Backcountry rider in a wave of powder above Lake Tahoe

If you venture out in the winter world around Tahoe, you most likely have heard of the Sierra Avalanche Center. If you consider yourself an avid backcountry person you definitely (should) know of the Sierra Avalanche Center. To say your life could depend upon it is not being overly theatrical. SAC, as it is often referred to, has been in existence since November 2004. Back then it posted snow condition summaries with one employee. In partnership with the US Forest Service, SAC has grown to produce daily avalanche forecasts.  The forecasts cover 1,500 square miles of the Sierra Nevada. This zone stretches from Yuba Pass, north of Truckee, down south to the Ebbetts Pass region of Bear Valley.

From Fledgling to "Go To"

The Sierra Avalanche Center began as most fledging non-profits do, with humble ambitions. Its direction was simple, to bring snow safety awareness to Tahoe's community.  While still modest in its perspective, its growth has been notable, especially in the last few years.  SAC's decision making body is a dedicated volunteer board of directors, made up of 13 diverse, yet all, winter evangelists. There is also an advisory board to give further expertise and assistance to the organization.

Much of the Center's expansion has come under the guidance and commitment Donny Triplat, the executive director.  SAC's team of forecasters, out digging for data, has grown to three Forest Service avalanche specialists, and two professional observers.  Additional forecasting support comes from the Tahoe National Forest division. The center also enlists data from local backcountry guide services, professional ski patrols, and the general public. The involvement of all of these people have made SAC the go-to source before stepping out into our region's backcountry.

Today, the Sierra Avalanche Center's mission remains straight forward: to inform and educate the public about backcountry avalanche conditions in the greater Lake Tahoe area.  To do so they have taken a multi faceted approach with: daily website advisories, morning e-m updates, and a direct call in number; numerous out reach "Know Before You Go" (KBYG) presentations; outdoor shop events, such as Granite Chief Ski Shop's own Beers Brats & Airbags (on November 17th); as well as, "are you beeping" beacon checkers at trailheads.   This approach has dramatically increased the backcountry user's understanding of "get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the picture, Sierra Avalanche Center Arva Beacon Checkerand get out of the way". Hits on SAC's website also clearly show the Center's growth, having for the first time surpassed 1 million page views in a single season.

 Awareness & Education

With the dramatic rise in backcountry travel, the Sierra Avalanche Center's has been a strong local voice preaching for education in backcountry protocol.  KBYG is just the first step in that process.  SAC is quick to encourage backcountry users to take an AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) Level I avalanche course.  For outdoor oriented people that only makes sense - if you live by the ocean or a large lake, you learn how to swim, and about water conditions.  If you live in mountainous snow country, you learn about avalanches. With unperceived risks, neither locations are particularly forgiving of ignorance.

Sierra Avalanche Center's Travis Fiest holds up a slide of slab snow.

To combat snow safety ignorance, Triplat points out, "we are fortunate to have a large number of AIARE course providers in our region.  Courses are offered by the community colleges, to long standing guide business. The courses are an investment, one that goes without saying, is well worth it".  Last year, under an OHV grant, the Avalanche Center was also able to offer a limited number of AIARE I snowmobile specific courses.  This program is continuing for 2017-18.

What's the best time to get educated about snow safety - how about before you have that pit feeling in your stomach, standing in, or below avalanche terrain?   Now is the time to make your commitment. While one KBYG, or AIARE I course won't qualify you an expert, it will help you realize questionable decisions you made in the past, and/or help you from unknowingly gamble in the future. The education will also allow you to gain insightful mileage, as you apply and build upon your knowledge. Such gauged experience allows you to become a wise, and old, backcountry user.

Winds of Change and Thanks

One final note about the Sierra Avalanche Center - After 12 years of dedicated service, Don Triplat will be passing the crusade along to others. Our community owes a great deal of gratitude to Donny Don Triplat, outgoing SAC exec dir.for his commitment to make us more "avy savy".  Hedging my bet with SW storm winds this season, something tells me he'll be increasing his backcountry ski time. Moving into Don's executive director chair will be Mark O'Geen.  The responsibility of coordinating educational efforts will be going to Travis Feist. Both O’Geen and Feist bring a wealth of experience to their positions. Two to fill the shoes of one - I'd say the Center is continuing to grow, for all of our benefit.

To help support the Sierra Avalanche Center, go to their website,   For more information on AIARE course providers, check out SAC's education page. If you are curious about the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, go to You may also check out the Know Before You Go program at Last but not least, come join us at Granite Chief for Beers, Brats & Airbags, on November 17th. We'll have a beverage and a brat waiting for you. Oh, and we have rustled up a tremendous raffle, worthy of a big mountain backcountry experience, to benefit the Center's efforts.