The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 5, APRIL 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

Sun Valley Avalanche Center

1998:Through the looking Glass
By Janet Kellam

Extensive experience required in snow and avalanche studies, weather forecasting and interpretation, top notch winter backcountry travel skills required, must be creative in running educational programs with an emphasis on ages 6 to 65, be well versed in public relations, marketing and promotional events, have the ability to cheerfully pursue fundraising, have more than basic computer skills and* oh yeah, how about must have a sense of humor at 5 in the morning.

All of you recognize this job description for an avalanche forecaster. And I'm sure all of you recognize the passion that each forecast center exhibits in its daily operation. The Sun Valley Avalanche Center has had different names and forms over the past thirty years, but those involved have always had that same job description and passion. Sometimes the Sun Valley Avalanche Center has been thought of as the new kid on the block, but the Ketchum Ranger District has a long history of reaching out to the public with avalanche education and information.

History and Operations

The Ketchum Ranger District of the Sawtooth National Forest has provided a recorded phone message since 1983, that gives callers daily avalanche and weather conditions. Butch Harper, district snow ranger from 1963 to 1994, implemented and directed this small program with help from Rick Barker, Sun Valley Heli-Ski, the National Weather Service and the Soil Conservation Service. During his time with the Forest Service, Butch also taught basic avalanche awareness classes in the Sun Valley area. His programs were among the first in the country to reachout to the winter recreational user on national forest lands.

Butch retired in 1994 after completing an untold number of Forest Service projects that enhanced the Sun Valley community and surrounding forests. Doug Abromeit stepped up to bat as the Ketchum Ranger District Winter Recreation Specialist. Doug also directs the National Avalanche Center (NAC) including managing the military artillery avalanche control program and the Forest Service avalanche control explosives program. He provides program direction for the avalanche forecast centers in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming, and assists in unifying all of the regional avalanche forecast centers. Doug serves on the National Avalanche Foundation, the National Avalanche School Steering Committee and the Avalanche Artillery Users Committee. In spite of being involved in all of these national projects, Doug still manages to forecast one day a week and still knows how to find the best skiing! Prior to directing the NAC, he worked 10 years as the Little Cottonwood Canyon snow ranger and many years as a ski patroller and as a smoke jumper. Beginning in 1995-96, the Ketchum forecast program expanded to provide a more thorough avalanche and mountain weather forecast based on improved weather instrumentation in remote sites and increased field observations. We became known as the Sun Valley Avalanche Center (SVAC).

Sun Valley Heli-Ski (SVHS) provides an invaluable community partnership by sharing the expense and maintenance of the remote weather site and providing professional field observations. As more and more winter recreationalists take to the backcountry; the SVAC has increased the number of basic avalanche awareness classes, including on-snow sessions. SVAC provides daily avalanche hotline advisories on the Wood River Journal Link phone system. The advisory is also available daily at two different internet locations: through WestWide and CSAC. The advisory is based on data collected by forecasters, SVHS and volunteers. The center has close working relationships with the Boise Weather Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (SNOTEL), and Bald Mtn. Ski Area at Sun Valley in order to provide accurate weather and snow data each day. SVAC and Journal Link provide voice mail service for volunteers' observations.

The success of the existing programs, the steady increase in backcountry user numbers, the improvements in technology that allow users to travel into increasingly steep and hazardous avalanche terrain, and the community interest in and support for the Sun Valley Avalanche Center have been the incentives behind some key improvements. Forecaster positions are now Forest Service seasonal jobs. Rick Barker and Janet Kellam are the two forecasters carrying out the job description that you read earlier. Both have extensive backgrounds in snow study and guiding. Sandy Giltinan worked as a forecaster in 1995 and 1996 and now works full time with Sun Valley Heli-Ski. The Center is beginning to expand their educational programs to the youth of the community, and to reach beyond the skier community to snowmobilers, snowshoers, and anyone that lives in or visits a mountain community The goal of SVAC is to continue to operate on a level that matches or exceeds the quality of the leading avalanche centers in the country.

Butch Harper


The Sun Valley Avalanche Center (SVAC) has three primary goals:
1. Issue daily avalanche advisories and warnings to the public via the avalanche hotline and the internet.
2. Issue daily mountain weather forecasts to the public via the hotline and the internet.
3. Provide avalanche education and information to the public, through daily advisories, through avalanche awareness multimedia lectures and field sessions, and through media interviews and contacts.


