Montana Avalanche Center Director Studies Avalanche Risk

By PATRICK REILLY, Daily Inter Lake | February 26, 2018

Most guests at Whitefish Mountain Resort turned in as the snow picked up on a Wednesday afternoon. But wintry conditions are part of Zach Guy’s job.

To demonstrate his work, the avalanche forecaster pointed his skis toward a gentle slope near the Flower Point chair, pulled a folding shovel out of his pack and started digging. Looking at a chiseled cross-section of the snowpack, he drew conclusions that would escape an untrained eye.

“This layer right here formed during the last five days of dry weather,” he explained, pointing at a crack about 6 inches below the surface. “When you have dry weather, that generally means we have weak layers form at the surface…I imagine with the incoming storm we’ll see some stuff failing on this layer, but it’s not as large and problematic as I’ve seen in other layers.”

As one snowfall after another hits northwest Montana, differences grow in the snowpack’s weight, strength and density. As director of the Flathead Avalanche Center, Guy, 32, studies these layers – and warns backcountry travelers when they’re likely to “fail,” triggering an avalanche.

He didn’t always have the best sense of these hazards.

On the lift at Whitefish, the Colorado native recalled a less-than-auspicious start to his forecasting career. In the early 2000s, during his undergraduate days at Western Washington University, he and a friend headed up to Mount Baker Ski Area.

“They have terrain similar to here,” he said. “You take a chairlift up and then you can traverse out into the backcountry.” Neither he nor his friend had any backcountry skills, but they decided to leave the resort “because the powder looked good.”

As they were ducking under the ropes marking the ski area boundary, “a ski patroller snagged me by the jacket and was like,’Where are you going?”’

“Oh, it looks good over there,” he remembers saying.

“And he was like, ‘You guys don’t have any avalanche gear, clearly. Do you know what you’re doing?’ And we were like, ‘No,’ and they took me down and gave us a little 10-minute avalanche awareness talk.”

His interest piqued, Guy started taking recreational avalanche courses. After graduating with a B.S. in geology, he “decided to take a couple years off to just have some fun ski bumming,” then went to Montana State University for a master’s in snow science.

He handled safety for a cat skiing company in Crested Butte, Colorado, then worked as the director for the Crested Butte Avalanche Center. Last year, when Flathead put out a job announcement seeking a new director, Guy decided to apply.

“It was a stage of my life where I was looking just to see what else is out there, and I’m experiencing a new snow climate, new mountains, new people,” he said.

One of the avalanche center’s three forecasters, Guy puts out its forecast two days a week.

“We have to have the report out by 7 a.m., so when I’m forecasting I’m up at 4 a.m. … looking at weather, looking at observations that came in, formulating an idea of what I think the danger” might be.

Once he publishes and promotes the forecast, Guy sometimes handles administrative or outreach work. But two to five days a week, he heads into the backcountry to assess the conditions. The center has recently started using snowpack-modeling software, but there’s still no substitute for field work.

“We use snow profiles and stability tests to identify weak layers to assess how reactive they are and how deep they are…We can sort of estimate the size and the flavor of avalanches that we’re expecting.”

In an age when other types of forecasters rely on cutting-edge radars, sensors and computers, snowpack study remains remarkably low-tech and feel-based. At his demonstration pit on Big Mountain, Guy used a saw and taut cord to cut blocks from his pit’s wall; tapped on the snow with his shovel to see how the fissures spread; dumped more snow on top to simulate a storm; marked off the layers with Popsicle sticks.

He also takes a broad view of danger zones, photographing mountains’ avalanche paths for signs of activity. And sometimes, Guy starts avalanches of his own. After leaving his pit site, he skied up on a berm and jumped, sending snow down the side.

“I got more information from that one little rollover that took me 10 seconds to get up on than I did spending a half-hour digging a pit,” he said. “I can tell that layer’s gonna be a problem just by stepping on that slope and you can see it avalanching already. It’s only buried 6 inches deep, so imagine what happens when it’s buried 2 feet.”

Making these projections, he often relies on “intuition and experience and…guessing or knowing how the snowpack is gonna behave, and a lot of times we’re not sure, and we’re challenged by it,” he said.

The work doesn’t end when he stows his gear. He and his team then have to get the word out. “I have a key emphasis with my staff on how we write to people through our advisories … so that people can understand it, so that it’s clear and concise and simple enough so that people can go out and make their decisions.”

“Oftentimes we have a very complicated snowpack, so it can be a real challenge.”

Guy’s well aware of what could happen if they don’t meet that challenge. Montana avalanches have killed 72 people in the past 20 years. “I lose sleep over this stuff sometimes,” he said. “I might have 16-to-18 hour workdays sometimes.”

“But what keeps me motivated at the end of day is a) I know I’m helping people make safer decisions, and that’s important to me, and then b) forecasting avalanches is really exciting. It’s cool to work in a profession where we don’t know everything, and we’re still learning.”

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