STEVENS PASS — On the Wednesday before Christmas, the Northwest Avalanche Center’s newest forecaster, Irene Henninger, strides powerfully up Skyline Ridge across Highway 2 from Stevens Pass ski resort on her alpine touring skis. 

There are commanding views of the North Cascades atop the ridge, but Henninger is too busy digging a snow pit taller than her 5-foot-4-inch frame to stop and admire Glacier Peak in all its winter splendor. She’s more focused on tiny snow crystals that, when viewed through a magnifying scope, might give clues as to the likelihood of avalanches. As a cold wind whips through the alpine air, Henninger’s hands go numb. She windmills her arms until the sensation comes back into her fingers, producing a painful sensation known colloquially as the “screaming barfies.”

After phoning in her observations so a deskbound forecaster can type up the next day’s avalanche forecast, she skis down from the ridge to the Pacific Crest Trail and back to the trailhead. Along the way, she bumps into Harlan Sheppard, one of the Washington State Department of Transportation’s avalanche forecasters for the highway who’s out for an after-work ski tour. It is akin to meeting a new colleague at the water cooler, only this water cooler is surrounded by towering Douglas firs caked in snow.

Hired last fall, Henninger is the newbie on a team of nine forecasters at the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) who produce daily avalanche forecasts for winter recreationalists throughout the Cascades and Olympic mountains. Henninger also happens to be NWAC’s first woman field forecaster in over two decades, and she doesn’t normally check out conditions along easily reached Stevens Pass. Instead, she is tasked with covering some challenging terrain: the West Central Zone, a vast swath of mountains west of the Cascade Crest, north of Stevens Pass, and south of Mount Baker that includes areas like Mountain Loop Highway, state Route 530, and the western end of North Cascades Highway. With no ski resorts in the zone, only a few intrepid souls venture into these mountains midwinter on touring skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles. Henninger logs long backcountry slogs daily to collect valuable snowpack observations that help equip folks with the information to stay safe in the backcountry.

Irene Henninger pauses to chat with a group of skiers while ascending toward Skyline Ridge, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Michael Barkin)
Irene Henninger pauses to chat with a group of skiers while ascending toward Skyline Ridge, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. (Michael Barkin)

While the screaming barfies might be an unpleasant occupational hazard, punching the clock in a winter wonderland is Henninger’s natural habitat. And like much else in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had a lot to do with how Henninger, a New Hampshire native, came about her new role roaming the Cascades with NWAC. For more than a decade, a rotation of ski patrol and snow safety jobs have given her a semblance of a year-round career in the otherwise seasonal ski industry. Since 2008, Henninger has worked at Montana’s exclusive Yellowstone Club from October to April and at a series of New Zealand ski areas from June to September. Most years, sporting a bikini top in September while patrolling during the New Zealand spring skiing season was the closest she got to summer.

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But Henninger’s endless winter came to a screeching halt when New Zealand closed its borders as part of the island nation’s highly successful response to the pandemic.

As Northern Hemisphere winter turned to spring after Henninger spent the 2019-2020 season working in avalanche education and guiding in Utah’s Wasatch Range, she realized that there would be no Southern Hemisphere ski season in her immediate future.

Journey to the Cascades

Unemployed in the Northern summer months for the first time ever, Henninger, 35, and her partner, Andrew Forsman, started exploring an unfamiliar world of long daylight hours and short sleeves. And that’s how the pair found themselves sweltering in 90-degree heat on a rock-climbing trip in the Utah desert this past June, when, surrounded by red rock, they realized, as Henninger put it, “This is way too hot.”

So the couple did what any sensible snow lovers would do when confronted with a summer in the desert: They went to the Cascades. With glaciated volcanic peaks dotting the horizon, the Northwest can keep avid skiers busy all summer long, and the two funemployed ski industry veterans ticked off four of the region’s volcanoes in July and early August: Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount Adams and Mount Baker. They also continued to scratch their climbing itch by living out of their converted Toyota 4Runner at Hart’s Pass and Washington Pass throughout the rest of August.

Along the way, Henninger got wind of an opening for a forecaster position at NWAC. 

NWAC avalanche specialist Irene Henninger descends from Skyline Ridge near Stevens Pass Dec. 23, 2020. (Michael Barkin)
NWAC avalanche specialist Irene Henninger descends from Skyline Ridge near Stevens Pass Dec. 23, 2020. (Michael Barkin)
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With a résumé that includes training in the highest level of instruction offered by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, certifications from the American Avalanche Association and the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council to teach avalanche courses, and a stint studying at the National Avalanche School, Henninger was an attractive prospect.

“We tried to tease out if Irene was up to the challenge of exploring the West Central Zone, an area that did not have the same ease of access as our other forecast areas,” NWAC director of forecasting Dennis D’Amico said in an email. “Irene’s quiet confidence, determination to break into public forecasting and excellent professional references pushed her to the top of the list through several rounds of interviews.”

Henninger started her new job in November, and she’s quickly adapted to some of the unique local conditions.

