After a not-so-hot summer, snow began blanketing the peaks of the interior mountains early this year. For a lot of us, seeing white peaks early causes excitement, and reassurance that winter really isn’t that far away. Some folks get out for a quick walk just to hear the crunch of snow under their feet or build a snowball – it’s kind of like welcoming an old friend home isn’t it? Others head to their early season spot for a few rocky turns or fire up the sled and grab a few mitt full’s on a covered logging road or some wet grass!
This September, in a very unfortunate event, the first avalanche fatality of the 16-17 season occurred. A party of two skiers set out to ski a line near Lake Louise. The group encountered conditions they didn’t like and decided they should head back down out of harm’s way. During the descent, the first skier triggered a wind slab that subsequently swept him off his feet and over a large cliff. Condolences to the skier’s family and friends.
The event got me thinking… What are some of the common early season avalanche problems I am likely to encounter and where might I be looking for them? Due to low snowpack depth, are there different hazards in terrain that I didn’t really have to think about last spring when I parked my machine for the summer? Information is always sparse during my first few missions, where might I look to find an info on what’s happening out there?
Throughout last winter Avalanche Canada’s Mountain Information Network (MIN) gained acceptance amongst the recreational community. As the season progressed I was able to find more and more info on what people were seeing during their adventures – the best sign of instability in the snowpack is recent avalanches! Thanks for sharing! Hopefully the MIN will see even more contributions this season and give valuable information to both recreationalist’s and Public Avalanche Forecasters. I’m going try to post regularly on what I’m seeing when I’m out.
When I put my sled away, it was hard to get up to the riding areas but if you managed to get there, the riding was still great. Heading out early season I’m definitely thinking about the potential of being pushed into rocks that aren’t yet fully covered. Getting pushed into an open creek is another one – if I’m stuck under my sled it doesn’t take very deep cold water to send me into a world of hurt.
So what sort of avalanche problems might I encounter that could put me into these terrain traps? When I finished riding I was thinking a lot about staying away from big cornices, large wet avalanches on solar slopes, upper elevation wind slabs and persistent slabs. I’m guessing some of those problems might be developing now – even in mid-October. One of the first things I think about early season is have we reached threshold for avalanches to even occur? To answer, I need to know a lot about the ground cover in the area I want to explore. Low elevation, rough, treed terrain is going to take a while to reach threshold. But what about the alpine? Or glaciated terrain? On smooth surfaces (like the ones I want to ride cause I don’t want to break my sled) as little as 30-50 cm of snow could result in the first avalanche cycle. Cold glacial temperatures can quickly form weak layers where the early season snow meets the ice. If it keeps snowing (I really hope it does) we’ll likely see storm slab formation – a short lived problem as the snow pack adjusts to the freshly fallen snow. A short period of wind can quickly transport snow into wind slabs. A good rule of thumb says we can expect 3 to 5 times the average recent snow depth where the wind has transported snow into leeward features.
If you’re anything like me, once you see the first snow, you can’t keep your eyes off the mountains or the weather forecast! Following the forecast can give you a pretty good handle on what you might encounter on your first rides. What’s the temp been doing? Did any of that precip fall as rain at upper elevations (I sure hope not…)? Did we have any long dry spells or mild sunny periods where a crust or persistent grains formed in the shallow snowpack? Has it been really windy? Keeping up to speed on the weather as we get closer to riding season can help us anticipate what we might find for avalanche problems and prevent unwanted surprises.
I’m seeing pics of sleds at the Boulder Cabin in Revelstoke! It’s getting really tough to maintain composure and wait for more snow… Maybe I’ll wait til the weekend.