Skiing up to Surprise Lake in Grand Teton National Park to check a weather station is just another day in the office for Lisa Van Sciver, who is an instrumental part of the local avalanche forecasting team. While her job title on paper says “meteorologist technician,” her position is more colloquially known as “snow ranger.” She works with the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center and Grand Teton National Park to analyze snow and weather conditions and create a daily avalanche forecast.
Some days, Van Sciver is in the lab at 5 a.m., ready to examine data from 24 remote weather stations to get the avalanche forecast out to backcountry users first thing. Other days, she prepares her pack, turns on her avalanche beacon, and skins out into the mountains to check on weather stations and make first-hand observations.
“I like tracking the snowpack daily, seeing how it morphs and changes, and having a theory and going out looking at the snow and seeing how accurate or inaccurate you are,” she says. “It’s nature, so you’re always surprised.”
Typically, she’ll spend four days a week in the backcountry, but it varies throughout the season. In early winter, she spends a lot of time getting people to think about snow safety and encouraging avalanche awareness. In addition to formal programs, she also chats with people in the backcountry and at trailheads.
“It’s good to have awareness heightened early in the season as people are getting back in the backcountry,” Van Sciver says. “Be aware of that spicy snowpack when things are more active and more faceted snow grains are not as well bonded to each other.”
Van Sciver first developed her love of snow and mountains growing up in New Hampshire, where she spent a lot of time skiing and ski racing with her outdoorsy family. She moved to the Rockies to attend Colorado College, where she became an avid rock climber before moving to Jackson in 2003. When she’s not forecasting avalanches, she’s guiding people up mountains. She works for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides in the summer, leading people up the Grand Teton and exploring routes in the Wind River Range, Beartooth Mountains, and beyond.
She was also a full-time ski patroller for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for 10 years, where she spent early mornings conducting avalanche mitigation work to get the mountain ready to open on time. In all her avalanche-related work, she finds the impossibility of offering a definitive prediction of the snowpack the most difficult part.
“You’re trying to create a good forecast, create good awareness for people, but there’s a huge amount of uncertainty,” she says. “You can’t tell people it’s 100 percent going to avalanche at this point. Even doing mitigation work with ski patrol early season, you can make it pretty safe, but you never 100 percent know. When managing those hazards and the big risk management picture, so much uncertainty is the biggest challenge.”
But with Van Sciver and her team’s dedication to snow science and putting together the most accurate forecasts they can, backcountry users will be safer when they’re out this winter, as long as they take appropriate precautions. Get the latest forecast at: JHAvalanche.org.