“The first thing I did was buy Gore-Tex washer, wash-in, and spray-in all to up the game on my current possessions to ideally make them as waterproof as possible,” she said. Sure enough, it was raining at the trailhead but snowing in the alpine on her debut outing to Green Mountain.

Prepared for anything

In November, Henninger and Forsman ventured out to explore her territory so Henninger could get a taste of the area where she would be responsible for producing daily avalanche forecasts based in part on field observations. 

The couple decided to check out Green Mountain, one of the supposedly easier destinations to reach in the West Central Zone in winter. From their new home in Snohomish — a halfway point between Henninger’s forecast zone and Forsman’s seasonal gig on ski patrol at Stevens Pass — it was a quick hour up the road to Darrington, which on the map seemed just a short jumping-off point to the trailhead. Instead, they encountered miles upon miles of washboard U.S. Forest Service roads and downed trees where a chain saw would have been handy.

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Henninger’s take? “I need to be really prepared,” she said.

Irene Henninger of the Northwest Avalanche Center digs the second pit of the day at Skyline Ridge on a sunny Wednesday two days before Christmas. (Michael Barkin)
Irene Henninger of the Northwest Avalanche Center digs the second pit of the day at Skyline Ridge on a sunny Wednesday two days before Christmas. (Michael Barkin)

While the Scout’s motto applies in any mountain job, Henninger faces a far different degree of preparation with this new job. Reaching out-of-the-way mountains in her patch of the Cascades can take six hours from when she leaves her house to when she can actually make a snowpack observation on a day’s solo outing — the days can be so long and grueling that she sometimes returns to her work truck by headlamp. In Big Sky, Montana, or New Zealand, she could roll out of bed and join colleagues on snow at the resort in under half an hour — although running resort operations required plenty of oh-dark-hundred alarms to bomb avalanche-prone slopes into submission in time for the first chairlifts to start turning.

“It’s an adventure,” Henninger said of her time thus far. “The Cascades are such an impressive mountain range, but access is so difficult, especially in the West Central Zone where I’m primarily focused.”

Plus, our local trailheads boast no cushy perks like the Yellowstone Club’s infamous comfort stations, the on-mountain snack bars more colloquially known as “sugar shacks” where Henninger developed a taste for fancy goodies like UnReal Crispy Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.

Not that she’s complaining.

“I really do like being human-powered versus riding chairlifts,” she said. “I’m excited about the challenge of exploring relatively uncharted territory compared to skiing at a resort.”

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That sentiment is hardly surprising to former colleagues like Brad Saville, who worked with Henninger during her last three pre-COVID New Zealand winters at The Remarkables. “She is a dirtbag at heart for sure,” Saville said. “Chairlifts are logistically easier but her heart is where the effort lies. Wherever there’s snow, Irene will find a way to get there no matter what it takes.”

On field days, Henninger might leave the house as early as 5 a.m. and return as late as 7 p.m., logging many miles and thousands of vertical feet on skis, all while carrying a heavy daypack. On days she isn’t in the field, Henninger is collating reports from across the region from fellow observers and writing up forecasts that transmit every evening like clockwork at 6 p.m.

Irene Henninger is the only woman on the Northwest Avalanche Center’s current forecasting team. (Michael Barkin)
Irene Henninger is the only woman on the Northwest Avalanche Center’s current forecasting team. (Michael Barkin)

The professional world of winter recreation is still male-dominated. Based on her years chasing an endless winter, Henninger estimates there is generally one woman for every four men working in ski patrol — a ratio that thins out to one woman for every 10 men in snow safety and avalanche forecasting.

“In an industry that predominantly has white males running it, any woman — or minority — is going to have different levels of encounters that make them feel not so welcome,” she said. 

For instance, there was the time a patron at The Remarkables approached Henninger, who was dressed in her ski patrol uniform, and posed a question about snow conditions and open lifts to the tall man standing next to her, who had no affiliation with the resort. Or the local who managed to send his truck off the road on the way to Green Mountain. As Henninger and her partner returned to her Forest Service work truck after a long day in the mountains, the stranded back roads traveler asked Forsman if he was the Forest Service guy. “Yeah, I’m the Forest Service guy,” Henninger responded. “That definitely caught him off guard.”

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That said, Henninger finds those experiences few and far between: “With everything I’ve been around, it’s been pretty welcoming and accepting,” she said.

As Henninger eases into her new role, she is still adjusting to the peculiar climate of Western Washington, where locals often own plenty of skis but nary a snow shovel: “This is the first time I’ve ever lived in a place in the U.S. where there isn’t really snow on the ground in my yard for the whole winter,” she said. 

Although she misses having cross-country skiing out her front door — Henninger was a competitive Nordic racer from age 4 to 19 — the prospect that she could take her housemate’s sailboat out for a midwinter jaunt on Puget Sound is an intriguing change of pace from the winter extracurricular activities available in landlocked and frigid Big Sky country.

Will the deep winter snows and summer wonders of the rugged Cascades break the cycle for this chaser of ceaseless winter? “I wouldn’t say I’m there yet,” Henninger said. “But maybe I will totally fall in love with the Cascades and want to be here year-round for many years to come.”