POWDER PEOPLE: Interview with Avalanche Forecaster Nikki Champion

By Local Lexi Feb 11, 2020
Utah has powder in spades, but all that snow creates avalanche hazards for the people who love to ski and snowboard on the slopes and travel in the mountains.
POWDER PEOPLE: Interview with Avalanche Forecaster Nikki Champion

The prodigious amount of snow that coats Utah’s mountain ranges brings many a grin to skiers and snowboarders across the state. However, the depth of such snow, the terrain, and localized weather conditions may harbor the ingredients to unleash deadly avalanches. Luckily, the Utah Avalanche Center works tirelessly to help everyone stay on top with their detailed avalanche forecasts, awareness campaigns, and readily available avalanche education courses.

We sat down with UAC’s newest forecaster, Nikki Champion, to see what it takes to professionally hunt powder...and we’re convinced this could be the best job of all time. 

Lexi: How did you get your start as a snow science professional?

Nikki: Well, I grew up ski racing in Michigan and spent a lot of time in the mountains. I attended the Colorado School of Mines to study engineering and once there I transitioned my focus from alpine racing to backcountry skiing. I joined the Outdoor Recreation Center and as a trip leader, I began shadowing guides and acting as a backcountry guide to fellow students. 

Photo Credit - Peter Chen

I later transferred to Montana State and that’s where things clicked for me. I connected with a graduate student in the snow science program who needed a field assistant with avalanche training. I soon realized how closely civil engineering and snow science aligned. While in Montana, I began conducting research in the Earth Sciences and Civil Engineering Departments. After graduating, I worked in the Subzero Science and Engineering Laboratory and investigated snow mechanics and also taught local avalanche courses. Last winter, I went up to the Chugach Range in Alaska and worked with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC).

A longtime Utah resident and former UAC mentee, Wendy Wagner, had moved into the position of director at CNFAIC. She, and the rest of the women at the CNFAIC, were incredible mentors to me and spoke highly of the program in Utah. When the position for a new forecaster became available in Utah, I was lucky enough to snag it. It also helps that I spend the majority of my time on snow, as I guide in the summers on Mount Rainier, the Cascades and Denali.

L: For those interested in this type of career, what are some tips or advice about getting started?

N: Start gathering as much information as you possibly can and take every opportunity to seek knowledge. Begin with one of our Know Before You Go courses. As we like to say at the UAC, always follow these five steps: 

Get The Gear

Get The Training

Get The Forecast

Get The Picture

Get Out of Harm’s Way

Once you’ve covered some introductory avalanche courses you can seek higher certifications. I’d recommend taking as many opportunities as you can to get out with mentors, shadow professionals in the field, assist researchers, and just say YES to any chance to learn something new. 

Photo Credit - @Wellgoodmedia

That’s the best thing about this field, you can ALWAYS learn something more.

L: Why is the Utah Avalanche Center such an integral part of Utah’s skiing and snowboarding community?

N: The organization encompasses a partnership between the US Forest Service and the non-profit segment of the Utah Avalanche Center. The UAC provides three services to the community: avalanche forecasts, awareness programs, and education. Our goal is to supply the public with readily available information on what avalanche risks exist and how to avoid them. We create eight regional forecasts and share them online, in our mobile app, and on our phone hotlines. This information is available and free 24/7 from the first snow until mid-April. 

Click Here for UAC forecasts 
Click Here to view all avalanche observations

Our avalanche awareness programs around the state are designed to provide a digestible introduction for those just becoming interested in skiing or snowboarding and who may be considering traveling in avalanche terrain. These free classes serve as a first step to helping people hone their avalanche awareness. 

We then offer more comprehensive education programs for snowshoers, skiers, and snowboarders or for those who participate in motorized sports like snow biking and snowmobiling. Our website also serves as a great resource for finding additional courses or classes nationwide.

L: What does a typical day look like for you, out in the field? 

N: Most of us here in the Salt Lake office forecast two days per week. On forecasting days we rise early and head into the office around 3:30 or 4:00 AM. We spend time looking over all the weather data, recent observations, and avalanche activity, condensing all the information to formulate our forecasts by 7:00 AM. We then record the avalanche and weather forecasts for the phone hotlines and the KCPW radio station. 

