Avalanche Forecaster Saves Lives

Odd Jobs, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on January 16, 2005
Steve Groer Dale Atkins forecasts avalanche danger in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

To skiers and snowmobilers who venture into Colorado’s mountains, the avalanche advisories that Dale Atkins issues are potential lifesavers. As a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) in Boulder, Atkins’ job is to steer outdoor enthusiasts clear of danger in the snow-covered wilderness.

"Most accidents are a result of judgment errors, so we teach people to rethink the risk they are taking and its real consequences," says Atkins, 43, who has participated in more than 500 avalanche and mountain searches over the last three decades.

Atkins began learning how to avoid and survive snow avalanches when he was 14 and took the Alpine Rescue team’s introductory course. Located in Evergreen, Colo. (pop. 9,216), the 60-member team responds to wilderness emergencies.

"My first mission was to recover the body of a man buried in an avalanche on Guanella Pass (west of Evergreen)," recalls Atkins, a former ski resort patroller and Alpine Rescue member for 25 years. "It was an eye-opener. I felt that if I was going to stay alive, I needed to learn about this."

Atkins’ hands-on knowledge, coupled with a geography degree, landed him his forecasting job in 1987. As a member of CAIC’s 12-member staff, Atkins’ forecasts rely, in part, on his analysis of data from more than 40 statewide forecasters, who monitor conditions daily for unstable snow pack on avalanche-prone slopes. Then, CAIC issues avalanche danger forecasts ranging from low to extreme risk from November to April. The forecasts are broadcast on 11 Colorado radio stations and are posted on the CAIC website, which draws nearly one million visits each winter.

Atkins also educates winter adventurers about the dangers of being overconfident, as well as how to recognize unstable snow by the way it cracks, collapses or makes hollow sounds.

"Dale is a solid asset to our team," says Knox Williams, CAIC director. "He’s a good forecaster and does his share of our 90 annual group talks."

Avalanche forecasting is critical to saving lives in Colorado, which has averaged six avalanche deaths annually—nearly 25 percent of the nation’s total—over the last decade. The dry, sugary snow that falls in the state is prone to sliding, particularly after heavy winter storms and during early spring thaws. Thanks to CAIC’s safety efforts, avalanche fatalities have not increased since the late 1980s, although Colorado’s population has grown by more than 1 million people.

When people do trigger avalanches, rescuers locate victims wearing avalanche beacons by setting their transceivers to search mode to pick up the beacon’s location. They also use rescue dogs. If dogs can’t locate a victim’s scent under the snow, workers organize in grid lines and use 10-foot-long aluminum poles that they systemically poke through the snow.

"A person’s best chance of being found is in the hands of their companions because people rarely survive buried more than half an hour," says Atkins, explaining why it’s critical for backcountry travelers to know how to find someone beneath the snow.

Alpine Rescue mission coordinator Mark Mattivi of Evergreen, who joined the team as a teenager with Dale, appreciates his comrade’s "grace under fire." "At a rescue, when everything is chaotic and crazy, it’s reassuring to see Dale, who is always calm, cool and collected," Mattivi says.

While Atkins humbly discounts his own role and points out that rescue work is the combined effort of a network of emergency teams and crews, backcountry adventurers are fortunate to have avalanche experts like Atkins steering them clear of danger in Colorado’s winter playground.