A Seasonal Approach to the Snowpack

Mt Nebo (12k feet) Utah in late spring: Timing is everything

This is something I wrote recently for the first edition of the New Zealand Avalanche Dispatch

Late December in Utah is like late July in New Zealand. I know because my family and I have been switching countries every December (go north) and July (go south) for the past 10 years. We live in winter and spring. A couple of years ago I was in a second hand gear shop in Utah. A guy asked me what I thought about conditions on the Salt Lake Twins. At 3450m in altitude, the Twins soar 2000 metres above Salt Lake City and there’s a fair amount of terrain to get through to even top out on their windy and lofty summits.

People often ask me what I think about conditions. I think about conditions most of the time. I watch the mountains from the valley – whether I am in Castle Hill Village or in Salt Lake City. I’ll look out the window before I consult any website (even when it’s dark). I’ll look for wind plumes, for frost, for fresh snow, for rain, for snow melting off the roof, for clear skies – and every day I wonder “what has changed?”

“Why would you go up Twin Peaks tomorrow?” I asked the guy.
“I have the day off and want to do something big,” he replied.
We chatted about conditions. About the persistent weak layer that was currently haunting the snowpack, the basal facets that were still less than a metre down in the pack. The wind plumes that frequently pour off the highest summits, the 1500m approach to these summits and the sheer volume of complex terrain to be travelled to even get a view to the tops.

Froth. Films. Social media. Big talk. It’s well and truly alive. Great snow with time off are scarce resources (unless you are one of the fortunates who have so many back-to-back seasons that you’ll happily sit out a powder day to avoid crowds and avoid having to witness people doing scary things). The hit list is long, time feels short. You’ve lined up the weekend and damned if you’ll let poor conditions stand in your way.

“Why not wait?” I asked. I was slightly impatient but trying to be nice: “It’s so early in the season, it’ll be dark by 5. There’s a persistent weak layer less than 3 feet down, it’s cold, there’s wind blowing right now up there. You have no margin for error at this time of year. The pack is not yet settled. There is no reason to go there. Wait. Wait until early spring when the snow is deeper, when there have been a few fine days in a row.”

After 22 season back-to-back and all the countless before that – the seasons I ski patrolled or ski guided in Canada – I must have skied 65 seasons by now and I’m 50 – I’ve learned a couple of things about patience:

Choose your objectives according to the time of year. This is my strategy: Every season I try to teach a few avalanche classes early on, before starting to guide. This eases me into the season – it forces me to train with beacons, shovel and probe, it sets up my pack and systems, it gets my head in the snow – looking at layers, familiarising myself with the snowpack from the outset. It also helps me set up a base fitness for the rest of the season.

Wherever I am, I have the daily avalanche advisory emailed to me from first snow. Even if I’m late to arrive, I have some idea of how the weather and snow pack are developing. Once I’m ensconced into my season, I try to estimate each morning what the hazard rating will be – before reading the advisory. This keeps me on my toes, looking, thinking, evaluating.

If there is a weak layer in the pack – and the daily avalanche advisory plus some targeted digging will confirm this – I choose simpler terrain. I’ll potter around in casual places with low angle slopes, where I can avoid being under other users and skip around on 30 degree slopes or less. At least I’m out.

As the season progresses into mid-late August in NZ and I become more comfortable with conditions and the pack deepens and settles, I can ease into bigger terrain. I talk with others about what they have seen. My guided trips will go further afield. I may dig less and probe more. When spring arrives in mid September, I’ll venture out into glaciated terrain. Hopefully snow will have filled in crevasses, the days will be longer, it will be warmer.

I like the guy in the shop in Utah. I want to see him have a fun season but I want to see him in the shop again. I hate it when people I know and like become statistics. He agreed that it was too early for the Salt Lake Twins. He hadn’t thought about that aspect of seasonal planning – that waiting until spring will be more fun, less scary, less cold, less dark. It will make more sense. The peaks should still be there next year if conditions never come right this time around. In the meantime, I’ll try to find good snow, interesting tours and terrain and keep my rigmarole of seasonairing on the move.

