By Dave Person
Not only does Parchment High School graduate Nikki Champion hold the distinction of being the youngest female avalanche instructor/forecaster on the continent, but she’s the youngest, period.
“It’s a very male-dominated field,” she says. “I am the youngest avalanche instructor in North America, and definitely the youngest female avalanche instructor in North America.”
That’s not so surprising because Champion, 28, who graduated from Parchment in 2011, has been on skis since she was a toddler in Colorado, where she was born.
Her family moved to Parchment not long after that and she walked the halls of its elementary, middle and high schools before her graduation.
“When I was at Parchment I raced for the ski team as well as for USSA (U.S. Ski and Snowboard),” she says.
She also took some pretty rigorous classes.
“I was pushed toward engineering in Parchment; I did well in math, AP calculus and advanced physics,” she says.
So it was no surprise when it came time to pick a college that she enrolled at the Colorado School of Mines in the state of her birth to study engineering.
While she was there, she says, she transitioned from alpine (downhill) to backcountry skiing.
She joined the Outdoor Recreation Center and eventually became a backcountry guide for other students.
After a while, she decided to continue her civil engineering studies at Montana State University at Bozeman, discovering once she got there that engineering and snow science were closely related.
She hooked up with a graduate student who was looking for a field assistant in snow science.
“After working with him things started to snowball,” she says without giving any indication whether the pun was intended.
She began teaching classes on avalanches.
But what could she do in the summers that would keep her connected to snow?
“It was around that time about seven or eight years ago I began working as a climbing guide in the Pacific Northwest,” she says.
She guided climbers up Mount Rainier in Washington and Denali in Alaska, something she still does during the summers.
Winters were spent studying at Montana States until she graduated with a degree in civil engineering. She then stayed on for another year as a research assistant and taught avalanche courses.
But Alaska was calling so she headed north in 2018 to spend a winter at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center in Girdwood as a research intern.
There, she says, she actively sought out other women, including the CNFAIC director, Wendy Wagner, who were outstanding mentors to her, she says.
“People need to see people who look like them,” she says.
When a position opened up at the Utah Avalanche Center for a forecaster the next year, Champion applied for it and got it. She now is part of the avalanche forecasting team for the Ogden, Provo and Salt Lake regions of Utah.
“I really enjoy how different our job is every day,” she says.
A couple days a week she’s at the forecast center before dawn going through information to determine danger ratings for skiers, snowmobilers and hikers, and predict the likelihood of avalanches.
“We take these really complex variables and make them digestible,” she says.
She spends three or four days a week out in the field looking at snowpack and recent avalanche activity.
“We’re backcountry skiing and we’re looking at the snow as we go,” she says of the activities that she and her field partners conduct.
Backcountry skiing can be dangerous, Champion says, pointing out that Utah had seven avalanche fatalities last winter, and the United States as a whole tied for the most avalanche fatalities in recorded history.
Forecasters are aware how precarious their own situations can be.
“It’s inherently dangerous for us as well,” she says.
Champion says she is fortunate that she has not been caught in an avalanche, but she says, “I have been on accident investigations and recoveries.”
In addition to forecasting, she does a lot of women-specific avalanche programming in Utah, paying it forward from the mentoring opportunities that she received in Alaska.
Champion says Utah’s avalanche center is one of the largest in the country, and she expects to continue working as a forecaster there for a while.
“I see myself here for the foreseeable future but maybe down the line I’lll see myself as a director,” she says.
Champion, whose mother still lives in the Kalamazoo area while her father resides in Grand Rapids and her younger brother is in Tennessee, says the career she has carved out is not at all what she was expecting when she went off to Colorado to school.
Her intentions, she says, were to be an environmental engineer with a humanitarian focus, such as working on clean-water issues.
But she couldn’t be happier with the way her life has turned out.
“It was a pretty wandering path and it wasn't what I initially thought it would be,” she says.
“I am so fortunate even though it didn't work out the way I initially planned it.”