Michael Fagin has never been to Nepal, but he can tell you more about the weather on Mount Everest than the climbers who are camped there.
The 65-year-old Redmond man is one of the main forecasters for the world’s tallest mountain, offering weather reports to major expeditions looking for a window of nice weather, during which they can attempt to reach the summit.
He puts together his forecasts in the wee hours, usually with jazz piano or string bass playing in the background, hoping his wife and cat stay asleep so he can work without distraction.
It wasn’t always this way.
Fifteen years ago, Fagin did marketing for a small-business lobbying group in Washington. That paid the bills, but his heart was always in the weather, stretching back to his days as a boy growing up in Chicago.
Fagin was fascinated with weather even then and would have weather maps faxed to him so he could pore over them.
In 1996, he launched Washington Online Weather with information on the Cascade Mountains. By 2003, he was operating everestweather.com and reading storms for big-name climbers like Jimmy Chin and Ed Viesturs.
Here are some of his musings on his job and how he got to where he is.
Q: How did you become one of the main forecasters for the world's tallest mountain?
A: I started doing local forecasts on Rainier and Baker in the late-90s, and I must’ve been noticed by some climbers, because in 2003, this climber contacted me and asked me to forecast for a remote peak in Pakistan.
First I scratched my head and then I said, “why not?” Everest was my tune-up for Pakistan, but Everest caught on. I just sent off some free forecasts. They liked my forecast and toward the end of the season, they decided they’d purchase my forecasts because they were rather accurate. The rest was history.
Q:How much of your business comes from climbers? What other types of clients do you get?
A: Individual climbers are on a limited budget, and they don’t have a lot of funds for weather forecasts. I’d say 30 percent of my business is climbers.
Then I have this part that’s for forensic, as an expert witness in court. I also do a snow forecast for the local school district. I work for another meteorologist doing an agriculture forecast for Napa Valley in California. I also forecast for engineering firms looking for rain and stormwater tests. They’re all equally difficult.
Q: What kind of work goes into reading weather on the big mountains?
A: I look at historical maps for good and bad patterns. I also include any confidence level to the climbers, because they’re making huge decisions.
If I’m saying there’s a jet stream moving in in four days, I need to communicate how confident I am of that. I look at six different forecast models, and sometimes they’ll give me six different solutions.
Where the forecasts really jump around is on how much snowfall there will be. Will they get one foot versus two feet?
Q: What is a typical workday like for you during climbing season?
A: I get up at 5 a.m. and get the coffee and the forecast models going. I’ll look at what clients send me about the prior day’s weather and look at how much snow they got in the last 24 hours, noticing any winds up high.
I’ll look at the feedback, I’ll look at the different blogs. There are some weather stations to look at. Then I read the forecast models and spend about three hours doing that, then prepare the forecast. I have it ready by 9 a.m.
In the afternoon, I’ll take one more look at it and then send it out about 7 p.m. my time, which is 7 a.m. their time.
Q: What makes you more reliable than the normal forecasting service?
A: I put a lot of time and effort into the forecast, being extremely thorough. I leave no stone unturned.
I look at those six forecast models and then interpret what the weather pattern is and kick in my 13 years of experience to filter out the bias. Then I critique it and make sure it’s really going to happen, so I’ll rethink it.
I know what the different weather patterns can do in the mountains and the type of information mountaineers are looking for. I know one of the focuses is to keep the clients out of harm’s way. Attention to detail is the key.
I try to be perfect. It’s not possible, but that’s my goal.
Q: How often do you get it wrong?
A: I’m very, very accurate with jet stream being over there and big events. Getting exact winds is tricky. That’s hard to refine to that level.
There’s one time I did miss a forecast. The guy was angry. On Monday, they’re sitting at one of the higher camps, and the jet stream is pretty much over Everest, and the winds are 70 mph at the top. And I say on Tuesday, I don’t see any reductions in the winds.
They went down on Monday and on Tuesday. For some unbeknownst reason, the winds went from 70 mph to 10 to 15 mph.
Someone (else) got a summit, and this guy was rather hot. He was really angry because on Wednesday and Thursday, the winds did calm down like I said they would, and this individual didn’t have enough to go back up to the summit.
Q: How many clients are you willing to forecast for at a time?
A: For Everest, I’m doing similar forecasts whether I have two or 10 clients. Usually I average five clients, and generally it’s the same forecast.
Q: What kind of training did you receive to do this?
A: I started with being the weekend forecast for Washington Online Weather for the Cascades. I realized I wanted to go full time, so at the age of 50, I decided to change careers.
I wasn’t really interested in getting a full degree at the University of Washington, so I asked other meteorologists what four courses would give me the most bang for my buck.
I worked for two private meteorologists who mentored me and trained me in 2000, then I graduated to doing forecasts for them. I went to weather workshops.
Q: What are some of the coolest gigs you’ve had?
A: One of the feathers in my cap was Ed Viesturs when he did his 14th 8,000-meter peak. … I did the forecast for his Annapurna trip. (In 2005, Viesturs became the first American to summit all the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.) He even put me in his book “No Shortcuts to the Top.”
A Mexican climber who does a lot of interesting stuff did both sides of Everest in one season, and I did his forecast. That was a great experience. I forecast for Jimmy Chin on Meru, the one he just did a movie about.
Q: What’s the craziest weather system you’ve ever read and where was it?
A: I’ll never forget this one storm. It was June 1972 in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
What interested me was the winds were blowing upslope of the hills, and it was pouring. I was a kid growing up in Chicago, and I remember the pictures in the papers. The floods were horrible. I realized what the mountains can do — 15 inches of rain in six hours. That really stood out.
That HudHud Cyclone in Annapurna several years ago was another one. I was forecasting for a private climber climbing in the area and tracking that storm to let him know, you better head for lower ground.
The storm spent a lot of time in the Bay of Bengal, and the longer it spends forming there, the more it’s going to gather moisture. This one made a direct path for the Himalayas.
Q: Your predictions can sometimes mean life or death for climbers on big mountains — how do you cope with something like that?
A: The hardest thing is you read about climbers dying on Everest and my heart goes in my mouth. Is it someone I know? Is it someone I was forecasting for?
But this is my job, so I take a deep breath and do the forecast and double, triple and quadruple check my forecast. I do my best with the weather, but Mother Nature can release these avalanches. Random things can happen.
What I really try to do is work with experienced mountaineers who understand these dangers and that the weather forecast is one piece of the puzzle.
You take a deep breath, and you do the best you can.
Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653