With winter rolling in and the area’s first avalanche fatality of the season already on record, the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) has announced the hiring of two forecasters for its first season after splitting with the U.S. Forest Service. (USFS)
ESAC issued a press release last week with biographies of its new hires. Lead forecaster Doug Lewis “has 17 years of avalanche forecasting and snow safety experience, having worked in the Manti-La Sal National Forest (Moab), Chile, New Zealand, Colorado, Montana, and Alaska,” stated the release.
Lewis, who is relocating to Mammoth for the position, will issue snow summaries, manage observations and act as the “face” of the organization.
Also hired was local ski patroller Josh Feinberg, who has worked at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) since 2002. Feinberg supported former USFS forecaster Sue Burak, who did not apply for either position, in her role from 2009-2011. Feinberg has also personally experienced the devastating consequences of an avalanche in the backcountry.
In 2006, Feinberg and two other off-duty MMSA patrollers were skiing in the Bridgeport area when Feinberg triggered a small avalanche that released a deeper slide, sweeping away both Feinberg and fellow patroller Johanna Carlsson, according to ESAC’s incident report. A third skier, CJ Pearson, was able to hold onto a tree to avoid being dragged away and helped to call for rescue. Carlsson died from injuries suffered in the avalanche.
In the intervening years, Feinberg has given lectures about that day and said that “one of the motivations for my working with ESAC was to help other people be well-informed so we can avoid tragedies like this down the road.”
Feinberg stressed that the accident made him more aware of wind-caused avalanche conditions, which, he said, many backcountry skiers don’t consider. “That was completely wind,” he said of the slide. “It had snowed a few inches a couple days before, but it was wind loading from that day” that caused the danger.
Feinberg has formal professional training through the National Avalanche School, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education and the Professional Avalanche Workers School.
In its press release, ESAC also stated that further details on how the now-independent Center will be operating this season will be formally announced at its kickoff event on Dec. 5. One such detail is the fact that ESAC’s website will only be listing snowpack summaries, and not avalanche advisories, this season.
“The primary difference,” said Greenberg in an e-mail, “… is that the summaries do not contain a hazard rating. Instead, the snowpack summary focuses on the information that forecasters use to produce the avalanche advisory (and is ultimately used to create the hazard rating).
“By taking away the hazard rating, users are forced to read the summary and interpret the information … Too often users will focus in on just the hazard rating … and never bother to read any of the assessment—which is the most valuable part,” Greenberg said.
Another change will be the absence of the approximately $17,000 per year that the Forest Service contributed to the organization. The Forest Service also provided a vehicle, said District Ranger John Regelbrugge. The Friends of ESAC, during their partnership with the government, historically contributed money from donors back to the USFS for expenses. However, said Regelbrugge, in the year before the split, the Friends stopped making these voluntary payments. Moving forward independently, ESAC will now rely entirely on donor contributions and fundraising efforts to continue operations. A handful of other avalanche centers in the U.S. also operate privately.
There was speculation that ESAC had been planning for its split with the Forest Service for years, and some have expressed concern that donors were unaware that their money would be going to a center no longer affiliated with the USFS.
Greenberg said the organization never sought to hide its bankroll.
“We have approximately $65,000 in the bank, which we have been building up over the years in anticipation of a time when there may no longer be Forest Service funding. The Board has always been committed to having a line of savings which could carry us through a rough year (or three), and ensure that the Center could continue to operate.”
Furthermore, “Ninety percent of the people who contributed money never understood that the Forest Service was part of the organization anyway. People are contributing money to the cause …it was going to something which they saw value in which was an avalanche advisory and education information. And it was tax deductible. And that hasn’t changed.”
Greenberg mentioned that ESAC had already received another $10,000 in grants from Inyo County and the Sunset Foundation, bringing its balance to about $75,000.
The now-private Center estimates that the 2015-16 season will see about $40,000 in expenses to pay its forecasters and maintain liability insurance.
When asked about continuing without the support of the Forest Service, Greenberg insisted that ESAC’s “product”—its free-to-users website and snowpack summaries, had a secure future.
“Ensuring that operations continue for an organization focused on saving lives is contingent upon responsible budgeting, which is what we have done,” he said. “One hundred percent of the money that the Center collects goes toward operations. The Board is one hundred percent volunteer.”
This week’s fatality underscored ESAC’s mission (see p. 16). On Saturday, Nov. 21, Inyo SAR recovered the body of UCLA graduate student Michael David Meyers, 25, buried in avalanche debris near Mt. Irvine.
With an early start to the season and the hopes of a big snow year comes heightened avalanche danger, grimly highlighted by Meyers’ death.
ESAC is recruiting support from the public with a Season Kickoff Event to be held on Saturday, Dec. 5 at Eagle Lodge. Todd Offenbacher, host of Lake Tahoe-based TV Station Resort Sports Network (RSN), will be presenting ‘Bi-Polar: Antarctica & the Arctic Circle,’ followed by a raffle and silent auction. Tickets will be $15 at the door and all proceeds will support ESAC.
Prior to the evening’s events, ESAC will hold free avalanche awareness seminars at Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge. Visit www.esavalanche.org for more details.