WE SUPPORT: Utah Avalanche Center
Long recognized as one of the best avalanche forecasting centers in North America, the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) has always held a special spot in the collective heart of Black Diamond. From calling in to the avalanche hotline in the early 1990s to receiving text updates on snow conditions and road closures today, Black Diamond employees (as well as backcountry skiers around the state) rely on the UAC for up-to-the-minute information on avalanche safety and snow conditions in Utah's mountain ranges, most notably in the central Wasatch. We recently sat down with UAC director Bruce Tremper to find out some of the history of the organization and what kind of issues they are up against in the face of one of the worst avalanche-prone snowpacks Utah has seen in decades.
BD: Bruce, can you give us a quick history of the UAC? How did it come to be and how has it evolved in the recent past?
Bruce Tremper: The Utah Avalanche Center started with a telephone recording at Alta in the late 1970s and it became a fully funded Forest Service program in 1980. Since I came from Alaska to take over as the director in 1986, the program has grown from three forecasters to eight and has expanded outside the Wasatch Range to Logan, the Uinta Mountains, the Manti Skyline and Moab. The budget has grown from $60,000 annually to over $500,000.
In the beginning, the forecast was just a paragraph typed onto the National Weather Service computer and a 30-second recording with one phone line. By the 1990s even 16 telephone lines could not handle the traffic, and nowadays it takes the Internet to handle the full spectrum of demand with 2.5 million page views per year. Each year demand for our services far outstrips what we can provide.
We started off this season with one of the lowest snowpacks that Utah has seen in decades and now it has morphed into one of the most touchy snowpacks, in regards to avalanches, we've seen in decades. How important is the UAC in times like these?
We have not experienced a year like this in the 26 winters I have been forecasting. In fact, you have to go back to 1976-77 to find a season with less snow. Thin snow means weak snow (because of temperature gradient metamorphism) and this season we have an astoundingly fragile and deep layer of weak snow at the bottom of our snowpack. Not surprisingly, this past storm that slammed a heavy brick on top of the tortilla chips created the most widespread avalanche cycle I have seen in Utah. And it's not over. These are called "persistent" weak layers for a reason. They will continue to produce avalanches for many days after they are loaded with weight.
People in Colorado are used to this kind of snowpack, but Utah has not seen these kinds of conditions in many years. Unfortunately, many people are habituated to the very stable snow we had last season and they will just have to learn the hard way that steep slopes are just no-go terrain, most likely for the rest of the season.
During our last avalanche warning, we were very psyched that very few people ventured into steep backcountry terrain. The Utah Avalanche Center clearly saves lives during times of high avalanche hazard. Unfortunately, most fatalities occur when the hazard starts creeping down and backcountry travelers start creeping into progressively more extreme terrain. Persistent weak layers have to be matched by equally persistent patience. Starved powder hounds don't do patience very well.
How much does the UAC rely on outside support? How important is it for companies like Black Diamond to support the UAC?
The UAC is a partnership between the Forest Service and the non-profit group the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center. Only 17 percent of the total funding comes from the Forest Service. Over half the funding comes from private fundraising through the Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center and the rest from various state and county governments including Utah State Parks, Utah Public Safety, Salt Lake County and Salt County United Fire Authority.
The fundraiser party each September put on by Black Diamond is by far the largest fundraising event for the UAC, which raises over $60,000. It has the reputation as the best party of the year. Black Diamond has been a major financial supporter of the UAC for the past 15 years and we-and the backcountry community-are eternally grateful.
We're grateful for the UAC and what you do, Bruce. Anything else you want to throw out there to our readers?
We find that people have an insatiable appetite for good avalanche information and education. But despite our best efforts, we just can't keep up. The equipment keeps getting better, allowing more and more people to easily access the backcountry and it seems like every five years, there are twice as many people venturing into dangerous backcountry avalanche terrain. We need help and lots of it.
We find that we don't have a forecasting problem; we have a marketing problem. We've had to learn the tools of marketing, social media, advertising, risk communication and videos production. We're avalanche forecasters so we've had to quickly reinvent ourselves. We need help to navigate this unfamiliar terrain. We're looking for help from advertising agencies, marketing departments, television stations, video production companies and communication experts.
To learn more about the Utah Avalanche Center, what they offer, and how you can get involved, please visit utahavalanchecenter.org