The remainder of the shift is spent managing all the other forecasters out in the field and helping with other projects around the office or our educational programming. For the rest of the workweek, we spend 4-5 days out in the field, gathering information and observations to inform our forecasts. 

For field days, we focus on collecting as much information as we can to provide our robust forecasts. We’ll seek out questionable layers in the snow, investigate certain aspects, or try to confirm hunches or suspected weaknesses lurking in the snowpack. We’ll also target areas that haven’t recently been examined. All this effort helps to paint a clear picture and inform the lurking hazards for the entire avalanche rose compass.

If there has been any avalanche activity we also like to get out and investigate the triggers and examine all the layers within the snowpack to establish which layer failed. Basically we are looking for any and all observations that can better inform our avalanche reports.

L: What is your favorite part about avalanche forecasting? 

N: It’s an area where I combine my passion for the outdoors and it’s also mentally engaging. Assembling the forecast is like a puzzle. Then we must effectively communicate the complexity of the snowpack in a digestible format. There is so much variety in this job; no two days are alike!

L: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

N: Communication is our biggest challenge. Our primary goal is to effectively convey the risks associated with backcountry travel amid constantly fluctuating conditions in complex terrain. We synthesize all the data into a comprehensive avalanche forecast, with the goal of painting a complete picture in few words. We’re compiling and managing so much information to help people make better decisions when having fun in the snow.  

L: The UAC has a small number of female forecasters and staff members, have you found this is a difficult field to find your way, as a lady forecaster?

N: Part of the reason I wanted to come to work with the UAC in Utah was the mentorship; the group here is phenomenal. Yes, it is an intimidating field; it can be hard to gain respect and to feel competent. I’ve been really fortunate to have great mentors (both male and female). To find strong female mentors I found I did have to actively seek them out. This is the hurdle within the industry simply because there are just fewer women in leadership positions. 

This is a reason I was excited to follow in Evelyn’s footsteps and continue organizing all the women’s specific programming with UAC. I don’t necessarily think women need specific programming—they don’t, they are just as strong and capable—but because it is an intimidating field without many leaders that look like us. By having a welcoming, female-specific stepping stone, I hope to give women the confidence to feel like a valuable member of the group, to speak up in any situation, and to have the knowledge and skills to safely travel through avalanche terrain. 

Ideally, these courses position women to consider furthering their avalanche education and this rewarding career path. The number of women in the industry doesn’t currently reflect the number of female backcountry users. Women are always welcome! 

L: For someone considering honing their knowledge about avalanche safety and science, what is the best place to get started? 

N: Our Know Before You Go workshops are an excellent first stepping stone. We also offer refresher courses and free lectures. If you’re keen to spend more time in the backcountry we have a 3-hour Backcountry 101 course with a full day in the field with an educator. Then we offer more in-depth 3-day Avalanche Level 1 courses. Our educational programming focuses on terrain choice, developing companion rescue skills, basic snow science, and more. For more on our education programs, click here.

L: Does the UAC work with any of the Utah ski resorts?

N: We work very closely with the ski resorts. A good amount of our forecasting data comes directly from ski patrollers and also backcountry users who submit observations on our website. We interface daily with resorts to discuss avalanche activity, temperatures, weather, and wind. This additional information helps us better illuminate the threat of avalanches in Utah’s mountains. 

L: How many days per year on average do you usually ski?

N: 120 days

L: Do you have a philosophy about skiing, or what makes skiing such an important part of your lifestyle? 

N: Never done learning, never done exploring. 

L: How does Utah skiing and the snowpack compare to your experience with Alaska and Montana snow?

N: With that storm cycle in mid-January, I did tell quite a few people it was the best snow I’ve ever skied. I’m so excited to be in Utah!

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Follow Nikki’s adventures on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nikkichampp/

Don’t miss UAC’s informative videos, forecasts, and avalanche videos at: https://www.instagram.com/utavy/ 

Add the UAC’s hotline number to your speed dial: (888) 999-4019 or download their mobile app!