The Life of an Eastern Sierra Avalanche Forecaster

Through our Keepers of the Outdoors series, we’ll introduce you to people who protect and care for our wild places.

Josh Feinberg knows that decision making in the backcountry can be life-and-death. That’s why he’s made it his job to give others the tools needed to make sound judgments.

On February 1, 2006, three skiers’ lives changed forever in one group decision. They were Mammoth Mountain ski patrollers skiing in the Eastern Sierra backcountry on a day off from work. The sky was blue. The wind was light. They intended to summit and ski Mount Walt, an 11,580-foot peak in the Blacksmith Creek drainage, near Bridgeport, California.

“No doubt, we saw wind loading—we knew that was the spot we gotta watch out for,” Josh Feinberg said. “We figured we could handle it. We can go through the trees; we can go one at a time. We can do it reasonably safely.”

The group assessed the conditions and the terrain near the top of a glade. They were highly experienced backcountry skiers with extensive training in avalanche control work. To gain the ridge, they had to cross a shallow wind-loaded gulley above a whitebark pine glade.

They decided to continue.

“It was an error in judgment for sure,” Feinberg said.

Johanna Carlsson, a Swedish native and seven-year veteran of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol, did not survive the trauma of the avalanche. She was 31.

Today, Feinberg, 42, is a forecaster for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) in Mammoth Lakes, California. Drawing on his passion for backcountry skiing and experience with an avalanche fatality, Feinberg hopes he can help other backcountry users recognize danger so they can make informed decisions to mitigate risk.

According to the ESAC incident report, Feinberg triggered a small slab avalanche and was carried a short distance before a deeper slab avalanche released and propagated above and below all three of them. All three skiers were caught in the slide. The avalanche ran 1,600 feet long, 900-vertical feet, and was 50 feet across. There was between 8 and 10 feet of debris. The slope failed on a 2-centimeter-thick wind crust of knife hardness.

A National Guard Blackhawk helicopter flew Carlsson to a hospital in Fresno where she died of her injuries. Feinberg may have also died had C.J. Pearson not held on to a tree while the avalanche swept past him. He then dug Feinberg out and cleared his airway. Feinberg had a gash in his jaw, a head injury with symptoms that lasted for months and a lifetime of grieving ahead of him.

“Losing a friend and being buried is pretty traumatic,” Feinberg said. “I don’t know, if that hadn’t happened … I might not be in the forecasting job right now.”

Even though he is motivated to help others avoid a similar mistake, it was a natural progression from ski patroller to avalanche forecaster for Feinberg. Years of dedication to learning the backcountry and studying landed him the job, which he considers a dream even on the cold, snowy, wet and windy days when he is spending more time digging pits than skiing powder. (He does get to ski a lot of powder, though.)

After graduating from college, Feinberg moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, for a season. There he learned to ski, took an Avalanche Level 1 course—the ground-level safety and information curriculum developed by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE)—and ventured into the backcountry for the first time with borrowed snowboard gear (even though he was not a snowboarder).

“I was definitely a gaper,” Feinberg says with a laugh.

In that first winter in the mountains, after taking the avy course, he gained backcountry knowledge by following experienced friends up mountains, hiking in snowshoes and carrying alpine skis and boots on his back. After that, he went into the Peace Corps for a few years, before taking a job with the U.S. Forest Service in California and eventually settling in Mammoth Lakes when started working for Mammoth Mountain Ski Patrol.

At the time of the fatal avalanche on Mount Walt, Feinberg had worked on patrol for five years. Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (MMSA) had seen four unrelated deadly accidents on the resort in less than a week, then Carlsson’s backcountry death, and two months later, the tragic deaths of three patrollers in an in-bounds work accident.

Feinberg says the community was shaken and the deaths weighed heavily upon the MMSA Patrol, which has a camaraderie that seems as much like a family as a fraternity. Nevertheless, he finished the season, and worked another year as a patroller before eventually taking the job as avalanche forecaster.

It’s a weighty thing—avalanche forecasting, but it is an important job that has the potential to change lives for the better. Founded in 2005 in response to a growing community of backcountry enthusiasts, the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) is now in its twelfth year of operation with three full–time forecasters who are paid in a large part through community fundraising.

“When we started it was bootstrap; we were scrappy,” said Nate Greenberg, president and co-founder of ESAC. The center has evolved over the years, partnering with the U.S. Forest Service for a period of time, and now operates independently.

The Eastern Sierra, which is a vast region with a relatively small population, had not had an official avalanche advisory for 10 years or longer when the lean ESAC was founded. Today, the demand continues to increase. According to the SnowSporst Industries of America (SIA) 2016-17 user report,  nationwide backcountry skiing and snowboarding participation is on the rise and at an all-time high, and the Eastern Sierra is no exception.

Valentine Canyon – likely within last 48h. @christianpondella

A post shared by Eastern Sierra Avalanche Ctr (@esavalanche) on

This year, for the first time ever, ESAC will issue avalanche advisories seven days a week during the 2017-18 winter season in response to local feedback. Feinberg, along with two other forecasters, Doug Lewis and Clancy Nelson, are tasked with issuing daily advisories in a region that spans from Virginia Lakes to Bishop—the largest forecast zone in the western U.S.

“Being a forecaster is challenging,” Greenberg said. “Assimilating and distilling the information that’s collected into something that can be conveyed clearly to the general public is an incredibly difficult task.”

The forecasters work on their own self-directed schedule coordinating field tests, compiling data, communicating with one another and writing the advisory following the National Avalanche Center’s template.

Though the Eastern Sierra has a relatively stable maritime snowpack, accidents still happen. And when they do, there is always a stigma attached. When a skier triggers an avalanche in the backcountry and breaks a leg or worse, there is often a judgment, Feinberg says.  But when a skier gets injured skiing in-bounds in the terrain park, people tend to think that it’s an accepted part of the sport.

“We don’t make other people’s decisions for them, or tell them what to do, but we are going to give them information so they can make smart decisions on their own.”

While Feinberg is doing what he loves, his connection to the profession runs deeper than just personal interest—helping to keep the conversation about risk tolerance going is a major motivating factor. He loves skiing, and says that when it’s good, “there’s nothing like it.” But deciding whether a risk is worth it or not—or how much risk is tolerable—is a deeply personal decision, says Feinberg.

“Everybody has different motivations for being out in the backcountry,” he says. “Some people are psyched to be cruising around mellow angle trees and other people tend to ski steep couloirs. Neither is right or wrong.”

“My accident is definitely something that I don’t want to talk about, but I feel that it’s valuable,” Feinberg says. “Hopefully, someone somewhere down the road will think about that and make a better decision than we did.”

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