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Mountain Safety

Story and Photos by Clark Corey

Snow is here and the stoke is high! For around a month now, the fluffy stuff has been piling up in mountain ranges around North America and recently parts of the Alps. It’s always exciting to watch the first wave of storms roll in. Seeing those first flakes sends your mind racing with anticipation about how the season is going to turn out, where you might travel to, and how your local mountains are going to shape up.

Seeing snow again should also remind you to refresh your avalanche skills and to start paying attention to how the snow is stacking up. That’s what Jones Avalanche Awareness month is all about. For the last six years Jones has dedicated the month of December to building skills that will make you a more knowledgeable and safer rider for the rest of the year.

To kick off the avalanche discussion this season, let’s talk about how early season snow can effect stability for the rest of the season.

Weak Or Strong? What Kind Of Year Is It Shaping Up To Be?
Generally speaking, the snowpack can go one of two ways early season. It can form a weak base or it can form a strong base. Granted it’s not always black or white, but we’ll focus on these two opposite ends of the spectrum.

As a rule of thumb clear and cold weather creates weak layers via a process called faceting. When you have shallow snow, this can greatly enhance this process, and significantly weaken the base of the snowpack. When a weak base get buried by subsequent storms this creates dangerous avalanche problems that can linger for the entire season. In some cases, it can stick around all the way through April. Alternatively, warmer weather and deeper snow creates stronger layers which means that the base of the snowpack is going to be denser and do a much better job at supporting the rest of the seasonal snow.

Of course a lot can happen going forward (even from now until January), but the way that the season starts off can often set the tone for the year. If weak layers form, and prove to be problematic early on, than you might find yourself dealing with a persistent slab or deep slab avalanche problem. In this case, be prepared to exercise conservative decision making for the first part of the season, and in some cases all season long. However, if the base is looking good, and no mid-winter persistent layers form, than maybe it’s a year where the avalanche problems are mainly new snow and wind (storm slab and wind slabs), which are far easier to manage and are quicker to heal.

This is a shot from two years ago in Montana. There was a persistent weak layer that formed in the fall and was still producing deep slab avalanches after loading events in April.

What Have You Seen, And What Are The Forecasters Saying?
So what has the early season looked like in your local zone? Think about what the weather patterns have generally been like. Have you noticed big gaps between storms with clear and cold weather? Is the coverage still relatively shallow? If so than you’re probably looking at a faceted base. Good reason to get in the mindset of being cautious when you start getting snow again. Has it been warm with consistent snow? If that’s the case than you’re probably off to a good start.

What are the forecasters saying? The good news is that they are paid professionals and will happily keep track of it for us! Its their passion to meticulously follow the snow in anticipation for what will happen down the road. Stay tuned in to your local avalanche center so you will know what to expect, and make sure to read the advisory regularly to keep up to date with conditions.

As always, get out and have a look for yourself. Dig down to the ground and look for large faceted grains that seem to wash out of the snowpit, do not pack well into snowballs, and have a granular appearance. When you get off your board do you sink to the ground through the weak snowpack? If you’re breaking trail, are you slipping backwards because your skins can’t stick? All signs that the foundation is weak. Although this isn’t dangerous while it’s forming, remember when it get’s loaded with a slab conditions are bound to get spicy.

We’re Just Getting Started
When your out, keep in mind that even though the season is just getting started, this still means that avalanches certainly can, and already have happened (accidents and close calls have been reported throughout the Rockies and the Sierra). When the coverage is thin early on, avalanches tend to occur in the places that we naturally want to gravitate towards – those deeper areas that have been blown in by the wind. So keep this in mind as your seeking out those early season turns and sniffing out the conditions. When in doubt avoid steep terrain that appears to be wind loaded. After all, whether this year turns out to be a good or bad one, we’ve got plenty of season ahead of us.

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Published on
2 December 2015
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