Nature's snow slide

Taos Avalanche Center

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There’s a popular bumper sticker around town — “TAOS, a four-letter word for steep” — that accurately depicts the dominant terrain at Taos Ski Valley (TSV).

Yes, the ski area has plenty of moderately pitched runs, as well as a new and improved beginner area at the base. But the mountain’s true character reveals itself best from the top of a chute, the ridge of a bowl or a fall-away into the trees.

As such, snow slides and avalanches frequent the mountain, either as a force of nature or a precaution by ski patrollers. Few mountains greet powder hounds with controlled explosions right above the parking lot, like Taos. Few delay the opening of all lifts because so many trails need to be checked – or keep whole sections of the mountain closed into the day.

Add in a growing number of backcountry skiers trekking into U.S. Forest Service lands, winter weather patterns that roll out cold-cold days with intermittent warming trends and high winds – and you’ve got a variety of snow types and a heightened need for awareness and knowledge of the danger that avalanches present.

The result of these circumstances has been the focus of the Taos Avalanche Center (TAC), which began operations for the 2016-17 season.

As the founders of TAC – the first avalanche forecasting service in Northern New Mexico – Taos County locals Andy Bond and Rachel Moscarella aim to provide snowpack conditions, weather updates, avalanche warnings and education throughout the skiing and riding season. Bond and Moscarella recognized the importance of sharing snowpack knowledge and developing a heightened level of awareness for the dangers that avalanches present to outdoor enthusiasts.

“There’s never been any formal avalanche forecasting or education in Northern New Mexico,” said Bond, a former patroller at Taos and guide on Mount Rainier and in Alaska. “But we have the terrain that warrants it.”

Moscarella is the head of the snow safety program at TSV, which is responsible for making the terrain inside the ropes as safe as possible. That includes early morning trips to the high ridges and jump-starting slides by lobbing hand-held explosives or firing off an avalanche launcher.

“We spend as much time as we can studying the in-bounds snowpack,” said Moscarella, who has been in Taos for 30 years. “Taos Ski Valley is an iconic mountain with very diverse terrain from West Basin to Kachina around to Longhorn. Working together, the Avalanche Center and Taos Ski Valley can provide skiers and riders in the area better information.”

Bond, an avid backcountry skier, focuses on the terrain outside the ropes. On any given day, you might find him digging a snow pit around Williams Lake, on Wheeler Ridge, up Long Canyon or in the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness overlooking Red River.

“Most of the backcountry area around here is steep, like 30-45 percent grade,” he said. “They are areas you have to hike into, too steep for a snowmobile.”

Bond digs down into the snowpack, looking for “weak layers” that adhere poorly to the layer above and could, if overloaded by the weight of snow on top of them, let go and produce an avalanche. Such weak layers typically come either during a very cold storm that produces shallow, fluffy zones or when warming temperatures create a layer of “sugar snow,” like ball bearings that can even have water flowing through them.

“Instability can linger for a long time in our snowpack,” said Bond. “That’s why we will track those weak layers throughout the winter, in hopes of getting an idea of when they might let go.”

With Moscarella’s observations inside the ski area ropes and Bond’s trenching in the backcountry, they plan to distribute more accurate forecasting of avalanches within the region. The center’s website, taosavalanchecenter.org, will carry a daily "Hazard Rating" on snowpack conditions at various elevations around Taos Ski Valley, plus a map of avalanche sightings and links to other avalanche centers and for educational presentations.

“The Taos Avalanche Center will give us more eyes on the undisturbed snow around here and create a conversation about what we see both inside and beyond the ropes,” Moscarella said. “Andy’s work will keep us more informed about the backcountry, such as highlighting problem layers. Then, we can combine those observations with what we see in-bounds to produce a safer mountain experience for all.”

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