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NOLS Snow Scientists
By Kerry Brophy
When the temperature drops and the snow starts flying, life doesn’t get much better for these NOLS grads...
Brad Sawtell

Brad Sawtell
Avalanche Forecaster

Brad Sawtell’s day starts early, usually around 4 a.m. Before even going outside, he’s looking at weather models and gathering data so Colorado’s ski areas and backcountry travelers know what the weather will bring that day—and the day after that. An avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Infor-mation Center, Sawtell is sometimes stepping into his skis before most people have even climbed into their cars for the morning commute.

“Weather,” says Sawtell, “is the architect of avalanches.” In the field, he does stability tests and looks closely at the snowpack. He’ll also go out of bounds at many Colorado ski resorts, digging snowpit after snowpit to determine how high the avalanche danger is that day. It’s a big responsibility, but, he says with a glow, “It’s a dream job. I get to go skiing everyday and get paid for it.”

Snow isn’t a foreign substance to Sawtell. He was a ski racer at Colorado State University before taking a NOLS Semester in the Rockies in 1990 and becoming a NOLS Instructor in 1992. In the field with NOLS, he especially liked teaching winter courses, and became more and more intrigued with snow. He has spent the past four winters as a part-time avalanche forecaster and, beginning this year, will be on full-time.

When Sawtell’s not forecasting avalanches, he’s usually teaching people how to avoid them. From college groups, to snowmobile clubs, snowplow drivers and ski patrollers, his clinics serve an important role in Summit County, where he lives.

“I like that I’m doing something for the community,” Sawtell says. “It’s important to me to be related to a community as well as to help educate the community on avalanches and hazards.”

The grim part of being an avalanche forecaster, says Sawtell, are the accident reports. He was on five body recoveries last winter, which he equates to investigative reporting. His reports are circulated throughout the skiing community and, he says, are hopefully a way for people to learn about the dangers. “I’m not out there to make the backcountry safe, but to give the public more information so they can make better decisions,” Sawtell says.

As a forecaster, Sawtell gets to keep up his NOLS skills even though he’s not in the field with NOLS students as much. “The skills I’ve learned at NOLS are what I use everyday,” he says, “I have to make real decisions that not only affect me, but also the general public. All those skills grew while I was at NOLS. I think about that all the time. I’ve learned a standard that I believe in and need to uphold.”

He also gets to keep learning. “I never get sick of snow. I’m intrigued by it, I learn from it, and I’m humbled by it. Everyday I learn something new, and after working for NOLS, I love learning.”

Sawtell’s favorite part of the day is when he updates the daily telephone message at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. In the message, he explains his field reports—the shooting cracks, and the weak and strong layers—and he tries to sound friendly but serious. “Everyday I hope I’m reaching out to someone. It makes me want to do that much better of a job so that I can generate the best forecasts I possibly can.”

Brad Sawtell

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