While there are no concrete numbers on backcountry travel, Forest Service representatives, backcountry guides and members of the Central Oregon Avalanche Association agree, backcountry usage is on the rise in Oregon. Whether it is snowshoeing, snowmobiling, cross country or backcountry skiing, the evidence is in our increasingly crowded sno-parks.
Other states have safety networks. Colorado, Utah, Washington, Idaho and California all have extensive avalanche forecasting organizations that work in association with or are in part funded by combinations of their state's department of transportation, the National Weather Service, the National Forest Service and private or nonprofit organizations. Yet in Central Oregon between Mt. Hood (which falls under Washington forecasting) and Mt. Shasta, there is currently no such organization. Trevor Miller and the Central Oregon Avalanche Association (COAA) aim to change that.
Two years ago, Miller, started the organization as a nonprofit with an aim toward filling the gap in coverage in Central Oregon. COAA promotes public avalanche awareness through community programs and a website (COAvalanche.org) that posts reports of field observations from backcountry travelers. But Miller said that while the site is not a formal forecasting center, it's more than just a message board. He and his associates have avalanche safety certification training, and there is a screening process for messages posted on the site. He says that many of the field reports gathered by the site are from reliable contacts that he knows have some professional experience. The group has also worked with the Sierra Avalanche Center in Tahoe to further develop the COAA site. Miller says that they recently remodeled the COAA website to be formatted more like an established avalanche center. But he cautions that avalanche conditions can change very quickly and at this time, the site doesn't have the full resources to be continuously up-to-date. Still, "some information is better than nothing," says Miller.
One of the main differences that Miller acknowledges between the COAA and other actual forecasting agencies is COAA's lack of full-time avalanche forecasters.
"If I could sign a check for a full-time forecaster, I would," says Miller.
Colorado, Utah and other state services hire full-time staff, often with Ph.Ds in related scientific fields. Those organizations also benefit from affiliation with state or federal agencies like the Department of Transportation or the Forest Service. The COAA is currently an independent nonprofit organization funded solely by donations.
With Oregon ranked ninth (tied with New Hampshire) on the list of states with the highest avalanche fatalities since 1985, there may not yet be a need for more formal forecasting. Historically, the difference between Oregon and number-one-ranked Colorado and even number-eight-ranked California is substantial. But there may be indications that the pattern is changing. Two of Oregon's eight avalanche-related fatalities occurred in the last two years, including the one near Paulina Peak. It may be too early to predict a trend, but avalanches could even potentially occur in seemingly safe, heavily trafficked places like Tumalo Mountain, as was the case two weeks ago.
Miller believes that having the COAA site is a step in the right direction, "prior to this website there was nothing." He hopes that his organization could someday function in a more formal capacity with full-time forecasters and more field reporting. For more information, visit the COAA website: COAvalanche.org. The group has also tentatively scheduled a free avalanche safety presentation as part of their "Know Before You Go" safety program. The next presentation is scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 22nd at Pine Mountain Sports in Bend.
Tumalo In the Avy Zone
From the parking lot of the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park, Tumalo Mountain, across from Mt. Bachelor, isn't an especially imposing feature. In fact, it is probably the site of many Bend area residents' first backcountry skiing experience. While "slides are not common," as Chris Sabo, Trail Supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest, says, the treeless bowl on Tumalo's back side has a roughly 32 degree slope that falls into the avalanche "hazard zone." Slopes with a 30 to 45 degree pitch are considered the most susceptible according to Sabo and avalanche safety experts. That's why patrollers at Mt. Bachelor need to regularly blast the summit bowl to prevent skier-caused slides. While not quite as steep, Tumalo's bowl is unpatrolled. Temperature fluctuations, like those we have recently experienced, can make slopes especially dangerous. As Trevor Miller, COAA President says "Tumalo is a tricky one, 95 percent of the time you'll be all right in there." But you still have to consider that other 5 percent.
Sno-Park News: Dutchman Flat and proposed Kapka Sno-Park
While Forest Service plans to alleviate congestion at the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park by building the Kapka Butte Snow-Park have been discussed since early 2009, sources within the Forest Service anticipate that the project will not be ready for use until the winter of 2012. The park, to be located on the south side of the Cascade Lakes Highway at the Sunriver intersection, as well as usage of Tumalo Mountain, has previously been the focus of debate among motorized and non-motorized sno-park visitors. Officials with the Forestry service report a decision is expected in the coming months. It is apparent that an independent proposal, first submitted to the Forest Service in 2008, to expand the non-motorized portion of Tumalo Mountain is not a part of the plans.