulder, relying on weather station information and incoming observations,” explains CBAC director Zach Guy. “Our local community was—and still is—really active in the backcountry and wanted a product that gives more precision on a daily basis.” The greater Crested Butte area also has a unique snowpack. It’s not unusual for the same storm to drop just an inch or two in town, while nearby Kebler Pass sees accumulation of a foot or more. “That makes having your nose in the snow that much more important,” says Guy.
The CBAC isn’t alone. The ways that avalanche information centers operate varies wildly by state and region. In some cases, an overarching organization with ties to state and federal government, like the CAIC or Utah Avalanche Center, takes point on all state forecasts—also with the help of a nonprofit arm typically tasked with fundraising. But in low population and broad ranging Montana, the forecasting is divvied up between regional non-profits, some of which are tied to the U.S. Forest Service and some of which are not. Elsewhere, non-agency, grassroots avalanche centers in places like Valdez, Alaska; Joseph, Oregon; and Flagstaff, Arizona, do similar work.
Funding for all these centers (government sanctioned or otherwise) comes from donations, sponsorships, and events, which all contribute to keeping local skiers safe. And a bonus—at some of the smaller centers— is that the community gets to contribute to forecasts. At Hatcher Pass, locals can enter in-field observations on the center website or tweet them to @H_P_A_C, while the Valdez avy center collects photos and snow profiles at [email protected]. The CBAC also solicits observations, which can be submitted via a form on its website.
If you’re an experienced backcountry skier that’s new to skiing in Crested Butte, Guy recommends checking cbavalanchecenter.org (visit the CAIC here for statewide forecasts) and exploring Mount Emmons and the Washington Gulch area. “Emmons has a ton of diversity, from low angle trees to big alpine terrain on all aspects of the compass,” he says. “Washington Gulch is a good intermediate zone where you can navigate safely or put yourself in the line of fire if you want.”