Head in the Clouds
Blurred; perhaps foggy, best describes the state of mind as I attempted to unearth the shelved avy savvy thinking from its dusty shelf deep down in my brain. Knowledge buried under dust from months of hot summer days chasing shade and rock climbing with nary a thought of skiing, avalanches, or geeky scientific words. It was an abrupt change from shorts and flip-flops while belaying my wife at the local crag to standing in a room the very next day with several hundred attendees at the Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop in Whitefish, Montana discussing the merits of Mammut avalanche beacons and airbag packs. My mind fog slowly cleared and rusty beacon skills quickly returned to the familiarity of hours and hours of rehearsed practice.
Ski Patrol training. The Utah Snow and Avalanche Workshop. 2015 Mammut avalanche safety product meetings. An insightful email exchange with Lynne Wolfe about her topic for the February issue of The Avalanche Review (which should be a very thought-provoking article not to be missed). All of these events have continued to clear out the fog and open my mind in preparation for the 13/14 ski season.
Feet on the Ground
As the season gets underway there are some important checks and balances to keep in mind.
Beacons, Probes, Shovels
- Put fresh batteries in your beacon.
- Practice with it to clear the fog from your mind and rust from your search strategies.
- Assemble your probe to make sure it is functional.
- Assemble your shovel to make sure it works.
- Do these things at home — not at the trailhead on your first tour of the season.
Early season snowpack evaluation is important; especially this year. Lingering late September and early October snow in the upper elevations on shaded aspects is a concern. This weak snowpack foundation has produced a number of natural and human triggered avalanches in our region already this year. If you haven’t been following the early season snowpack reports from our regional avalanche forecasting centers now would be a great time to start doing so.
Remember that avalanche forecasts provide a regional overview – which is helpful in learning what the general instability concerns (avalanche problems) are for a particular region. When you’re out ski touring in the coming weeks, take time to dig to the ground and evaluate the snowpack structure to form your own opinion of slope specific stability before committing to avalanche terrain.
Shred the Gnar
We know that shaded upper elevation slopes in our surrounding mountain ranges have persistent weak layers which have produced avalanches already this year. We also know that mid and low elevations have been spared from this basal concern. As the forecasted storms start bringing more snow and high winds to our region pay close attention to how the upper elevation snowpack handles each new load of snow.
I think it’s a good idea to be conservative with terrain choices. With the possibility of new snow and high winds this weekend and in the coming weeks it’s a good idea to seek out low angle upper elevation slopes or mid elevations slopes with enough coverage and avoid terrain beneath upper elevation start zones. Follow the daily avalanche forecasts and make slope specific evaluations when you go out. …and respect the uncertainty of persistent weakness.
We have plenty of winter ahead of us. Poke around and get familiar with the current snowpack and nibble on the ample acres of safe terrain out there while we wait for the snowpack to show us what it wants to do with more load on it.
Stay safe out there!
~ Dean Lords
**All photos are from last season