What the heck is the Sonoran Avalanche Center?

A sardonic social media account gains popularity from taking down sacred ski idols and imagining a future without snow.

If you live in a Western ski town, maybe you’ve seen it: A Fiat 500 Abarth, emblazoned with the words “Sonoran Avalanche Center,” which the Tucson-based “for-profit” takes to ski areas across the West to ironically tout the joys of skiing without a snowpack. The vehicle’s stubby shape and flashy red, white and green branding have been spotted everywhere from Montana to Colorado.

“What the hell?” you might ask yourself. “Why does southern Arizona need an avalanche center?” Perhaps you’ve never considered these critical questions: Is the snow I’m skiing dangerously powdery? What are the avalanche risks of a bare scree field? How about an arroyo?


The Sonoran Avalanche Center (SAC) and its offshoot, Tucson Gravity Research, have become social media hits, with Instagram and Twitter posts dedicated to lampooning the sacred idols of skiing: Vail Resorts, powder shots — even snow itself. Its unlikely headquarters can be found on the scrubby slopes of Mount Lemmon, above Tucson, where its “forecasters” pontificate on the risks of everything from snow sliding off boulders to icicles falling from buildings to literal avalanches — as in earth- or rockslides.

Len Necefer, cofounder of Sonoran Avalanche Center and CEO of Natives Outdoors, skis up Seekseekqua (also known as Mount Jefferson) in Oregon, amid trees scorched by 2020’s Lionshead Fire, which burned over 200,000 acres.
Tyler Roemer

Its sly, antiauthoritarian posts, sometimes set to banda music, have gone viral repeatedly. But SAC is more than a meme account; it partners with environmental organizations, such as Protect Our Winters, to advocate for climate action. High Country News recently caught up with Len Necefer, one of the people behind SAC. Necefer (Diné) is the CEO of Natives Outdoors, a prominent athlete and an advocate for recreation equity and addressing the impacts of climate change. HCN, though, had to know: Why the sports car!?

Len Necefer: We thought: How far can we take this? What about an Italian sports car? How funny would it be for a for-profit avalanche center have an Italian sports car? We thought: Oh, a Fiat 500 Abarth! It was the most fuel-efficient Italian sports car that we could find. It gets like 40, 45 miles to the gallon.

High Country News:
How did the Sonoran Avalanche Center come to be? And what exactly does it mean to be a for-profit avalanche center? That’s got to be a joke.

LN: One of my friends from Durango, Colorado, came down, and we skied at Mount Lemmon Ski Valley. When we were up there, we were scoping some of the out-of-bounds areas, and we realized there's definitely stuff to be skied there. We were multiple beers in after that and just saw an opportunity: There’s no avalanche center in southern Arizona. We decided we were going to make one. Then we thought: What would make Sonoran Avalanche Center different than other avalanche centers? Well, theres no snow here, really. And the hazards are cactuses and mudslides. Weve had to come up with new terms like “agualanches,” which are flash floods. We decided to be a year-round avalanche center because monsoons can get pretty crazy.

We just call ourselves a for-profit avalanche center. And we dont really know what that means yet. We've been playing around with AI chatbots and getting them to write super neoliberal nonsense junk about the untapped market of non-snow avalanches and how this is a growth opportunity for for-profit avalanche centers. Just poking fun at the consumerism and elitism that exists in skiing.



HCN: At one point, I embarked on a project where I was going to ski every month of the year, but I live in the Southwest. For three months of the year, at least, I just skied dirt. Thered be like a gap in the junipers, and it’d be like, “Ill bet we could ski that.” Theres something so lovely about that. I will have that excitement of “We skied the thing thats not a line.”

LN: Yeah, just collecting all those first descents.

HCN: It gave me this sense that SAC reflects something about living — and skiing — in the Southwest that's more holistic. It’s not just about skiing. It also about this place where we live.

LN: Yeah, yeah, totally. It’s just influenced by the culture of Tucson. My own lineage and heritage are also Mexican. It’s connected with a lot of people who are Indigenous and Mexican or Central American, who are skiers and live in ski towns. We just really want to culture jam the ski industry. It’s like: Have you ever seen a ski movie that’s all banda music, you know?