Mid April powder day, Brighton Utah

Mountaineer Jane Morris overcame a near-death experience to blaze a trail for women | Stuff.co.nz

This is a pretty extreme title – not one that Jane would approve of but I want to shout out to one of the many inspiring ladies who I am proud to call my friends – Jane Morris.  AKG is lucky enough to have Jane guide for us often.  And Anna is lucky to get into the hills with Jane once in a while.  Read and be inspired by this slightly crazy character….

via Mountaineer Jane Morris overcame a near-death experience to blaze a trail for women | Stuff.co.nz

Covid-19 Decisions

The uncertainty around Coronavirus has been massive.  Scott and I both face a likely work drought in the coming months.  Right now I am supposed to be guiding in Iceland. The week after I was to be in Austria working on an Eastern European Ski Guide exam.

Another time.  Salt Lake City is on lock down and we are encouraged not to start gallivanting around the state.  Obie’s school is closed until the end of March, if not the end of the US school year.

We’ve been back from NZ 6-8 weeks.  As I returned to the US on January 28, I was somewhat anxious about this emerging virus and what the coming months may entail.  Peripatetic gang that we are, our doorstep has been graced by many Kiwi visitors since then.  The last two were curtailed by the 5.7 earthquake (what next!) to hit Salt Lake City yesterday but we got them away today. Come as a friend, become a refugee then leave as a hostage. They will return to NZ to quarantine for two weeks. New Zealand has 28 cases of C-19 so far, the US has 8313 and Utah has 65. I’m now charting it. The New Zealand border closed last night.  I’ll admit it in writing: I prefer to live in New Zealand.  I strongly identify with the land and it’s always been hard for me to be away from it for long.  The rapidly closing borders and threat of reduced trans-Pacific flights awakens a deep-seated fear for me – what if I (and my family) get stuck on the wrong side?

Fear is something we all must work through from time to time.  More than ever I look to my morning routine of self-care (hydration, stretching and foam roller work out and meditation) as a source of a calm start to the day.  Seeking facts is also important for me right now.  Since we must decide (extremely) soon whether to ride this pandemic out in Utah or in NZ, I follow several reputable media sources:  The New York Times, Radio New Zealand and The Salt Lake Tribune.  I also look to trusted scientific friends for information.  My good friend Esther Smith at Grassroots Physiotherapy sent this link on limiting in person interactions to help to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19.  Wise words.

In the meantime, we ski and walk and Obie skateboards. We help Obie with his school work.  We think of those who are really stuck – living paycheck to paycheck and those without support.

We are all in this together. Take it seriously. Wash your hands. Look after your kaumatua/elders – you are lucky to have them.  Kia Kaha.




Macpac blog shout out to John my number 1 guide of 2019!

Blog from Imogen of Macpac on a snow safety course from this season

A couple of new things:

1. I’ve stepped up to assessing on NZMGA Climb exams.  After 21 ski seasons in a row, the feet just love it when I squeeze them into rock shoes instead of ski boots.  Just joking …. I’m motivated by challenge, and the option to step up for my lesser sport (though equally loved) of climbing seemed like a logical step.  The recent NZMGA climb assessment was challenging – full westerly conditions for 2 weeks.  November at it’s most tempestuous with seething snows replenishing our glaciers (this is good).  Yes, a challenging couple of weeks but I do love working with guides-in-training and seeing them psyched to share mountain passion.  It’s an intense and demanding career choice.

2.  I’ve joined Macpac as an ambassador.  This is huge and another full circle milestone.  Back in the late 1980’s when Adventure Racing was a fledgling sport, our Canterbury team was outfitted by Macpac with lightweight Pursuit packs, sleeping bags and clothing.  it was good fun to go and visit the crew at Macpac, talk gear and get experimental. We put that gear seriously to the test in the world’s first adventure race, the Raid Gauloises, NZ (which we won – I bought my first car with the prize money!) It’s a crazy honour to be invited to represent Macpac again, a quiet 30 years later.  AND I DON’T HAVE TO TRY AND WIN ANY RACES!  That’s a relief as I’m actually not into competitive sport anymore.

Photos:  Recent images from a day’s training with Justin and Paul on Philistine.  Photos:  Jane Morris.

