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High Tetons get their snow sensors

September 20, 2018

Legs splayed on the boulders and slabs that form Surprise Pinnacle, Bob Comey barked instructions to a team of Jenny Lake climbing rangers who steadied the avalanche forecaster’s new three-legged contraption.

“More spread out is good,” Comey said. “We’re pretty darn close.”

The Bridger-Teton National Forest and Grand Teton National Park employees’ task was to level a tripod that now juts off the summit of the 9,770-foot-high rise that overlooks the well-trodden subalpine shores of Surprise Lake. Fixed to that steel structure in the hours to follow would be thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment: an anemometer to read the wind, temperature and humidity sensors, an antenna to transmit data and solar panels and a battery bank to provide juice. Taken together all this equipment now constitutes the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s 20th monitoring station — and the first in the core “cathedral” vicinity of the Tetons.

“I had no idea that we had the resources to do this,” Comey said. “Then they said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this,’ and they put that thing online. I was like, ‘Holy crap, we’re going to be doing this.’”

“They” are the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, “that thing” was a fundraising campaign, and “this” is two new weather monitors that will allow Comey and colleagues to expand their precision avalanche forecasting to the north.

The project came together in a hurry. It wasn’t until late summer that the foundation launched the fundraising campaign for the cash to construct and maintain the new equipment.

“The park approached us and asked us if we were willing to help, and our staff and board were on board,” Grand Teton National Park Foundation Communications Manager Maddy Johnson said.

The target was $25,000.

“We gave ourselves a month, and we did it in a few weeks,” Johnson said. “I think it speaks to how passionate the backcountry skiing community is.”

Early Tuesday the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center’s new wind and snow monitoring stations were pacing to begin transmitting data by the end of the day. To pull up the new real-time data go to JHAvalanche.org, toggle over the “weather and snow data” pull-down, select “weather station data” and then click “raw data directory.” The two new stations will be logged as “Surprise Pinnacle” (the wind monitoring site) and “Surprise Meadow” (the adjoining snow monitoring site, which will start recording snowfall Oct. 1).

The addition of these two stations does not mean there will be a new, separate advisory for the Tetons, but it will allow Comey to bolster the center’s twice-daily wintertime avalanche forecasts with more localized condition assessments for Grand Teton National Park. Currently the avalanche center relies heavily on Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s network of seven stations, but the approximately 8 straight-line miles that span the distance between the resort boundary and Surprise Lake can mean the world in terms of snowfall and snowpack variability.

“Some storms come in and uniformly put 4 inches down,” Comey said. “Other storms are different. I’ve been in the bottom of Rendezvous Bowl where there’s 6 inches and traversed over to the top of Thunder where there’s less than an inch.”

“It’s a tough beast to measure,” he said.

The Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center has been growing its staff and freeing up more staff time in order to best measure the likelihood that the snowpack will topple over itself, and the many nuances that go into that determination. It’s an endeavor that can save lives. Five years ago the center’s four employees all worked full time at the resort, conducting backcountry forecasting on the side. Now, three center staffers are wholly devoted to backcountry forecasting, and just one puts in a full day’s work in Teton Village.

This winter a fifth employee will come on board. Using more funds from the foundation, Grand Teton Park is hiring a snow science technician who will feed avalanche observations into the center’s databases and keep a set of eyes on the ground.

“The park is now stepping up through the foundation to help enhance what we’re doing up here,” Comey said. “It’s a real step up in our relationship with the park. I think that we’ll have a much better presence in the park and much better knowledge about what’s going on.”

A couple of hours into the installation up on Surprise Pinnacle, the station was almost complete.

Comey and the climbing rangers will grow accustomed to assembling and disassembling the sturdy steel wind gauge, because the plan is to take it down each spring to diminish its visual impact on hikers who hoof it up to Surprise and Amphitheater lakes.

Those who never get a look at the station itself will have the fortune of seeing what it sees. A webcam that will join the sensors is on order, and it’ll offer a real-time glimpse of some of Teton park’s most popular backcountry lines. From Surprise Pinnacle, Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center educator Margo Krisjansons previewed the view that will soon be a few clicks away.

“Look over at Shadow Peak, 25 Short, Turkey Shoot,” Krisjansons said. “It’ll be really sweet.”

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