In one of his early-season snowpack discussions for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website, Rikkers counseled: “Don’t be tempted to jump into a slope just because you’re powder starved.” Later he told me with his trademark, self-aware chuckle that of course he included himself in that powder-starved collective.
Rikkers is a rangy, athletic 43. Originally from Amherst, Mass., now a resident Ophrican, he juggles three snow-loving jobs at once. He works part-time for the Colorado Department of Transportation forecasting avalanche hazard on Highway 145 from Lizard Head Pass to Rico. He is a guide with Telluride Helitrax. And he is the one-man CAIC forecast office for the northern San Juan Mountains, an area half the size of Switzerland, Telluride to Ouray, Silverton to Creede. This is his second year in a program he helped create with the Avalanche Center’s brainy young director, Ethan Greene.
Greene took over the Boulder-based CAIC in 2005 following the retirement, after 34 years, of founding director Knox Williams. Knox’s were big boots to fill. He had become the first-name face and voice of winter weather and avalanche information in Colorado, best known perhaps for his morning radio forecasts, which ended Cronkite-like (albeit with a high-pitched Texas twang): “As always, be careful out there.”
Boulder native Greene brought new-generation computer smarts to the job along with his PhD in meteorology (“heat transfer and the development of microstructure in the snowpack”) from Colorado State University. He also brought new momentum to a concept begun under Knox to improve CAIC’s relevance by adding satellite field offices.
In the past CAIC divided the state into three zones, the northern, central and southern mountains. Now there are 10 zones to more accurately reflect the diverse conditions range-to-range. Rikkers is one of three satellite offices. The others are in Summit County and Aspen, and Greene hopes to get one going in the Steamboat area next. The idea is that local forecasters not only contribute to the Boulder “mothership’s” collective wisdom, but also provide regular, consistent, range-specific information for local backcountry users.
“Historically, ours is a notorious zone,” Rikkers says. “The San Juans have a big history of avalanche activity – and accidents. Winter backcountry use has really spiked here in the last five years. We’ve reached a kind of critical mass. Skiers are more savvy and much bolder. There’s been a whole paradigm shift in terms of skill sets, equipment and the kinds of lines people are riding. Ethan and I realized it was time to match that shift, that need, with a new information paradigm.”
Rikkers is the perfect guy to implement it. His snow jones took him straight from high school graduation in 1983 to Alta, Utah, for two winters, where he had the backcountry epiphany. “One day while we were slogging through cut-up crud on the ski area I watched these two guys on swallow-tail snowboards hike up Cardiff and carve these perfect figure eights in the untouched powder. And I said, ‘I want to do that!’ Yeah baby! … I had a couple of close calls and thought I better start learning something about snow.”
First came a stint at Prescott College. Then in 1990, with younger brother Scott, he bought Cabin #3 in Ophir, and the snow adventure continued. Then there was the masters program in snow hydrology at CU Boulder and research with the famous INSTAAR (Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research) program. Then fours years in Silverton working with CAIC forecast veterans Andy Gleason, Jerry Roberts, Ann Mellick, and Susan Hale. And somewhere in there, five years as Dean of Students at Crested Butte Academy. Phew!
Rikkers admits the satellite office concept is still evolving. He wants to add a radio and perhaps a newspaper component to the mix. And he wants local backcountry aficionados to contribute to the info pool by adding their observations to the website at: avalanche.state.co.us.
Meanwhile, look for Rikkers’ forecasts and snowpack discussions there. Just click on the northern San Juans. (Also, consider joining the Friends of the CAIC program.) And don’t forget the CAIC fundraiser tomorrow night, Wednesday, Dec. 12, at The Cornerhouse in Telluride. Silent auction 6-8 p.m. Party until closing. The money couldn’t go to a better cause – your safety in the backcountry.
Rikkers is about safety, but not only safety. I remember my first avalanche classes in the late 70s. Our instructors were mostly saying: Oooo, avalanche path, don’t go there! Mark Rikkers is a skier. He knows that many of the best ski descents in the San Juans are avalanche paths. He’s all about skiing them when conditions are right, and skiing somewhere else when things are rocking and rolling. That’s the beauty of Rikkers’ vision: It’s all about the day, the company, the line, the story written in the snow. And everybody coming back in one piece.
As always, be careful out there.