S2:Ep3. Nikki Champion, Utah Avalanche Center


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Imagine boots on snow for 12 months a year? From the towering peaks of Denali and Rainier, to the powder-filled backcountry of Utah's Wasatch Range, that's the life of Nikki Champion. It's a long way from the young girl who was chasing gates as a ski racer in Michigan. Today, she's a vital link in helping keep Utah's backcountry safe as a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center.

As her name implies, Nikki truly championed her own path - moving from Michigan to Colorado to attend college and quickly discovering her passion for snow. She learned about snow science, taking her zest of knowledge to Montana. Seeking mentors for her burgeoning career, she headed for Alaska. Today she summers in Alaska and Washington state as a mountain climbing guide but spends winters here in Utah where she's up and at work by 3:00-4:00 a.m. on every forecast shift.


Utah Avalanche Center

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Utah Avalanche Awareness Week - Dec. 6-12
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Nikki, you returned to Utah in October and quickly found people heading to the backcountry. Is it looking like a busy season?
It sure seems like it. I've been out three days so far this year, and almost every single day the outer parking lot looks like the lifts are running. And we had a record showing at USAW (Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop) - close to a thousand people for each open night which is awesome.

Before we get to skiing, how did you find your way into mountain guiding?
I'm going on my sixth season with RMI. I used to work up in Alaska as a guide up there doing some ice climbing, glacier travel, things like that. And seven years ago I came down to the lower 48 and I climbed Mount Rainier for the first time. And while I was there, I saw all the guides climbing and I was like, 'that looks pretty fun, I think I could do that.' So the next season, I applied and I got the gig. I've entered the rotation in which I spend every May through October climbing primarily in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. So our normal rotation looks like a May on Rainier, a June on Denali, July and August back on Rainier and in the North Cascades and then off in September doing a lot of North Cascades work until I wrap up and head back to Utah.

In Nikki Champion's year, how many months are you touching snow?
Oh, gosh, probably 12 months a year. Sometimes I try to take October off and warm up. Previously I would try to kind of take some time off and go somewhere tropical and only wear sandals for a month or so, give my feet a break from the ski boots and the mountaineering boots. But somehow snow still seems to sneak into every month of my life.

Was the summer climbing impacted by COVID?
Yeah, the guiding industry seemed to be hit pretty hard by COVID this year. The whole climbing season got canceled on Denali for guide services as well as public climbers. So we were unable to do a season up there and I was actually unable to climb on Rainier until September this year. So a much different summer for me.

As a young girl, how did your life on snow begin?
I was pretty fortunate. I was actually born in Colorado, in between Denver and Steamboat. My parents got me on the skis when I was about like one and a half or two. They had me skiing with like a hula hoop out front of them so I could hold onto it. So I started skiing really young, which I thank my parents for. We moved to Michigan when I was about four, so pretty young. I began alpine racing really young as well, which took me all over the state of Michigan and out west as well to train. So it kind of came as no surprise to anyone that when I started looking at colleges when I was 18, I was looking for something out west, ideally Colorado or Montana - somewhere that had the mountains.

You learned snow science during college in Colorado and Montana, what led you to Alaska?
I kind of finally stumbled into finding out how that snow science was what I wanted to pursue. I started teaching avalanche classes in Montana. I began doing my own research outside of just helping field assistants. And I started working in the Sub-Zero Science and Engineering Lab in Bozeman, which is like a cold lab where you get to create snow. After I actually graduated, I wanted to start exploring more options for forecasting and even more seeking out new mentorship opportunities. The Chugach was a really unique situation in which it had three female forecasters, it was the only forecast center in the country that had that. So I wanted to go up to the Chugach. I was fortunate enough to land the internship up there.

Did that experience introduce you to new things that you hadn't encountered down in the lower 48?
It was new opportunities. I hadn't worked directly with the Forest Service on the forecasting side of things before. I had worked primarily as an avalanche educator with the Forest Service Avalanche Center as well. It was a new type of snow pack. So the Chugach, up in Alaska, is in Girdwood, an hour outside of Anchorage. It's a really unique snow climate in which it can represent all three of what we've identified as snow climates: the inner mountain, which is what we are here in Utah, Continental, which is more of what you think of Colorado, and then a coastal snow climate, which is traditionally Washington. The Chugach, year-to-year, has represented all three. So I was able to see a lot more rain than I'd ever seen before down in Montana and or in Utah or Colorado, as well as different problems like glide avalanches, and also just not seeing as much sun - that plays an impact on the snow.

What is snow science?
Snow science is a really fickle science, and something we're continuing to learn about every single day. The basics of what builds an avalanche, though, is you have a slab or a really strong layer over a weak layer on a bed surface that it can slide on. And then you need a slope steeper than 30 degrees.

