Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster

It involves skiing, helicopters, and dynamite (really).

Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be an Avalanche Forecaster

Courtesy of Ilan Adler/Pixabay

In this series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. First up: avalanche forecaster Doug Krause on his craziest search-and-rescue mission, ski-triggering a snowslide, and the surprising place he loves to vacation.

When it comes to avalanches, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more experienced forecaster than Doug Krause. As a director at the Silverton Avalanche School in Silverton, Colorado, he develops training programs to teach other pro avalanche workers about snowpack and terrain assessment and risk management. He has worked as a snow safety director at ski areas in Colorado and Alaska, an avalanche consultant in Japan, a lead guide for off-piste skiing in Argentina and Chile, and a search-and-rescue ranger in Denali National Park. He even hosts a seasonal podcast, aptly titled “Slide: The Avalanche Podcast.” We caught up with Krause in Lima, Peru, where his wife, an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, is currently stationed.

AFAR: So let’s say you’re at a dinner party with a bunch of strangers who know nothing about skiing. How do you describe what you do for a living?

“I tell them I’m an avalanche forecaster and they’ll usually have one of two responses: They’ll either go ‘Huh,’ or they’ll say something along the lines of ‘Oh my god, tell me more!’ ”

Walk me through a typical day in your life. It’s Wednesday. Are you out, like, blowing up TNT on some mountain?

“A typical storm day starts off the night before because I’m already looking at the weather forecast and figuring out how it’s going to impact operations. Then I’ll wake up at 3, 4, 5, 6, whatever o’clock in the morning, check the weather, see what happened overnight and what’s happening now, and reassess my avalanche forecast. I’m already thinking about operations and what might go wrong. After I do my prep work, the team groups up, we build explosives, then we break into two-man teams and go out to attack individual paths. Once we cross those off our lists, we ski for a little while and take it from there. The job is all about planning, preparing for multiple contingencies, constant reassessment, and then the debrief. Did we knock it out of the park today? Or did we get lucky?”

What were some of the jobs that led you to where you are today? Did you get any big breaks?

“Good fortune and big breaks are how I got here. I started off as a 911 dispatcher and had just gotten into backcountry skiing. I thought, jeez, since this is Colorado, I need to learn more about avalanches and backcountry EMS. Ski patrol seemed like a natural path. I got a job at Arapahoe Basin [in Summit County], which has a really active avalanche-control program. They threw me straight into the fire. I took the state exam that allowed me to use explosives before they even let me talk to the public! After doing that for five years, I was ready for a change, which is when I moved to Silverton Mountain [in Silverton, Colorado]. For three years I did avalanche control—all day, every day. When I eventually told the ski director I was thinking of moving on, he said, ‘Well, how about we put you in charge?’ That sucked me back in and I did that job for five or six years. I’ve also run a heli-skiing program in Alaska and started a snow safety program in Japan.”

It seems like you’re drawn to jobs that have some kind of built-in adrenaline rush, whether it’s avalanche work or being a 911 dispatcher. You never wanted to be a dental assistant?

[Laughs] “No. But as crazy as it sounds, I don’t get an adrenaline rush from tossing explosives and triggering a large avalanche. That’s long gone. What drives me now is the complexity of avalanche forecasting. And I love skiing, being outside all day, and all the people I get to meet and work with and mentor and educate along the way.”

Tell me about the craziest search-and-rescue mission you’ve ever done.

“Oh, goodness. There’s been quite a few! In terms of avalanche rescue, it was probably one in the backcountry of the Silverton Mountain area. I was guiding a group of heli-skiers and we were on top of this peak, getting ready to ski this big couloir, and all of a sudden radio chatter started coming in about someone on the road reporting an avalanche and people being hurt. When I heard the owner of the ski area starting to make arrangements to execute a rescue, I chimed in and said, ‘I can be available for this!’ I want to be available for this. So I basically left my group at the top of the couloir and I was like, ‘OK, you see that guy at the bottom? His name is Fabio and I want you all to ski down to him one at a time. I’m outta here!’ And I just beelined down as fast I could, skied out the egress road, and went down to the county road. A helicopter landed, I jumped in, and we flew off to a neighboring peak. All of a sudden, bam! We were right there, on top of the scene, assessing the remaining hazard and moving to do a rescue. It was really fast-paced and intense.”