Make Room

A couple of years ago I was teaching a snow safety class at Mt Cheeseman.  Constant snow flurries, low visibility and wind kept us inbounds on day one. On day two, after the upper Cheeseman slopes had been controlled and opened by a hardworking 3-member Ski Patrol, my group headed into Tarn basin.  We linked the lower angle pitches to the very bottom of Tarn and had 500 metres of first tracks – superb, low risk, boot-top plus powder skiing.  We spread out for the section that rides through the runout of the Tarn chutes. As the group skinned back up the basin (again spread out for the exposed section), a pair of skiers dropped together into the Tarn chutes (approaching 40 degrees steep at the top).  I felt troubled by this – dropping in at the same time seemed unnecessarily risky.  If they had both been avalanched (it was within 24 hours of the snow fall – the time when snow is most unstable), we would have to make the difficult decision whether to go to help. My group, many of whom were in the backcountry for the first time, would be exposed to steep nearby slopes which could also avalanche. The so-called Slack country is not that slack. As soon as you leave the ski area boundary, it’s backcountry.  Ski Patrol are often too busy to be able to respond to a backcountry accident, especially if it’s a powder day.  Time is essential. No-one breathes for long under snow. It’ll be up there with the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen. I know: I’ve been there.

I feel like I see this often in New Zealand – people dropping wherever they feel like it in the backcountry, regardless of whether others are beneath them. Even wilder are all the times I’ve seen folks skinning back up the 35 degree ski lines while riders drop in around them. In other busy touring areas, you’d be given grief for this. It ties into manners but it’s really about risk management. Although spreading out in avalanche terrain is not necessary every single day on every single run, it’s a good habit to develop. Even when avalanche hazard is low, best practice is to at least verbalise the spacing plan among team members and assign regroup spots that are (as much as possible) away from avalanche runouts. The real trick comes into play when it’s unpredictable.  I’ve had many friends get caught out by avalanches in an otherwise stable snowpack.  Often an anomaly gets them – a small unexpected windslab carries the victim over a cliff or a wet slide knocks you off your feet and buries you in a drainage. This “spatial variability” – the idea that weak snow layers are variable from location to location, can be a frustrating concept. The only mitigation method is to avoid having too many people exposed at once on avalanche-prone slopes (slopes approaching and above 35 degrees). Set yourself up for someone to be available to help.  The avalanche question already involves a complex interplay of factors: Is the slope steep enough to avalanche?  What aspect is the slope in relation to wind and sun?  What elevation is the slope and how does that affect the snow?   What shape is the slope?  Does it have steep rollovers?  Shallow rocky areas?  How is the weather affecting the snow? Add in ourselves with our odd habits and urges and ask: What happens if an avalanche occurs?  Will the slide be big or small?  Could you be buried deep in a terrain trap, swept over a cliff, swept into a party below….?  It’s about examining consequences and options.

Best practice is to ski an avalanche-prone slope separately, particularly if there are several other groups in the vicinity. How much space you allow between riders will depend on the likelihood of an avalanche vs the consequence if the slope does rip. Before you drop, talk to your partner/s and establish the island of safety you plan to regroup at.  It may be a long way down (think Crystal valley off Porters) – which adds to risk management.  If the first skier makes it safely and the second gets avalanched, the skier below will have to skin to the rescue.  Islands of safety are higher points like knolls or ridges.  When you arrive at that island, look around and ask yourself “Am I in the safest spot I could be given the conditions?”  Agree on the distance between team members before dropping in.  Avoid stopping part way down.  As you drop, have an escape route in mind, should the slope go.  This may be a nearby ridge, a big rock that you can duck under or a route back onto the ridge you left from.  It’s wise for the first person to ski/snow board cut – high across the slope – to test it before committing to the drop.

Respect other riders and avoid dropping in on them until they’re at a safe spot.  Avoid dropping in above people skinning.  Skinners and booters – take the line that avoids being directly under slopes that folks are riding, even if these means going further or it means you lose the race for first tracks.  Honestly, there are always more first tracks!

I’m keen to avoid a multi-casualty accident in popular and accessible areas like Tarn basin and Crystal Valley.  Having a little self control and skiing/riding one at a time while identifying safe stopping areas is a healthy habit – whether it’s a stable day or not.  You never know when you could get it wrong.

