Since entering CU
's journalism school (many thanks to those of you that helped with my application) I've been taking all upper-division classes, one of which is is an extensive reporting class. I was particularly happy with how this article came out, so here it is:
Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow
Scott Toepfer wakes up two days a week at 3:30 a.m. to look at reports on snow. The man is truly crazy about the stuff, but in his line of work, you pretty much have to be.
Toepfer, one of only a few paid members of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center based in Boulder, is responsible for the detailed reports that hundreds of people around the state depend upon, and which have come to be respected as some of the most professional in the country.
By 5 a.m. Toepfer gets the first of his forecasts out the door from the Boulder main office, telling the helicopters where to throw their explosives and when the ski patrollers should shoot their howitzers. But even these bombs are old news to the guy, who got his start at Arapahoe Basin as a ski patroller back in 1977. Nowadays it’s been long enough that there’s not a patroller left who knows his name.
This first report also includes a detailed synopsis of the snowfall, precipitation, and wind speed, specifically catered to any of 10 zones throughout the state. Following this is an update to the phone hotline catering to public users who call in. There is even a recording sent to a local radio station in Paonia which plays throughout the day.
“Everyone from the fruit growers and ranchers to the backcountry skiers and snowboarders tune into the station to hear the daily reports, it’s a fun thing,” said Toepfer.
On his outings into the backcountry to do on-site snow analyses he sometimes even visits the station to do live call-in shows. These field days can be anywhere in the state, and most often involve ski tours to different slopes and elevations to dig snow pits and collect direct observations. Toepfer’s face is proof of the cold and wind-intensive days he’s endured in the backcountry, with its weathered lines and grey beard.
When 7:30 rolls around Toepfer is just settling into things with his first (or second) cup of coffee. At this point it’s time to start updating what he calls, “the best database of weather numbers in all of Colorado.” Organizations such as the Colorado Department of Transportation use this data to create their own forecasts that dictate such decisions as whether to send snowplows up I-70. This data is highly important because, according to Toepfer, every pass in the state has an avalanche path that intersects it.
Around midday the second afternoon report is compiled and sent off via email to those who’ve donated more than $45 to the center. The center deems those contributors as, “Friends of the CAIC”, and because of their status, are the only ones to receive the updated forecasts by email.
While today Toepfer is updating hundreds on the dangers of avalanches in the backcountry, there was a time when he was working as a lift operator and didn’t have a clue as to their severity.
“When the A-Basin owner was gone we’d steal the trash truck, throw a keg in the back and go up on Loveland Pass,” recalls Toepfer. “But this one time during a full moon when we were up on a run called five car1 a guy got trapped in a slide and became buried up to his neck. We were all laughing at him and didn’t even have shovels to dig him out. He was in pretty bad shape and we were all soaked and cold by the end of it.”
After this incident Toepfer joined the small crew of ski patrollers and began learning the ropes. He soon found himself traveling the world to areas in France and New Zealand through the ski patroller exchange program, always to return home and work at resorts like Loveland and Vail. Through this experience Toepfer gained insight into the multitude of snow types that occur depending on location.
After some time Toepfer decided to return to Colorado for good and start classes in meteorology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. This was a short-lived endeavor though as Toepfer admittedly had a rough time adjusting to city life.
“First I got mugged, then a week later I was chased by some guy through Cheesman Park,” said Toepfer. “Then someone broke into my car and stole a bunch of shit.”
Soon after this Toepfer bought a house in Summit County and decided to call up Knox Williams, the director of the CAIC at the time. He was hired thereafter based on his experience alone and is now the only member of the center without a degree.
However, this fact doesn’t seem to be of any issue to Ethan Greene, director of the CAIC, who maintains that while education is an important part of the profession, it ultimately comes down to experience when choosing new members.
It’s been over 15 years now and Toepfer has just about seen it all including the revolution within the ski industry that came about through shaped skis. With this trend came a drastic shift away from long, skinny skis to something entirely new.
When asked of his opinion of the shift, Toepfer said, “short fat skis are the greatest invention since full on grocery stores.”
Even more importantly than the skis themselves, rescue technologies have come quite a long way too. Avalanche transceiver beacons are handheld devices that allow rescues to occur within the party you go out with. They do so by emitting a signal which others pick up on their own beacons in the “receive” (rather than “send”) mode and locate you in the case of a slide. In conjunction with a shovel and probe, a backcountry user has the necessary tools to find and dig out a slide victim.
And because the rate of survival decreases severely even after just 15 minutes of being buried because of asphyxiation, time becomes the crucial element in a rescue situation.
According to Toepfler, while alternative devices might “work great in a helicopter and among search and rescue parties…it always comes down to a self-party rescue.”
The time it takes to leave the area, find help, then bring that help back is most often too long for the victim to survive. For this reason, the CAIC as well as other groups involved in avalanche potential recreation are making the push for users to become educated.
The last piece of Toepfer’s day at the office involves what he calls a “now cast” that presents the updated current conditions plus a forecast of the next 36 hours. And while this usually doesn’t get completed until around 5 p.m. it at least keeps the members busy.
Toepfer insisted that “the job that I have really doesn’t have a dull moment, every winter’s different.”