Chantel Astorga | Avalanche Forcasting in the Sawtooth Mountains
One of the best female alpinists in the world, Chantel has a list of ascents from Alaska to the Himalaya and Yosemite that stand out not just for their difficulty, but also for their style and levels of commitment.
Being an Alpinist is an expensive and time consuming pastime. It’s difficult to find a career that supports taking large chunks of time off, but still allows me to pay the bills, put food on the table, and fulfills me. I lived the dirtbag lifestyle for a number of years and while it was rewarding I was never able to go on the climbing trips that I dreamed about. I’m not sure how I got so lucky as to not only get my the job I wanted, but a job that supports my climbing wants.
I work as a Highway Avalanche Specialist for the Idaho Transportation Department. This is a year around position, but offers plenty of flexibility during the summer months to fulfill my climbing goals. The job is based out of a small rural area in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Four of us work and live in a community of 50 people and forecast for an 18 kilometer section of highway. The highway is important to recreationists, but most importantly it’s a through highway that allows rural communities to to get down to the city for medical needs, etc. Closures of the highway affect the rural towns that rely on people visiting them so they can stay afloat.
From Nov. 1 to April 31st we count all the snow/H2O that falls which gives us an intimate knowledge of the winter’s snowpack. Our program is centered around being out on skis daily allowing us to see the changing conditions of the snowpack. In this 18k section of highway we experience everything from a continental, intermountain, to a maritime snowpack. This is one of the most dangerous highways in North America due to the complex terrain, the vast elevation changes, nearly sixty avalanche paths with close to 30% of those paths having a frequent return interval for avalanches hitting the highway, and on average we have thirty avalanches hit the highway annually. We forecast only for natural avalanches.
There isn’t much climbing close by. I train for my big objectives by spending most days in the mountains on skis in complex terrain, strength training with a barbell, pull ups on wooden dowels, climbing on my homemade woody, hanging on a fingerboard, and doing metabolic workouts with a kettlebell. When the opportunity allows I’ll travel to climb on my weekends. At first I didn’t think this would work as climbing is the most important way to stay in shape for climbing, but after nine years of living here and working with what I have available to me I’ve managed to make it work.
Day to day our job entails going into the office, looking at the previous days weather and the forecast for what’s to come. We then come up with an avalanche forecast for the day and notify the maintenance workers that work in the avalanche area. We drive up to the canyon and go to our study plot where we measure snow and water on our 24hr board, take a temperature 20 cm below the snow surface, and drop a ram to see how far it penetrates into the snow surface. We get out on skis for multiple hours of the day. We don’t dig many snowpits as being out on skis daily gives us the information we need. We dig a monthly snowpit always at the same location to see how the snowpack is evolving each month. We close the highway only when we are close to our peak of instability. 95% of our highway closures result in a decent size avalanche debris cleanup. Mostly we are avalanche forecasters, but when we have a big avalanche cycle we will participate in the cleanup by operating snowcats or front loaders.
I’m sure this sounds awesome to many and it is, it’s amazing for me as well, but includes the struggles of living an isolated life with no climbing close by. Everything in life is a question of finding the balance.