Meet MWOBS/MWAC Intern Laura Wilson

By Laura Wilson

Hi! I’m Laura Wilson, the winter intern for both the Mount Washington Observatory and the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center, and I am so stoked to be up here! Growing up in Maine, I’ve always had a fascination with the nearby White Mountains. It’s a dream come true to live at the summit throughout all the incredible winter conditions.

During high school, I attended Gould Academy in Bethel, ME and spent a great deal of time training as a biathlete in nearby Jackson NH. My fondest memories are of foliage filled roller skis through Grafton Notch and October mornings spent trying to catch the very first snow. Clearly, the love for winter weather is nothing new. I graduated in the beginnings of COVID and opted to take a year off. This was the first time I truly had time to explore the mountains I had grown up beneath. The more forecasts I read, the more curious I became about the science behind them.

My excitement about mountains and weather led me to major in Earth Sciences at Dartmouth College. Always a snow fanatic, I quickly found a concentration in Glaciology examining the dynamics of ice and firn (old snow). As an avid backcountry skier, the obvious next step was to stretch this knowledge towards studying avalanche dynamics.

This internship has been an incredible blending of two Mount Washington institutions. Weather is so integral to the Avalanche Center operations, and it has been an amazing opportunity to join forecasting calls from the summit and have the ability to provide real time observations. Conversely, it’s been incredible to apply forecasts made by my mentors at MWOBS to in-person field work with the Avalanche Center. This partnership allows me to be involved with the forecast every step of the way, from the creation of the weather forecast in the evening, to early morning avalanche forecast calls, to collecting field observations throughout the day, I receive real time feedback on how weather and snow conditions are developing around Mount Washington. The experience is invaluable and is improving my forecasting in ways I never thought possible.

Climbing up Lobster Claw in search of wind slabs.

While most of my time at the summit is spent looking at models and weather data, my weeks with the avalanche center are much more fieldwork oriented. I start my day at 5am to check the most recent weather models and assemble my notes before the 5:40 avalanche forecasting meeting. The forecast is edited and published by 7am, and the field day begins. Every day with the avalanche center looks a bit different as avalanche conditions can change drastically day to day. With only four forecasters (plus an intern), there’s an art to prioritizing locations for field observations. Since much of MWAC’s mission is focused on education, on lower risk days, we try to stop by local avalanche courses to discuss the most recent forecast and answer questions. Then, we’re headed out into the terrain to confirm the location, size, and sensitivity of a forecasted avalanche problem, sometimes simply by confirming stability in an area of low concern. Observations can be as brief as a visual assessment or hand shear (quick stability test on the upper snow layers) or as in-depth as a full snow pit (assessing layer size/hardness, grain size/type, and temperature gradient). Snow pits take time and are usually reserved for areas of greater uncertainty. Once we’ve gathered our observations, the day winds down and, if I’m lucky, I can escape the snowmobile in favor of skiing down the Sherb. Lastly, I’ll check weather models and crowd sourced observations on the MWAC website (SO helpful) before heading to bed.

Sherb lap after a day with the Avalanche Center!

Currently, I’m beginning the second month of my internship. So far, I’ve had the chance to establish a study slope with MWAC to examine wind slab formation, collect observations throughout Tuckerman’s Ravine, radio morning forecasts to the AMC huts, and publish my first Higher Summits Forecast. I’m awed by this place, and so thankful that this is just the beginning!

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