Team Of Experts Works Daily To Warn Of Avalanche Danger In Idaho's Backcountry

Dec 17, 2015

This week, an avalanche on Bald Mountain injured a skier who was out of bounds at the Sun Valley ski resort. When it happened, the avalanche danger in the area was “high,” which means human-triggered avalanches were likely.

Every day, snow science experts from the Sawtooth Avalanche Center head out into the backcountry to figure out the severity of avalanche danger.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Center. It started as a little phone-line operation, issuing backcountry avalanche advisories. Now, it’s a seven-day a week set-up, giving snow lovers a heads up to the dangers in the backcountry.

Every day the Center sends out an advisory rating the avalanche danger for places like the Wood River Valley and the Sawtooth Mountains.

Scott Savage is the director of the Center. He says his three-man team works from mid-December through April.

“Trying to keep people safe, or at least give them good information so they can keep themselves safe,” says Savage.

The Center is one of 14 U.S. Forest Service avalanche centers across the western U.S., Alaska, and one that’s back east.

“Our mission is to provide actionable avalanche and mountain weather information to backcountry travelers, recreationists and Forest Service staff members so they can make better decisions and stay safe in the mountains in the winter,” says Savage.

Here is a photo of the avalanche that injured a skier outside of the Sun Valley ski area boundary on Monday.
Credit Sawtooth Avalanche Center

There are three centers in Idaho. One is in McCall and one in the Panhandle. The Sawtooth Center covers the mountains north of Fairfield towards Bellevue and north to Stanley.

Savage says they go out early in the morning, around 4 a.m. to check the weather, including snowfall totals, winds, temperature and relative humidity.

“Then we create a weather forecast that’s specific for mountain weather,” says Savage. “Our aim and our focus is more on the 7,000 – 12,000 feet elevation range.”

Here’s a video from the Sawtooth Avalanche Center from last Friday, showing the avalanche conditions on Bald Mountain.

They look at all the conditions and check out observations sent in from people out in the snow. Then they assign a danger level for each day. Avalanche danger can range from low to moderate to considerable to high to extreme. Savage says it’s rare to see extreme danger.

He says his goal is to get the best information to the people who might be out in the backcountry.

“We’re not going to tell people ‘you can go on this particular slope and you can’t go on this particular slope,’ there’s always a ton of fun to be had out in the mountains and we just want to help you get some information where you can make more informed and better decisions and go from there.”

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