Faces of the Forest Service

Meet Wendy Wagner

Office of Communication
March 7th, 2017 at 2:00PM

A photo of Wendy Wagner examines snow grains in the snowpack
Wendy Wagner examines snow grains in the snowpack -- an important requirement for understating whether a slope is prone to avalanche or not. (Photo Credit: Wagner Family Photos.)

Sometimes in life you get to do what you love and what you dreamed about doing as a kid. This is truly the case for Wendy Wagner whose dream job was, and is, to work as an avalanche forecaster under the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. This is because the Forest Service avalanche centers around the country are flagships for providing public safety messaging and outreach to winter backcountry users all over the nation.

In fact, Wendy says she’ll never forget how elated she was to get a phone call in January of 2011 with an offer to be an avalanche forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center in Girdwood, Alaska, beginning her official avalanche career.

What led you to work for the Forest Service and when did you start working here?

My unofficial career in avalanches began when I started backcountry skiing while in college at Western State College of Colorado in Gunnison, Colorado. After a close call with an avalanche in the Colorado backcountry in the mid 90’s, I developed a keen desire to learn about snow.

My interest only grew for the next 10 years, but I could only give it so much attention as I was a U.S. Ski Team athlete at the time focused on a cross-country ski career. It was in 2006 when I retired from ski racing, entered into graduate school at the University of Utah to study mountain weather and shortly after became a mentee of the Utah Avalanche Center. I was fortunate to have mentors along the way that nurtured a path to working in the avalanche field.

What do you do in the Forest Service avalanche center and what is your favorite part of your job?

I am currently the director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. My favorite part of the job is helping winter backcountry skiers and snowmachiners make safer decisions during their adventures in the mountains! I am also grateful to have two field days per week that allow me to be outside collecting snowpack and weather information for the daily avalanche advisory. Last, I am fortunate to be able to work with three incredible avalanche specialists that make up our staff of four at the Chugach avalanche center.

A photo of Wendy Wagner Having fun in the snow with her Alaska family
Having fun in the snow with her Alaska family Wendy, who was twice on the U.S. Olympic cross country team, has always enjoyed outdoors winter sports. (Photo Credit: Wagner Family Photos.)

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city surrounded by mountains. With snow blanketing these large peaks all winter, I sometimes found myself staring out the window of my high school classrooms, daydreaming about what it would be like to ski them. I used to race out of school and head up the canyon to train for cross-country skiing, but this was in the mountain valleys. It was not until graduate school that I finally got to ski those peaks!

Who or what inspired you growing up?

My mother and father were my inspiration. Both of them lead successful athletic lives and our family loved to spend time in the mountains, in summer and winter. When I was 18 years old, I paced my mother for the last 10 miles of the Wasatch 100 ultra marathon race -- a 100 mile mountain running race! I’ll never forget her determination and grit as I walked and jogged those last miles with her as she was on her way to be the first woman to cross the finish line! My father is also tough as nails and I didn’t know giving up was an option until later in life, I can still remember him saying “the sky is the limit” if you work hard.

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

I love to be outside; whether it's mountain biking or traveling in the summer, or backcountry skiing or snowmobiling in the winter. I also love snow science and snow crystals - getting out my 'scope' to see these amazing structures magnified always fills me with excitement.

What is your highest personal and professional achievement?

I would say I have three very different achievements I am proud of -- the first being my achievement as a two-time U.S. Olympian in Cross-country Skiing in 2002 and 2006. Second would have to be getting my Master's Degree in Atmospheric Sciences from the University of Utah. Lastly, I’m honored to be the director of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center.

A photo of Wendy on a mountain bike
Although snow related sports are Wendy’s favorite outdoors activities, when there’s no snow to be found you can find her exploring the great outdoors on her mountain bike. (Photo Credit: Wagner Family Photos.)

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I would hope the public sees our work as being a positive contribution to our society and country. More specifically, encouraging a healthy lifestyle by providing ways to stay safe while recreating on Forest Service lands. The avalanche center is focused on public safety and creating a mountain culture with a strong community working together.

What are your future career goals?

I am in my second year as the Director of the Avalanche Center and I would like to see the Center continue to grow. I'd like our public outreach and avalanche advisories to increase along with the increase in winter backcountry users.