JACKSON, Wyo. — Skiers and snowboarders might not know that the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center's forecast includes no information from Grand Teton National Park's backcountry.
That could change this winter.
The Grand Teton National Park Foundation is fundraising for the $25,000 needed by Sept. 1 to install two new weather stations before winter. One would measure wind, the other snowfall.
"As a foundation staff and board, we have a lot of folks who are passionate backcountry users who could really see how this sort of campaign to add data to the existing avalanche forecast would really be something the community would be interested in and would like to support," said Maddy Johnson, manager of communications and development officer. "People in Jackson love talking about the snowpack."
Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center Director Bob Comey said adding sites will improve the accuracy of the forecast in a mountain range where conditions vary dramatically peak to peak, ridgeline to ridgeline.
"There are weather systems that come in that can affect the northern end and not the southern end and vice versa," Comey told the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
In addition to installing weather stations, Comey hopes to work with the park to have more interaction with park rangers and guides to improve the avalanche forecast.
More information can enhance what users know before they venture into the mountains and will supplement information from existing stations. Locals say they've seen an increase of skiers and snowboarders in the park in recent years.
"I truly believe this is value added for our backcountry recreationalists," said Denise Germann, public affairs officer for Teton park. "Anybody that follows the area knows that we always respond to incidents involving backcountry skiers, so anything to help improve information for them to make informed decisions about their recreational activities is a good thing."
The Teton-area avalanche forecast includes weather data collected outside the bounds of the park. Seven stations are checked daily at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, helping forecasters monitor 300 avalanche paths, as well as two stations at Grand Targhee Mountain Resort, on Freds Mountain and in Chief Joseph Bowl.
"As forecasters, we super heavily rely on what's happening at Teton Village," Comey said. "Always have."
Finding sites for the two new stations is anything but easy, and time isn't on the avalanche center's side. It needs to buy the equipment and install it before the snow falls.
Stations in the backcountry use spread spectrum radio communications, with a base radio at the top of the Aerial Tram. New stations must have a line of sight with the tram or a line of sight with another station that can act as a relay point.
Access is a major consideration for new sites. The stations consist of a tripod, heavy-duty deep-cycle marine batteries and other weighty components like solar panels. In remote locations the equipment could be flown in by Jenny Lake climbing rangers on other helicopter missions. But in the winter they're much harder to reach for maintenance, especially key for the snowfall stations. Remote stations will also mean more guesswork in gathering snow settlement information.
"The more often we get to them, the better data we'll have," Comey said.
As they say in real estate, it's all about location, location, location.
"If it's sited next to a dangerous avalanche path, we're going to tempt everybody," Comey said. "If somebody gets snuffed in an avalanche going to one of our avalanche stations, that's not a good thing. So ideally these stations will be mounted in a place where these temptations won't be present. I'm just as tempted as anybody."
Wind stations need relatively flat sites on ridgelines to obtain accurate readings away from artificially accelerated wind speeds, but they also need to be somewhat sheltered from westerly winds that can ice over instrumentation. Snow sites also need flat areas, often somewhat treed, for accurate readings that aren't influenced by drifts.
"There aren't many flat areas in the Tetons," Comey said.
Solar power feasibility and technological capability are also vital.
"There might be a lot of great sites, but they may not work with our communications scheme, and they definitely have to have sunshine," Comey said.
Comey is scoping out Steamboat Mountain for a snow station and the ridgeline of 25 Short or Maverick for a wind station as locations. If they work, Grand Teton National Park will conduct environmental compliance and land impact studies.
But even if the funds are raised and the stations are installed, Comey wants to caution backcountry users.
"It's not our goal to forecast for a particular avalanche path in the backcountry," he said. "We don't really have that ability. A single station doesn't tell you a lot about whatever is close to it. In a few feet, or hundreds of feet, in the next basin or slope over, you'll have different snowfall patterns."
Personal knowledge and skills are still essential for interpreting avalanche danger.
"Data from snow pits and data from weather stations is really difficult to use to specifically address the hazard on a particular slope," Comey said. "Data from these weather stations is best interpreted with respect to the general avalanche hazard. Everyone has to be their own avalanche forecaster, no matter what."