Was anyone hurt?

“Yeah, unfortunately. A local kid was killed. There was another serious injury and then the third person involved was OK. Every avalanche rescue that I’ve been involved with that has a fatality—and there have been more than I care to remember—affects me deeply. Because these people, they’re like me: They’re just out here to have fun and go skiing and it has ended in tragedy. Sometimes they make obvious mistakes. Sometimes they do everything right and things go wrong anyhow.”

Have you ever been caught in an avalanche?

“Oh, yeah! [Laughs] I’ve never been seriously injured or buried, but I’ve had a number of close calls.”

Tell me about your closest.

“I remember it vividly, because it was my first. It was 2000, my first year as a ski patroller. I was backcountry skiing in Colorado with three friends and we went up to ski a large avalanche patch. I was still very much the novice, relative to my companions. I wasn’t really putting a lot of assessment into it. These guys were all super familiar with the area; I was just a follower. My buddy skied down first, right down the gut, near some old tracks. I skied down second and then wandered over to the left, then I skied over this really small feature but a steep feature and I watched the snowpack kind of dah-dah-dah-dah—like, scallop out in front of me and kind of compress in a wave.

Then I saw the trees in front of me shake and drop all the snow off them and I thought, Oh my god, that was really close there—I almost triggered an avalanche! And then I hear over my shoulder my buddy on the ridgeline scream, ‘Avalaaaaaaanche!’ And look back and the gut of the path was erupting; it was a Class 5 whitewater of snow. I just cut a hard left, straight line, into the deep trees and the whole path ripped out behind me. My buddy, who was posted up lower down, he did the same thing as me: He cut off into the trees. Everybody was OK, but to this day, it was far and away the biggest avalanche I have ever ski-triggered.”

Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing avalanche work?

“Get a summer job that can subsidize your passion. [Laughs] Not kidding.”

So this is not a lucrative field?

“Not at all. And if someone is thinking of pursuing it as a career, they probably need to rethink that. In the avalanche world, it’s a pyramid: You start at the bottom and the better you get at it, the fewer job opportunities there are. In terms of direct experience, you definitely want to get your Woofer [Wilderness First Responder certification] and your EMT, then maybe work on an ambulance and join a search-and-rescue team. In terms of avalanche experience, there’s no substitute for ski patrolling in an active snow safety program. People who learn about avalanches just by backcountry skiing spend all of their time avoiding avalanches. Whereas if you go out and do work in a snow safety program as a ski patroller, you spend your time attacking them. On a busy avalanche-control program, you’ll see more avalanches in a day than some backcountry skiers see in their entire lives.”

Just curious: Is ski patrolling anything like that movie Ski Patrol?

“Yes and no. Probably mostly no. Yes in that there’s a lot of good skiing going on and a lot of folks having fun. No in that you’re not, like, the celebrity of the mountain. Patrolling isn’t nearly as glamorous as the movies make it out to be.”

Last question: Since travel is such a big part of your job, what do you actually do for vacation?

“Uhhh, more of the same? Really, I ski. But I also love loafing on the beach. Although this past spring, I had a couple of job offers for heli-ski guiding up in Alaska. I turned them down. I thought, You know what? No. I’m gonna go home—like, home-home, to our house in Silverton—and just hang out. I’ll ski, see my old friends, be on my own schedule, be around my own stuff, sleep in my own bed. . . . It was sublime.”

>>Next: What It’s Actually Like to Be a Safari Guide

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to AFAR, New York Magazine, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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