Loving every turn. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Alex Aberman (@abermanphoto)
She may still be early in her career, but Nikki Champion already seems to have it all figured out.
As an avalanche forecaster by winter, mountain guide by summer, and community leader year round, Nikki has managed to combine her passion for communicating hard science and her love of skiing in a way that might even make a few of us jealous!
Why do you ski?
Oh man - this is a loaded question, at this point I ski for many reasons. The obvious answer would be that I ski because it is my main mode of travel for work, whether that be for field days, some resort laps after a forecast morning, or ski guiding work in the spring. I’m spending close to 120 days a year in ski boots!
But when it comes down to it, it’s likely the other way around. I spend most days on skis because I chose a career which allowed me to do just that. In other words, it was initially the skiing that drove me into snow science, not the snow science that drove me into skiing. Don't get me wrong, I do spend a lot of days skiing conditions that most people would describe as undesirable, but I continue to ski, and continue to love skiing, because I find joy in every type of turn, from old man pow turns, to steep spring skiing, to the inevitable breakable crust.
How did you get into backcountry skiing and snow science?
Well, I grew up ski racing in Michigan and spent a lot of time in the mountains. I attended school in Colorado to study engineering and once there I transitioned my focus from alpine racing to backcountry skiing. I joined the Outdoor Recreation Center and as a trip leader, and began shadowing guides and acting as a backcountry guide to fellow students.
I later transferred to Bozeman and that’s where things truly clicked for me. I connected with a graduate student in the snow science program who needed a field assistant with avalanche training. When I realized how closely related it was to Civil Engineering, it felt like a puzzle piece had fallen into place. It was a way to combine my academic interests with my recreational interests.
While in Montana, I began researching the Earth Sciences and Civil Engineering Departments. After graduating, I worked in the Subzero Science and Engineering Laboratory and investigated snow mechanics, while also teaching local avalanche courses.
Later on, I went up to the Chugach Range in Alaska and worked with the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center (CNFAIC). Around that time, Wendy Wagner, a longtime Utah resident and former UAC mentee, had moved into the position of director at CNFAIC. She and the rest of the women at the CNFAIC were incredible mentors to me and spoke highly of the program in Utah. So when the position for a new forecaster became available in Utah, I was lucky enough to snag it. It also helps that I spend the majority of my time on snow, as I guide in the summers on Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and Denali.
Nikki brings a keen eye for safety and a passion for fun. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Alex Aberman (@abermanphoto)
What’s your favorite part of being an avalanche forecaster?
It’s a discipline where I can indulge in my passion for the outdoors, but it’s also so mentally engaging!
Assembling the forecast is like a puzzle. Once we’ve put all the pieces together, we must effectively translate the complexity of the snowpack into a digestible format that we can easily communicate.
Our primary goal is to effectively convey the risks associated with backcountry travel amid constantly fluctuating conditions in complex terrain. We synthesize all the data into a comprehensive avalanche forecast, to paint a complete picture in as few words as possible. Every day, we’re compiling and managing so much information to help people make better decisions while having fun in the snow. There’s so much variety in this job; no two days are alike!
Favorite backcountry snack?
I'm more of a savory person than a sweet. So any type of cheese will do.
What do you hope to accomplish as a Friend of WNDR?
I was so excited for both the UAC, and myself to be involved with the WNDR Women Roost. I’ve been really fortunate to have great mentors (both male and female). The difference is, to find strong female mentors, I had to actively seek them out. This is the hurdle within the industry simply because there are just fewer women in leadership positions.
This is why I was so happy to be involved with the Roost. I don’t necessarily think women need specific programming—they don’t, they are just as strong and capable—but it’s an intimidating field without many leaders that look like us. By having a welcoming, female-specific stepping stone, I hope to give women the confidence to feel like a valuable member of the group, to speak up in any situation, and to have the knowledge and skills to safely travel through avalanche terrain.
Ideally, events like these position women to consider their personal strength and ability, and further, grow their own personal progression. The number of women in the industry doesn’t currently reflect the number of female backcountry users, and I hope to play a part in changing that.
Nikki delivers a morning snowpack briefing on day 1 of the WNDR Women Roost. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Alex Aberman (@abermanphoto)
Why WNDR Alpine?
WNDR Alpine seems to be looking at more of the big picture. Rather than just creating fun skis, they are supporting both the environment in their designs as well as the community that they are a part of. And they see the value in supporting their local avalanche center in the community they are involved in - which I am obviously a big fan of!
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