As the only girl in a five-kid family in Auckland, New Zealand, Becs Hodgetts grew up idolizing avalanche forecasters. “Whenever I saw them, I was like, I want to be like them,” Hodgetts says. “They were outdoorsy, happy, laid-back, and their lifestyle seemed really fun.” Few folks fulfill their childhood ambitions, but Hodgetts has. This winter marks the 41-year-old’s second season as one of three female forecasters with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. She joined the CAIC after 11 years as a ski patroller at Arapahoe Basin, following stints at Mt. Ruapehu on New Zealand’s north island; Sunshine Village in Banff, Alberta; and Keystone. (She also spent three years living with her boyfriend, A-basin snow safety director Jamie Ober, and their avalanche dog, Tane, in the ski area’s first-aid room.) Hodgetts, who this winter is working at CAIC’s Leadville office forecasting for a zone that includes Highway 91, Independence Pass, and Monarch Pass, details the joys and perils of one of the highest-stress jobs in the state.
Being a girl surrounded by guys doesn’t bother me. I don’t know any different. I’ll say I got picked on as a kid, and my brothers will say I got protected because I was the only girl. When you attend conferences like ISSW [International Snow Science Workshop], you realize how women are the minority in avalanche forecasting. It’s the only place you’ll ever go socially where the guys’ line for the toilet is out the door and there’s no wait for the women’s room.
We’re supposed to start work at 5:30 in the morning, but I’m often on the job by 4, especially if I’m wigging out about recent changes in the snowpack or if there’s a storm coming through. And last season that happened a lot.
You wake up and start looking at weather stations for your zone—what’s happened upstream of you, so what’s still coming at you; how much snow did we get overnight; what’s the wind doing? I draw a map of my area on a piece of paper each morning with five weather stations that are pretty reliable indicators for the area. That gives you an overall idea of what you’re dealing with.
At 5:30 we get online and chat via Skype with all of the other forecasters around the state. It’s anywhere from four to seven people each day. We debate the conditions: “Why do you think that? I don’t think that. We’re seeing this …” It’s a pretty lively conversation, then by about 6 or 6:30, we try and write what we’ve got to say and send it out to the public. We update the website, MP3, hotlines, all that sort of stuff.
Then we fill out a trip report on where we’re going that day, whom we’re going with, how long we’re going for, what we’re looking at, what problems we expect to see. It’s 9:30 by the time I’m heading out the door into the field. You take your “obs,” and the Boulder forecaster is there till 2, so if we see a slide or if things aren’t quite what we thought, then we can text them a picture with our two-way satellite messaging device, which we carry for our safety and also for sharing information. More often than not, I’m alone.
After my tour I write up my field report, and I’m kind of done. That’s the ideal day, but there’s a lot of teaching and public speaking, too. Every day last year, I came home fearing that someone had an accident in my zone. It’s horrible. We shouldn’t take any ownership of [fatalities], because they really have nothing to do with you. But you kind of do. One of the questions in an accident investigation is, “Did you read the bulletin?” If they say yes, then obviously I didn’t get my message across. Sometimes I feel that.
In the middle of the season [last year], around when all the fatalities were happening, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m over this industry.” Talking to the other forecasters was really what brought me back around. Working on avalanches and being outside just feels like the right place to be. I kind of always liked the jobs that took over your life—and I like coming home tired. It’s really fulfilling.