In this monthly series, we check in with one of our adventurous locals to find out how they would spend a perfect 24 hours in Sun Valley.
Ready or not…winter is here! From the first snowflakes in early November to opening day on Bald Mountain, we have been enjoying every second of this early season.
Scott Savage, the Director of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, is someone who loves winter more than most. A lifelong skier and a snow geek, Scott and the team of Avalanche Specialists provide avalanche safety information for people recreating, working, or traveling in the Sawtooth National Forest. “The Sawtooth Avalanche Center exists to help people make good decisions, have fun, and stay safe in the mountains,” says Scott.
Don’t think that your winter recreation takes you into avalanche territory? It might. Though the Sun Valley area has plenty of room to explore, some of the most popular recreation areas are exposed to avalanche danger. But before you hole up and miss the chance to enjoy winter fun under a summer sun, take heart: Scott says making safe decisions is simply a matter of understanding the risks and knowing how to handle them.
First, he says, check the daily avalanche and mountain weather forecast (which, unlike mainstream weather forecasts, is focused on weather in more remote areas). These can be found on the Sawtooth Avalanche Center website, via social media (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), or delivered to your inbox.
Second, sign up for an avalanche safety course. The Friends of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center offer basic avalanche awareness safety classes throughout the winter for low or no cost. More advanced classes are available via Sun Valley Guides and Sawtooth Mountain Guides.
Third, get the gear. “Carry a beacon, shovel, and probe, and know how to use them,” advises Scott. “Get in the habit of carrying them with you when you’re out skiing or snowmobiling, even if you don’t think you’re going into avalanche territory. And practice before you have to use your gear for real!”
For this edition of 24 Hours in Sun Valley, we asked Scott how he’d spend a perfect December day working and a perfect day playing. Here’s what he had to say.
What would you do first on your perfect December day?
Every day I wake up, turn on the heat, get the stove running, and make a cup of green tea. I don’t eat breakfast; lunch is my first meal of the day.
On a workday, I’m up at 3:30 AM. Right now, I’m working from home, so I walk down the hallway to my office, get the computer fired up, and look at recent weather and observations. I record and post storm totals, then publish the Mountain Weather Forecast by 5:30 AM or so. Next is the Avalanche Forecast, which is published by 7:30 AM, and then I record a 60-second radio spot for KECH and KDPI. We also send out a daily email update and post avalanche information and links to the Forecast on our social media channels.
If I’m not working, I’d probably sleep in until 7:00 AM, then head out with my wife and son for a day of family fun outside. If there was a real stable snowpack and lots of snow at higher elevations, we’d probably go sled skiing in some remote terrain.
How would you spend the rest of the morning?
On a workday, after I have the forecasts all done, I come up with a field plan to see what’s happening in the mountains. I might go out on snowmobile, or on skis, or both.
I’m unabashedly pro-avalanche—the more and the bigger the avalanches, the better, as long as no one gets hurt. On my perfect day, I’d be chasing a huge avalanche cycle. You know when you’re getting close to a big avalanche because you can smell it. The slides will have mowed down large trees, and you can smell the broken pine trees before you see the avalanche. I love getting there right after it happens and walking around in the destruction.
The best indicator that there is a high chance of having new avalanches is seeing fresh avalanches. Our team at the SAC learns as much as we can about where avalanches released and why they released. We identify patterns, reverse engineer the conditions, and essentially run forensics on the slide. This helps us in creating accurate forecasts.
What would you do for lunch?
I’m a “lunch is fuel” kind of person. I might have a chunk of smoked salmon, some leftovers from the night before, and an energy bar. If I’m in the backcountry, either for work or with my family, I’m all about getting in enough calories.
How’s your afternoon looking?
If there haven’t been any huge avalanches to check out, and say there’s a storm in process and the snowpack is teetering on unstable, I might look to remotely trigger an avalanche. There’s a way to safely trigger them to the side or below you, and the first thing that happens is you feel yourself physically drop. That’s the weak layer collapsing. It makes a “whumpf” noise, and a lot of times, you’ll see a crack shoot out from where you’re standing. We make sure there is no one around when we trigger avalanches, and we do it in areas that aren’t frequented by the public. (Editor’s note: Leave triggering avalanches to the pros like Scott!)
On a day when I’m not working, my family and I would still be out sled skiing or maybe even looking for avalanches. We love going out to remote spots where we know we won’t see anyone else. There are so many options in the local mountains. We have the luxury of plenty of ridges and 22-28 degree slopes (that aren’t prone to sliding), so there’s always somewhere to go look for faceshots no matter how dangerous the snowpack may be.
What’s the plan for the evening?
On a workday, I’ll be coming back out of the field and spending a little bit of time writing up observations and editing any photos or videos that I took.
Back at home, I’m a bit of a closet foodie chef. My wife grew up in Haines, Alaska, and we love eating salmon and halibut. I might make a grilled halibut with lemon caper olive oil dressing, or if I had more time to cook, my son loves rosemary rack of lamb. We’d pair it with a big salad, or a baked potato, and finish off the meal with some dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is one of my weaknesses.
Yum. How would you finish out your perfect 24 hours in December?
We’d watch some sort of funny movie or show as a family, like Talladega Nights, Zoolander, or The Big Lebowski.
Thank you, Scott, for sharing your perfect 24 Hours in Sun Valley with us! Be sure to bookmark Sawtooth Avalanche’s website for up-to-date avalanche and mountain weather reports throughout the winter.