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What the Heck is an Avalanche Center?

David Reichel
January 4, 2023
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Surrounded by public land, Truckee-Tahoe has some of the most accessible backcountry skiing and riding out there. Two national forests host popular tours - the Tahoe National Forest near Truckee is where you’ll find deep pow at Castle Peak and the Tahoe Basin Management Unit is home to West Shore favorites like Rubicon and Jakes. But hang on! Before you get the gear and skin up at the nearest trailhead, you’ll need to take a deep dive into avalanche education, and the Sierra Avalanche Center is a great place to start.

Guest article by David Reichel, Executive Director of the Sierra Avalanche Center.

What is an avalanche center and where are they located?

Avalanche centers provide safety and education information about avalanches, snow, and weather. Here in Truckee-Tahoe, the Sierra Avalanche Center issues a daily avalanche forecast every winter morning. The Sierra Avalanche Center is a partnership between the Truckee Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest and the Sierra Avalanche Center nonprofit organization.

As you might guess, avalanche centers exist throughout the world and are understandably concentrated in mountain communities. That said, not all mountain zones are covered by a local avalanche center, like nearby Mt. Lassen National Park for example. 

What is an avalanche forecast?

The Sierra Avalanche Center issues a forecast with a rating based on the North American Danger Scale. This scale gives a danger rating and recommends some travel advice based on the current avalanche conditions.

While the danger rating is important, it becomes even more useful when combined with another part of the forecast, the Avalanche Problems of the day. There are nine avalanche problems and they are helpful because there are different types of avalanches and backcountry users need to adjust their behavior depending on which avalanche problems are present. 

Who uses the daily avalanche forecast?

The daily avalanche forecast is most useful to backcountry travelers like backcountry skiers, splitboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers, ice climbers, and really extreme snow angel enthusiasts. 

Our forecast doesn’t apply in-bounds at ski resorts where the ski patrol works hard to mitigate the avalanche danger inside the ropes. It also doesn’t apply to local highways where Caltrans or NDOT are responsible for keeping the mountain roadways safe, and whose explosions you may hear during and after big storms. 

How is the avalanche forecast created? 

The forecasters and professional observers of the Sierra Avalanche Center ski and snowmobile through the mountains and carefully monitor the snowpack. We dig pits to look at layering, use magnifying glasses to examine individual snow grains, tap on columns of snow to tease out how the slopes may behave if a new storm drops feet of snow or if someone gleefully shreds the slope. We drag saws through buried weak layers of snow to measure if that layer is gaining strength or getting weaker. We try to understand the snowpack as much as possible and then communicate that information to the public so they can make informed decisions about where to recreate and where to avoid. 

When does the Sierra Avalanche Center issue the forecast?

By 7:00 am on winter mornings, we publish our avalanche forecast for the day. Often a draft of the forecast is written the afternoon before and then updated early in the morning with the benefit of that day’s weather forecast and any late arriving observations. 

Submit your Truckee-Tahoe backcountry observations

We rely on the avalanche and snowpack observations from our field staff, but also the observations, photos and videos submitted to the Sierra Avalanche Center by the public. Our forecast area extends from Yuba Pass in the north all the way to Bear Valley in the south, so it is extremely helpful to receive these observations from the public to augment our own. 

We post all the observations submitted to our website and share many of them through our social media channels. We are excited about our brand new Observations Explorer which allows users to filter and well...explore all the snow and avalanche observations in our database. The visual presentation of this information opens new opportunities for learning.

Observations Explorer, a new tool from the Sierra Avalanche Center.

Support the Sierra Avalanche Center

The Sierra Avalanche Center would not exist without the support of the community. The vast majority of the operating budget is provided by the nonprofit branch of our partnership, and individual donations make up the largest portion of our income. This money goes back into supporting the Sierra Avalanche Center field staff, paying for development and maintenance of our website, and our ongoing efforts to increase avalanche awareness in our community. 

Donate to the Sierra Avalanche Center

Truckee-Tahoe Backcountry Skiing & Riding Gear and Guides

Need to get gear for backcountry skiing or splitboarding? Want to go for a tour with a knowledgeable Truckee-Tahoe ski guide? (Psst, that's the best way to discover Truckee-Tahoe's best local spots!) Need to find an avalanche education course? If you answered yes to any of those questions, check out our Sports Shops, Outdoor Guides and Tours page.

David Reichel

Executive Director, Sierra Avalanche Center

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