Education continues to be an essential component of our operation. We are unable to meet all of our requests to schedule classes due to manpower and funding, but we take on as many as possible and we reach out to the public in many creative ways. The SVAC teaches an annual basic awareness class in Boise and a number of classes in the Wood River Valley. We are currently planning a series of snowmobile classes to be hosted by the Idaho State Parks and Rec in several locations statewide. We are beginning to get some basic awareness classes into the school system. So far the emphasis has been on grades 13 and 6. If all goes well over the next few years, we hope to reach out to most of the school children in the area. Some of our programs have just been accepted by the school board. A yearly women's avalanche class has proven to be very successful. The center produces and circulates a seasonal schedule of all classes in the area that are hosted by a variety of organizations (SVAC, AAI, Galena Nordic Patrol and local mtn. guides). We note any upcoming classes on our hotline. We also feel that we are able to reach out to all of our listeners by using an educational format in our advisory.

Hotline Operations

The daily advisory is written with a "tip for the day" and an informative synopsis. We have received overwhelming comments from our listeners in support of our style and information. The real challenge is to appeal to a broad audience; first time callers as well as experienced professionals. Our friendly approach appears to be working. Last season, we handled over 12,000 calls and an untold number of internet hits. (we have yet to get a counter on our daily web bulletin). These are not huge numbers when compared to the forecast centers in larger population areas, yet these numbers display an enormous per capita ratio. Approximately 12,000 people live in the Wood River Valley!

The forecast area includes the Wood River Valley and surrounding mountains from the town of Bellevue at the south end of the valley, to the headwaters of the Salmon River 45 miles away at the north end. Whenever possible, we offer information for the Northern Sawtooth/Stanley area and the Soldier Mtn/ Fairfield area. However, we do not routinely collect observations from these locations. Eventually, we would like to see satellite forecast operations for the Boise National Forest to the west and the Payette National Forest to the northwest. Both of these National Forests have large numbers of winter backcountry users. We often hear from folks in these areas that use our forecast to help interpret their snowpack.

The geographic changes from Bellevue (5,OOOft) to Galena Summit (8,700ft) and the surrounding 10 to 11,OOOft peaks create a varied snowpack as one travels up the Wood River Valley. The forecast area is broken down into three major zones in order to identify these differences and communicate them to the public. North Valley Central Valley and South Valley At times the hazard evaluation and snow conditions may be similar for all zones, most often they are distinctly different.

Media and Events

National, state and local media has been a great resource for reaching out to the public. This season, due to January's hazardous conditions throughout the western US, we responded to many calls for interviews and outings with state and local newspapers, television and radio.

National Public Radio featured the Sun Valley Avalanche Center for a 6 minute piece with Jill Hoyt on Morning Edition. In the midst of our field recording with Jill, a lone snowboarder came hiking along our trail and mentioned how every time that you went out in the mountains it was really a roll of the dice. No we did not pay him to say that! It couldn't have been better though, in the midst of showing Jill how it is possible to make educated, safe decisions in the backcountry.

NOVA graciously loaned us a copy of their 1997 production AVALANCHE! In December, our "Friends" group hosted a fundraiser theater showing of AVALANCHE! Earlier in that same week a local friend hosted Lou Dawson's history of backcountry skiing show We packed the house both times. Later this season, other slide show events are planned to help keep our presence known in the valley

The Avalanche Awareness Committee and Friends of the Sun Valley Avalanche Center

The Avalanche Awareness Committee is a group of local citizens who had the enthusiasm and dedication to assemble last winter and pursue a common goal. They were awesome and extremely professional in every aspect; we offer this group our heart felt thanks. Their mission statement is "The Avalanche Awareness Committee supports avalanche education and awareness in the Sun Valley area. In particular we encourage the community support for the independent operations of the Sun Valley Avalanche Center." The Awareness Committee steers the direction of the Friends of the Sun Valley Avalanche Center, which operates as a project of the non-profit Environmental Resource Center. Sound a little confusing? It is simply another example of being creative and looking to the local communities to help seek out and structure funding for avalanche centers.

The AAC produced a brochure which explains the goals, services and financial structure of the SVAC. This brochure was implemented in the AAC's fundraising mail campaign which achieved the committee's goal of nearly 15,000 dollars. This has now become an annual campaign.

The Wood River community has shown great support and enthusiasm for the avalanche center and we remain optimistic about continued funding and community partnerships that help keep it afloat. This is what it will take to be truly successful into the millennium. Just like all of the other Forecast Centers, we have had to be very creative in obtaining sufficient funding.

I forgot to mention: a forecaster's job description is that they are also passionate about powder skiing and the mountains. We have been too busy forecasting and skiing this winter to get a staff picture. We use a little more modern equipment than Butch , but we thought his picture would suffice!

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 16, NO. 5, APRIL 1998
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA