TAOS – On average, 29 people were killed annually by avalanches over the past five years in the West, usually in the backcountry, according to the National Avalanche Center.
Most of those were skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling and 90 percent of the accidents were triggered by the victim’s activities in the mountains. Weather and wind set up the conditions for snow to slide, stressing “the snowpack to its breaking point,” according to the National Avalanche Center.
There are 13 regional U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Centers in the United States, a state-run center in Colorado and several nonprofit avalanche centers. There were none in New Mexico until now.
Two young men with a love of the outdoors recently launched the nonprofit Taos Avalanche Center to make the backcountry safer.
Five days a week, Andy Bond and Graham Turnage pack up their survival gear, slap on their skis and trek into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to test the snowpack using knowledge from their combined years of working and skiing in backcountry terrain. The information is posted on their website as Avalanche Advisories, where they can be checked by those venturing into the mountains.
Both men are well-versed in backcountry skiing and the snow science that is integral to forecasting the dangers of being in snowy mountains, beyond the avalanche control safety measures taken within designated ski area boundaries. Bond and Turnage believe their effort fills a vacuum.
“I felt like there was a need for better avalanche education in northern New Mexico,” said Bond, during an interview in Taos last week. “We have tremendous backcountry with a growing population of users.” Bond and Turnage sought help from Simon Trautman, an avalanche specialist with the National Avalanche Center, based in Bozeman, Mont.
The center’s website template was used to expedite the creation of the Taos website and “we provided moral support,” said Trautman. “Their products are very similar to ours and the public is getting the same type of information.”
Bond, 30, has been on the Taos Ski Valley Ski Patrol on and off since 2007, has patrolled in other states, been a mountain guide and taken snow safety courses. For 16 years, Turnage, 39, patrolled at a Montana ski area where he was an avalanche dog handler and trained two certified avalanche dogs. He has also taken backcountry trips and excursions around North America and Scandinavia. “I’m excited to be here using that experience to help us get the avalanche center really solidified into the community,” said Turnage.
The Taos Avalanche Center is about delivering timely safety information, Bond said.
“Throughout the West, most of the states have avalanche centers and there hadn’t been one in New Mexico, and they serve a really big role and purpose in terms of delivering education, as well as a safety product for the recreational users, which is something that we hadn’t had here,” he said.
Five days a week, one of them gets up at 4:30 a.m. and checks “all the weather online (and) look(s) at email observations that people have sent us, which have been a few at first, but now we are getting more and more,” said Turnage. “So we check that stuff and put together a product that we can post on our website.
“We take turns doing it,” he said.
Here’s a post from a Jan. 23 posting at 4:53 a.m.: “Human triggered Storm Slab avalanches remain likely today near and above tree-line and possible below tree-line on slopes steeper than 32 degrees. Natural avalanches are possible. CONSIDERABLE danger exists near and above tree-line. Some large and destructive avalanches could occur. Carefully evaluate the snowpack and the terrain, as dangerous avalanche conditions exist. Conservative decision making and terrain choices are critical today.”
Slab avalanches, in which a large block of snow breaks loose, generally cause more fatalities than other types of avalanches, such as loose snow avalanches, said Trautman.
Posting to the web may be the more cerebral part of the Taos effort. On the physical side, skiing into deep, fresh snow is just the beginning.
“A lot of times, Graham and I are out digging snow pits, and what that entails is looking at the structure of the snowpack, identifying the layers in terms of when storms came in, in terms of overall hardness of the snow, grain type, grain size and then we are also doing stability tests,” said Bond.
He and Turnage don’t use any special equipment, just hand tools.
“The stability tests are a good indication as to how much force is needed to initiate an avalanche” and whether a weak layer “is going to be willing to spread large distances,” he said.
“You are looking for an unstable situation,” said the National Avalanche Center’s Trautman.
Weather is also a key factor in avalanche awareness.
“A big part of our job is looking at the weather – the National Weather Service is amazing to work with here, and Graham and I are sitting in front of the computer and looking at weather. And, based on what we know, based on the weather, we can then interpret that into what’s going to happen in the snowpack,” said Bond.
Awareness of sudden changes in the outdoor winter environment are a key to staying safe, he said.
“Typically, new snow during and immediately after (a storm) is definitely a dangerous time, but really I’d say any rapid change” – also including warming, an uptick in winds or other weather – “really gets our body senses up.”
Funding to sustain
At the moment, Bond and Turnage’s nonprofit survives on funding from individual donations, but they approach it with a millennial-generation sense of innovation.
“I think of it as a startup,” said Turnage. “Yes, we are a nonprofit and, yes, this is community-based and community-funded. But I think of friends who have embarked on startups and they don’t pay themselves for a while and that’s sort of what we have been doing.”
The funding has started to come in, Turnage said. “We are getting to the point of being able to take home a paycheck,” he added
“Our theory is, if we put out the best product we can and the best information we can, financial support will come, and it is starting to come.”
The twosome knew this project would be a leap of faith.
“It’s been a struggle, but I know both Graham and I believe in this wholeheartedly, to get avalanche education out to the community and to provide the service, and I think the reception we have gotten has been tremendous,” said Bond.
“The impressive thing about what these guys have done is how much they have done quickly,” said Trautman. But he added, “These guys can’t work this hard forever, and they need funding and staff to continue the good work.”