At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a quick version of dos and don’ts with backcountry etiquette:

1. If the ski area is generous enough to sell a one-ride ticket, preserve that goodwill by only taking ONE RIDE! Don’t be the one who kills the privilege!
2. Know Before you Go: Check the Avalanche Advisory (https://www.avalanche.net.nz/region/5)
2. Be nice to the ski patrol as you exit and enter the ski area.
3. Exit through designated areas. Do not return to the ski area via closed areas (this message is to all you people exiting Porters – that full sliding fall down Bluff face is incredibly unpleasant to witness).
4. Be friendly to other travellers. We are all in it for a good time and we need to look after each other out there.
5. Avoid dropping in on others below
6. Avoid skinning up the down routes. Skin lower angle routes back to the ski area. Spread out where it’s exposed.
7. Ski/Ride out of potential avalanche path runouts as much as possible – aim for a safe regroup spot where you are not under others who are skiing/riding down.
8. If you see an avalanche or get weak test results, share that info to other BC travellers, ski patrol and send it to the local avalanche observer.


Nearing the top of Cockayne, wet not cold

AKG Goes global

Here’s what I have going on for 2018-2019:

New Zealand:

The Craigieburn Haute Route: Now in it’s third year, this iconic trip across the Craigieburns involves light packs, excellent ski terrain and ski club hospitality. Still in conjunction with Chill, still with my secret guiding weapon, Stu Waddel! August-September

Private hut-based trips to the gorgeous maritime glaciers of the South Island. Sadly they are diminishing. Ski NZ’s longest glacier Haupapa/Tasman Glacier and it’s tributaries or the West Coast glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and their tributaries. September-November.

Northern Hemisphere:

Utah. I’ve lived in Utah’s Wasatch range for nearly 20 years yet people still welcome me to the USA. The kiwi accent endures. I know this range extremely well and would love to introduce you to the secret stashes of ‘the greatest snow on earth.’ Utah has many world-class ski resorts. Tack on some days of ski touring to your holiday. Learn to ski tour. Introduce family to the sport. It’s all good. January-April each year.

Nevada. Ok this one is gold. The past two years I’ve had the opportunity to train American Ski Guides based from the Ruby High Yurt in the Ruby Mountains way out in the Great Basin of Nevada. I love this spot for it’s wildness and remote position. The yurt has tremendous views, heaps of great ski options right outside the door and opportunities for ‘heli bumps’ to more remote ski touring in the range (thanks to the Ruby Mountain Heli ski operation). February-March. 2-4 day trips for four people.

Iceland. I’ve joined with my friend and fellow IFMGA guide, Emilie Drinkwater to charter a yacht in the Western Fiords of Iceland in May 2019. Hero skiing at it’s finest in an exotic location close to Europe…. I can take a group of four for 6 days yacht-based ski touring in this fine island nation. Emilie will also have a group of 4, meaning flexibility to choose where we ski and for how long each day.

Antarctic Peninsula. After travelling to the Peninsula on foot twice in the past two years, I must return on skis with some of my adventurous people. For this mission, I’ve joined forces with Ice Axe expeditions as they have the ship and the organisation to ensure a smooth and safe voyage to ski some of the most remote mountains on earth. We meet in the extreme southern Argentine town of Ushaia to sail across the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Again, a guide: guest ratio of 1:4 means flexibility to ski as much as you like among the fabulous wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. It’s a trip of a lifetime. November 2019.

Links for more information can be found here: YO, come and join the great ski times!

Let’s go big….


UAC podcast

Winter is winding down in SLC.  I was interviewed a while back by Utah Avalanche Forecaster, Drew Hardesty.  I loved talking to Drew and producer Ben Bombard.  My perspective is pretty personal – and quite long.  Sorry about that.  Only listen on a long drive or a long work out.  Here it is

The AKG 2018 pre-season prep is underway.  Right now is my climbing season.  So far mostly gym focused for fitness.

And fresh back from South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula.  Year 2.  A remarkable landscape and experience.  Guiding with Tarn Pilkington.  This year the big treat was having Michele Gilbert join the trip.  This stalwart of climbing, Michele prefers cool weather, low altitude and she doesn’t get seasick!  That plus her passion for wildlife meant it was all good.


