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
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
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
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.”