Waiting on Winter
This week has been clear with only a mild disturbance on Wednesday, just enough to clear the air a bit. A warming trend will occur, raising temps throughout the week and into the weekend. We have very little by way of future storms in the foreseeable future.
We are still dealing with a very shallow snow pack producing only about 54% of our average snow water. Our shallow snow pack is a bit of a disaster with many hard wind and sun crusts over weak snow. Weak faceted snow near the ground continues to threaten full-depth avalanches. Wide spread cracking and whumpfing has been observed. Ben Bauter posted a great video with his observation on Cutler ridge on January 9th. https://utahavalanchecenter.org/observation/57405 It is clear to see in Ben’s Extended column test just how easily propagation occurs as a thin planar fracture suddenly crosses the column on Ben’s 8th loading tap and the block easily slides on this weak layer into his lap.
This is a clear, persistent weak layer problem. So, to break it down a bit - how does one come to this conclusion? In short, it boils down to detective work.
Step 1: Read your local forecast and pay close attention to what avalanche problems are identified, and what danger rating is forecasted.
Step 2: Step out cautiously and begin your own detective work. For starters, look out your bedroom window to see what you can observe that can confirm what you just read. Is it snowing? Is the wind blowing, is snow being transported, on what aspect is loading occurring? Are conditions blue bird and cold with no snow for weeks, and nothing on the horizon? What problems do these corelate with?
Step 3: Choose appropriate terrain for the danger rating. If the forecast says avoid avalanche terrain, then avoid slopes greater than 30 degrees, and stay out from under these slopes. Remember, the majority of deaths occur in moderate to considerable avalanche danger.
Step 4: Depending on the avalanche problem, apply the appropriate investigative techniques. One misconception people often have is: “I just need to dig a pit to see if I can ski this slope, right?” Wrong. Not every avalanche problem requires us to dig in the snow. People often get fixated on this concept that everything they need to know is under the snow, when in fact the majority of avalanche problems can be identified from the surface. We just need to be observant. When its windy, wind slabs form, when it rapidly warms, glide avalanches occur, when it snows, dry loose avalanches occur.
I believe 80% of what you need to know to play safely in the back country can be observed on your drive to the trailhead. Can you see natural avalanches that have occurred? Where? At what elevation? On what aspect? The next 15% can be observed on the skin track. Watch for signs of recent activity. Use your pole to feel for hard layers over soft layers in the snow. Remember, on a typical tour it is not uncommon to have multiple problems. Be aware of changing aspects, and elevations and how this can contribute to avalanche risk.
The last 5% can be observed through direct interaction, whether these are things like stepping off the skin track to watch and listen for cracking and whumpfing, to feel the consistency of the snow under your skis, or digging quick hand sheers.
Finally, when the avalanche problem identifies persistent weak layers, now it’s time to start looking under the snow. Take a few minutes to find a safe slope on a similar aspect and elevation to where you hope to ski. Always have a safe exit plan and avoid digging pits in main areas of skier traffic. It’s time to identify layers, simply look for hard snow over weak snow. If you have taken an avalanche course, apply some standardized tests to look for how these layers interact.
Step 5: Have open dialog with your ski partners. Honor vetoes. Make conservative decisions based on the data you have collected. Follow your gut, follow your group’s instincts.
In moving through these steps to investigate, formulate, and eventually act on your informed decision, you can make good decisions to get the goods while safely returning home at the end of the day. I know the we're all tired of waiting for snow to come in this dry, high-pressure kind of year, but it's always worth looking at our choices and evaluating each decision to allow ourselves many more ski days to come.