One of the things were working on right now is were talking to a couple mariachi bands and norteño bands in Tucson to write a ballad, like a corrido, for SAC.

Maurice Cruz skis Mt. Lemmon, above Tucson, Arizona, earlier this year.
Len Necefer/Sonoran Avalanche Center

HCN: What is the ski culture in Tucson?

LN: Mount Lemmon Ski Valley is actually the southernmost legit ski resort in North America. Theres one in Mexico, but it’s not actually snow. Its artificial turf. So Mount Lemmon is the southernmost snow-based ski area in North America.

I started researching the history of skiing in Tucson, and how it started. One of the things I ran across was Lowell Thomas, a journalist who was best known for publicizing Lawrence of Arabia. He came down, and he and his son went skiing up on Mount Lemmon, and it just kind of evolved from there. Lowell Thomas, as a joke, created this thing called the Sahuaro Ski Club. And the logo was a cowboy with skis, riding a cactus. Clearly, they werent taking themselves seriously about the ski culture back then or about what skiing in Tucson was.



SAC is paying tribute and homage to that, but also trying to give people a perspective of what skiing could look like if we continued on this path of not addressing climate change.

The ski culture has been like the snowpack. There used to be two or three ski shops in Tucson at one point. Now there’s one dude that will tune skis and boards in his garage or something. On Mount Lemmon, its a lot of local folks. Then theres folks that come up from Mexico. You can see mountains in Mexico from the top of the list on Mount Lemmon, and you can see Tucson. Its a really beautiful view.

HCN: SAC rarely mentions climate change in its social posts, but it seems really climate-linked. Is that intentional? How do you connect the dots there?

LN: Theres the culture of what skiing is — and what it isnt — and I think theres an attachment to certain types of skiing.

New Belgium Brewing asked us to help them with a beer called the Torched Earth. It was this terrible-tasting beer that tried to show what beer could taste like in 100 years, when all the crops were impacted. As part of that promo, I and my buddy Aaron Mike, one of the cofounders of SAC, who is also a part of the Sonoran Avalanche Center, decided to go try to hitchhike up to Mount Lemmon with skis on our backs, like what you would do in Colorado on the passes. It was like a 70-degree day. He started walking up the road and he was clearly putting out his thumb and all these cyclists were passing and rubbernecking, and people were completely confused. And then we decided to go ski some really raunchy rock-filled snow patches. It was a way to talk about how were already living in a future in Tucson where our snow seasons have shrunk dramatically.

Not all of the things that we post are climate-related, some of its just nonsense posting. But it’s driven by the question: How do you hold peoples attention when you have to talk about the heavy stuff?

Len Necefer/Sonoran Avalanche Center

HCN: Does the humor help you as a person who has to look at this issue every day?

LN: Oh, for sure.

One of the projects I've been working on in recent years is with Pete McBride, a National Geographic photographer who has been documenting the drought in the West for decades. We walked down the Yampa River at its lowest recorded level. It was a fucked-up trip. It’s like 60 miles, and we walked something like 33 of it, pulling pack rafts down the bottom of a river. Seeing that, and knowing that that water going down the Yampa will be coming out of my tap in Tucson, made an impact. I think a lot of people who ski kind of forget that larger picture of the snow that we’re skiing on, that it is going to end up in the bodies of people and animals and plants.

The snow industry takes itself a little seriously. It feels like it’s so important to get the perfect shot, you know, coming down through the powder. Its performative. They’re selling the glory of skiing. SAC is like: How do you sort of throw a wrench in that and say, “This might not exist if we continue down this path”?

HCN: Do you have any tips for our readers planning backcountry ski vacations in the Sky Islands?

LN: If youre skiing in the summer, you got to watch for, you know, unconsolidated rock. The base layers that are about 2 million years old, sometimes they can rip. And you just got to really watch out for those saguaros.


We welcome reader letters. Kate Schimel is thnews and investigations editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected]  or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.