What's the difference between skiing in a resort and the backcountry?
Ski resorts do an awesome job at mitigating the risk. What they do is they more or less create their own snow pack. So these layers that I just talked about, that slab and that weak layer, they use explosives, they use ski cutting, they use a multitude of different techniques to really destroy or test those weak layers and they create an artificial snow pack. They make sure that that weak layer or that whole setup doesn't exist within their ski resort. Now, as soon as you step outside a gate, you enter the backcountry from a trailhead. It's all the same. It's a natural snow pack. And at that point, there's none of that control. There's no explosive work testing the snow. There's no explosive work destroying that. We claim it's all just a natural raw snow pack. And you more than likely do have that make up of a slab and a weak layer.

As soon as you leave the gate, you are no longer in the ski resort and you need to think of it as the backcountry. There's not really anything known as the side country. As soon as you leave the gate, you're in the backcountry. It's the exact same as leaving a trail head.

What do we look for in the daily avalanche forecast?
Right away, you're going to see our danger rose, which has these danger ratings assigned to the different aspects and elevations of the Wasatch. That, right away, is going to give you a really simple breakdown of the dangers at those different aspects of elevations in a very visual way. Going with the danger rose, is just our bottom line statement. It's normally a couple of sentences that are just going to break it down, really simply on what the avalanche danger is, why and where from there it's really important to continue reading through the rest of the forecast.

Can backcountry users contribute to your reports?
Yeah, so we get observations directly from users. Anybody can go to utahavalanchecenter.org click on our surveillance tab and they can view all the observations from the public. But they can also submit an observation themselves from just a general day in the field. Or they can submit if they do have avalanche incident and we rely super heavily on those. We don't have enough forecasters to get to every zone, every single day. So the user observations really help us paint a full picture of the Wasatch.

How has mentorship played a role for your career?
I've been really fortunate along my whole path to have some really great mentors, both male and female. I just fell into my own personal progression. I had to actively seek out female mentors a lot more. They were harder to find. And that's why I wanted to go up to Alaska and work with all the women up there. When I got down to Utah and I took the position down here, the woman who was in this position before me, Evelyn, had started an all female women's avalanche education program. And I think that's huge for the reasons I just discussed. I think that by introducing more female specific education, it creates more opportunities for women to see other women in leadership positions, in educator positions, in forecaster positions, and then also create more mentor-mentee relationships.

Do you embrace the mentor role yourself today?
Women's education is a first huge stepping stone this year. We went from about three women's-specific education to seven courses we're doing this year. And I'm involved with all of those as well. I would like to see more women enter these entry level avalanche education courses, maybe feel more confident to then continue their own avalanche path, start taking some of the farther along avalanche education courses, and then maybe pursue a career in avalanche or snow science.

So, I've got my backcountry gear … what's next?
The first step is getting the gear that doesn't only include gear to travel uphill, but that includes avalanche rescue gear as well. So your beacon, shovel, probe, all three are essential pieces. You can't use one without the other. After that, you need to get the training. And this is a really unique year because there's a lot of resources available for people. We had an e-learning module go live on Know Before You Go, which is an online learning module that you can work through from the comfort of your own home. Beyond that, I think getting on the snow is really important. The first stepping stone for that could be just in a backcountry one-on-one, which is an evening lecture. This year it's going to be in a more hybrid form. We're going to have just all your classes and lectures recorded, and then we're going to do a Zoom question and answer with your instructor. And then a day on the field. There's avalanche education that goes beyond that, like an avalanche Level One, which is a three-day course with a snow component.

What do we tell our friends who are going into the backcountry without the gear or the training?
It's a hard topic, but it is so important. It's almost a little bit morbid when you go into the backcountry with somebody if they don't have the proper training, they don't know how to use their gear. They're telling all their partners that they don't really care about their life, which is a hard way to put it, but it's true. You want to go into the backcountry with somebody who knows how to do a rescue and you want to make sure that you know how to do a rescue. To have the education, to have the training and to know how to use all your gear is is telling all your partners that you care about them and you care that they live.

As a forecaster, you spend a lot of time in the backcountry where you have your choice of almost infinite lines. What does that perfect line look like for you?
Sometimes when we ski for work every day, it's not always powder. So I think just looking for the best line of the day, whether that be a really high snow day or the avalanche danger is high. So it might just be some low angle wiggles or maybe the best line to get out of steeping or skiing bulletproof ice as fast as you can. I think just looking for whatever is going to cause me to have the most fun that day on the way down is what I look for.

Listen in to Ski Utah's Last Chair episode with Nikki Champion to learn more:

How one of her favorite beers can keep you safe in the backcountry.
Her go-to snowy winter evening dinner at home (she's also a skilled chef).
The line she loves (or more like a region) for that perfect ski day.
And the circumstances under which she still prefers groomers over powder.

Tune in to Last Chair: The Ski Utah Podcast presented by High West Distillery and Saloon on your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to get first access to every episode.

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