How to become a Ski Guide

I wrote this awhile ago for Chill.  It pertains to the NZ ski guide scene but the American Mountain Guide Association(AMGA) ski guide road is similar.  Both associations align to the common platform for Mountain Guiding: the IFMGA/International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations.  If you are curious on how to become a ski guide, read on:

For my job, I host people on their holidays (or at least days off). Initially I wondered if I wanted my favourite sports (climbing and skiing) to become my career. Somehow that evolved to a yes, without really stopping to think too much about it. I always knew I wanted a job outside. I’m often asked how to become a New Zealand ski guide (I’m a climbing guide as well but this is a ski blog). These days I’m also an American Ski and Mountain Guide but I did my guide training in NZ. Becoming a ski guide is pretty involved but obviously fun with skiing as the focus:

Firstly you have to be an expert skier. The standard of the NZ ski guide is rising as the calibre of our clients rises. You have to keep up. In fact, you have to stay ahead! Many guides are or have been ski patrollers or ski instructors. Both are good paths into ski guiding. Patrolling is excellent because you learn about terrain and avalanches and first aid. Ski instructing is great because you learn about the mechanics of skiing and can help people improve. I come from a ski racing and patrolling background. The ski racing gave me solid technique and the patrolling taught me about rescue, terrain and the snow pack.

Before you get into the NZMGA Ski (or Climb) pathway, you need certain prerequisites – the Avalanche 1 certification (one week) and the 40 hour First Aid qualification. Most NZ patrollers and guides take the Pre-Hospital Emergency Care course (PHEC). You then need to refresh PHEC every two years.

You also need backcountry ski mileage. A minimum of three seasons winter backcountry skiing or ski mountaineering are needed and two of the seasons must be in NZ. All up you must have a minimum of 30 quality days (quality means full days in a variety of terrain and mountain ranges, in a leadership role). Ten of these days must include winter mountaineering up Logan grade one peaks using ice axe, crampons and ropes and you must have ascended a minimum of two grade 2 peaks in winter. The NZMGA gives examples of peaks in Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland National parks. 
Of the 30 days, 15 must be on glaciated terrain. Ski patrol work in a strong programme may be counted toward some of the non-glaciated days.

Once you have your personal mileage, Avalanche 1 and PHEC, you apply for the ski pathway. This pathway includes two training courses and two assessments. First up is the Snow and Ice Guide training course (SIG). This seven day glacier-based course takes your amateur technical skills and teaches the basic guiding skills needed to begin guiding. These skills revolve around safe-guarding clients, crevasse rescue, rope work, footwork and general mountain sense. Next, the ski pathway requires a pass in the one day Technical Ski examination, examined by a NZMGA Ski guide who is also a ski instructor.

Once your skiing is approved, there’s a four day Ski Guide Training course. It expands on the Snow and Ice Guide Training as it’s on skis and prepares you for the first (level 1) Ski Assessment course. You’ll usually do the SIG, the Technical Ski exam, the Ski Guide Training course and your level 1 Ski Guide assessment in the same year. There will be a fair bit of money and time going out so you have to want it. It’s like doing a diploma.

The level 1 Ski assessment takes place in glaciated areas (generally Mt Cook or Westland) over 14 days. It’s intensive. There are never more than six candidates and two assessors on a course. Several candidates will be level 2 guides taking the second (and last) tests of the ski pathway. They will expected to take a leadership role. Candidates take turns at guiding. On your days of guiding, you’ll get the weather forecast and plan your trip for the next day (and pack) the night before. After getting up early, you prepare hot drinks for your team, make your weather and snow observations and brief the group on the plan for the day and expected hazards. You run through the safety checks and you are off – for a day that could be up to 12 hours long.

At the end of the assessment you should feel fitter and feel like you’ve been put through your paces pretty effectively. There will be some low times but in general you’ll have had a lot of fun with like-minded people. The good news after that crazy year of courses and training and passing the assessment, is that you are now an assistant ski guide and you can start working. The next couple of seasons (including overseas ones if you are lucky) are spent ski tour and heli-ski guiding and learning as much as you can about leading others through avalanche terrain. Before you can attend your level 2 assessment you must attend and pass the Avalanche 2 certification. This is an in-depth process that takes about two years and is a mix of online learning, a field training course and a final field exam. In NZ this is done through the Otago Polytechnic. Certain Canadian and American avalanche certifications can be recognised too.

There is a timeframe of five years in which to complete these courses – from the Snow and Ice Guide Training to the level 2 Ski assessment. You have to make up your mind that this is what you are doing. However, once you commit, you’ll be rewarded with fresh air, untracked snow, you’ll meet people, and ski new runs in different mountain ranges. It’s a great job with the best office!




NZMGA Snow and Ice Guides Course


The office!  Franz Josef Glacier, Westland National Park, NZ