Backcountry, What We're Made Of, Winter

What We’re Made Of: The Sawtooth Avalanche Center

The Sawtooth Avalanche Center is an incredible community resource, serving all who live and recreate in the Wood River Valley. Offering forecasts, weather, snow observations, accident reports, education and events, Sawtooth Avalanche is so much more than simply an avalanche organization.

Sawooth Avalanche Center - Sun Valley Avalanche Obeservation
photo: Ben VandenBos

Serving those working, recreating and traveling in the Sawtooth National Forest, the Sawtooth Avalanche Center begins daily avalanche forecasts in the fall after enough snow has accumulated and continues until about mid-April. These forecasts encompass a wide area of wilderness—2 million acres—and are broken into zones as well as a list of common backcountry locations. Those zones are Galena Summit and eastern mountains, Soldier and Wood River Valley mountains, Sawtooth and western Smoky Mountains, and Banner Summit. 

Sawtooth Avalanche’s forecast area doubled in late 2019 after receiving a grant from Idaho’s Off-Road Motor Vehicle Fund

Sawtooth Avalanche Center - Beacon Testing
photo: Amy David

Covering an area this big for a relatively small organization is no easy task which is why Sawtooth Avalanche depends so much on help from the community. The public is encouraged to submit avalanche, snowpack, or weather observations through the sight (though they are not screened, edited or checked for accuracy by Sawtooth Avalanche). Nevertheless, these observations are crucial to ensuring safety in such a wide area and can be submitted by text, through the website, or by tagging #sawtoothavy on photos. In the organization’s 2018-2019 Annual Report, it stated that locals contributed 290 observations to the database.

Sawtooth Avalanche Center testing the Sun Valley Snowpack
photo: Amy David

Contributing the rest of the information to the site—forecasts, observations, weather, and accident reports—is a small staff of four: Director Scott Savage and three avalanche specialists. Avalanche reports are released to the website daily at 7:30am and contain information like problem type, aspect/elevation, likelihood, danger scale, size, as well as detailed comments on how to reduce chances of an avalanche. Weather summaries include temperature, cloud cover, wind speed and direction, snowfall, and snow water equivalent. 

A wide cross-section of the Wood River population uses the resources provided by Sawtooth Avalanche. Professionals who guide people into the backcountry to ski, snowboard, and recreate otherwise are one of the main audiences as are anyone heading into the backcountry: snowmobilers, Nordic skiers, and more. SAC works with many local organizations like Sun Valley, Sun Valley Guides, Sun Valley Trekking, Sawtooth Mountain Guides, and Sun Valley Heli Ski as well as forecast sponsors like Galena Lodge, Smiley Creek Lodge, Sawtooth Society and more.

Sawtooth Avalanche Center evaluating the snowpack
photo: Amy David

To keep this amazing organization running, funding is crucial. About half of Sawtooth Avalanche’s operating revenue comes from Friends of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center (SAC), non-profit organization run by a group of volunteers who raise money through sponsorship, donations, and events like the annual Banff Center Mountain Film Festival. The other half of its budget comes directly from the Forest Service. 

Education is important to Sawtooth Avalanche as well. Some of their events include partnering with Sawtooth Mountain Guides for avalanche trainings, avalanche rescue, Avalanche Science as well as their Digging Deeper series, a series of talks aimed at discussing various aspects of avalanche safety and keeping your mind sharp. 

Next time you’re headed out to recreate in the backcountry this winter, be sure to check-in with what the conditions are at the Sawtooth Avalanche Center’s reports. It’s an incredible resource that we’re so fortunate to have.

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