CONWAY — The high summits have their first brushes of snow, which to many winter aficionados means one thing: Ski season is almost here.
Not everyone prefers the manicured slopes of ski resorts. Some look to the backcountry and the white-peaked Mount Washington for their sliding fix.
For them, early-season concerns aren’t limited to what type of skis to purchase or whether it’ll be a good snow year.
Their favorite sport arrives with risk. The snow is back, and with it comes avalanches.
But this year is one of transition for the Mount Washington Valley avalanche community. The U.S. Forest Service is in the midst of hiring two snow rangers for the Mount Washington Avalanche Center, which forecasts conditions and conducts rescues in Tuckerman and Huntington ravines.
Half of its four-person staff has departed. One of the positions being filled is that of longtime Lead Snow Ranger Chris Joosen, who ran the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for more than two decades.
“We have some pretty big shoes to fill,” said Justin Preisendorfer, assistant district ranger for the Forest Service’s Androscoggin district.
Both Joosen and Jeff Lane, who also left in the spring, spent decades digging snow pits, watching the weather, learning how avalanche hazards affect the mountain. “Lots of on-the- ground knowledge and skills there,” Preisendorfer said.
Preisendorfer himself was a snow ranger for eight seasons before moving to the district office.
He knows what the job requires. Mount Washington is like almost no other avalanche-forecasting spot, he said.
In most places, assessments are for entire mountain ranges, spanning miles and including varying aspects and thousands of feet of elevation change. But here it’s just two bowls: Huntington and Tuckerman. Individual gullies are examined.
“Forecasters develop an intimacy with the terrain you can’t get most places,” he said.
Plus forecasting is only part of the job. From Dec. 1 until the end of May, snow rangers also are in charge of all rescues within the Cutler River Drainage, which includes Tuckerman and Huntington, No one else does that.
There is also education and outreach. Each day after the advisory goes up, snow rangers go out and meet with skiers and climbers to talk about current conditions. That, too, is not the norm in avalanche-forecasting positions.
A lot of the complexity in forecasting Tuckerman and Huntington is because of the people.
“The biggest challenge with micro-forecasting on Mount Washington is we have an unorganized fleet of volunteer stability testers,” Preisendorfer said. Every day, swarms of skiers and climbers put assessments to the test.
So far, he said, the Forest Service is in the midst of the hiring process, and there has been a lot of interest in the positions. But Preisendorfer doubts they will both be filled by the time Dec. 1 rolls around, when the snow rangers take over responsibility for rescues from New Hampshire Fish and Game.
Luckily, the Forest Service has a handful of former snow rangers who have agreed to fill in, but the time crunch leaves Preisendorfer a bit conflicted.
“On one hand, I’m praying for a heavy, long winter,” he said, but on the other, it’d be nice if things stayed quiet until both positions were filled.
One of the two remaining snow rangers, Frank Carus, said he’s looking forward to new blood at the avalanche center. After years of the lead snow ranger working both as safety officer for the White Mountain National Forest and forecaster at the avalanche center, the new position will be at the avalanche center only.
“I’m actually excited for the change,” Carus said. “Having a full-time director will be great.”
The new job will engage with the public more, heighten the awareness of the center and work with groups like Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and Friends of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center to support center operations.
The avalanche center is one of the White Mountain National Forest’s most popular programs, and one the public interacts with most. The new director will have plenty to do.
Not all awareness education falls to professionals. Enthusiasts and former avalanche workers are stepping in to fill the gap.
The Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop is one such effort. Set for Nov. 5 at Leura Hill Eastman Performing Arts Center in Fryeburg, Maine, ESAW is a one-day seminar organized by volunteers who are mostly snow rangers and former snow rangers. It will provide a venue for avalanche workers and backcountry aficionados to hear presentations and discuss new techniques and technologies with experts in the field.
“It’s a grassroots effort to get people educated on snow science and avalanches,” said Joe Klementovich of North Conway, one of ESAW’s main organizers and a former snow ranger.
The idea of the workshop, he said, was triggered “by an uptick in midwinter activity.” It used to be that most skiers came to Mount Washington in the spring, when warm temperatures had cooked most of the instability out of the snowpack.
But these days, more and more people come up looking for powder. They are on the mountain in midwinter, a time of much greater avalanche risk.
“There’s just so much people don’t know they don’t know,” Klementovich said. From spring to winter, the snowpack “becomes a whole different animal.”
It is the sixth year of an ESAW. Carus, who will be a presenter, said part of the goal is to reach younger enthusiasts and to counter images they may see that show people skiing in front of avalanches or surviving slides like it’s no big deal.
These portrayals don’t show the teams of rescuers poised just behind the ridge ready to respond should there be a problem, said Carus, noting, “It’s deceptive.” It makes it look like these pro skiers take huge risks without any safety net. “That’s what we need to compete against.”
The avalanche center has been working with friends groups to purchase video equipment in an effort to provide more multimedia content from the field, “integrating modern messaging techniques,” Carus said.
And, at ESAW, “it’ll be a little less nerdy than in the past,” he said, with more focus on terrain considerations and how to evaluate risk than the intricacies of snow science.
Klementovich highlighted, as well, the need to reach younger skiers.
“That was one of the founding tenets of the whole thing,” Klementovich said.
Because, like every skier, they, too, are looking up at a white Mount Washington with anticipation and sharpening their skis.
Klementovich and Carus both want to see them sharpening their avalanche skills, too.
ESAW registration information is available at esaw.org. For Mount Washington Avalanche Center information, go to mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org.