The Persistent Weak layer (PWL)- an update

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Avalanche conditions have had a fair amount of press lately. After I accidentally triggered two large slides outside Porters on July 18, most local snow safety workers got talking. Thinking and talking about avalanches and snow has taken up a lot of time lately.

Yesterday (August 2) I went for a tour with Craigeburns forecaster Brad Carpenter and Cait Hall, Cheeseman patroller. Our aim was to get further afield and look at the snow conditions and monitor the PWL. We set off from Cheeseman ski area in mist. Annoyingly, a flick of SE mistiness was to stick with us, preventing decent visibility.

I wanted to get an idea of snow depth and distribution now that we’ve had 3 decent storms. A persistent weak layer – in this case, depth hoar, can stick around for weeks or even months. Ideally it would be flushed out by a big rain event and subsequent freezing of the pack, but that has not occurred extensively yet. We’ve had some light rain but not enough to make a significant difference. The other option is that the layer becomes buried by subsequent snowfalls. Yet not enough snow has fallen – the weak layer is still only 50-100cm deep. The weight of a single person can trigger a failure in a weak layer that is 100cm or less below the snow surface, depending on the strength and resistance of the layers above it. We can see light through the trees but we are not yet out of the woods.

The snow pack has gained strength thanks to additional snow fall and warmer temperatures but the weak layer of depth hoar and facets still lurk beneath. No longer will the weight of one 60kg lady wearing a pack, remote trigger slides from 50 metres away – but slides could still be triggered by the weight of one person! It’s tricky.

I have had my probe out a lot on recent outings. I use it to gauge the depth of snow and to feel for the weak layer and whether this weak layer sits on a crust (sliding layer). Generally I’m finding the snow pack to be 50-100cm deep. It’s deeper where the wind has distributed snow near ridge lines and is thinner below the ridge lines (in the start zones). This means that you are more likely to trigger an avalanche once you are well off the ridge. The thin snow pack means that you could still easily trigger the weak layer if you stray into the wrong spot.

As the snowpack gains strength (and it has), the chance of triggering an avalanche become less but the consequences remain the same – the slide could propagate widely and entrain a lot of snow. The uncertainty is still high in my mind – I cannot be certain that I would not trigger a slide on any upper elevation slope approaching 35 degrees and steeper. If we got a large amount of precipitation (snow or rain or event wind), all bets would be off as this would overload the weak layer immediately.

Here are my recommendations for safe backcountry travel this weekend:

1. Only go if you understand what a weak layer looks like and how it behaves (i.e. you know how to do effective tests).

2. Don’t go alone.

3. Let someone know where you are going and carry rescue gear. Practice your transceiver searches.

4. Dig and probe to get an idea of the snowpack depth and conditions before you drop in. Do this in a safe, representative area if possible.

5. Choose to ascend or descend slopes that are low angle (less than 35 degrees) or well supported. Avoid shallow rock rollovers and slopes with poor run-outs (terrain traps and cliffs).

6. Follow strict safe travel protocols – one at a time and eyes on each other throughout the run.

7. Remember that tracks on the slope don’t make it safe. That person may have just missed the deficit spot – that point on a slope where an avalanche is most likely to be triggered.

In times of uncertainty you need to have wider safety margins and be stricter on how you travel. Yesterday, we kept to ridges for the uphill travel and chose lower angle lines for descents. We skied a low angle line off Mt Cheeseman into the Ryton and kept eyes on each other as we skied from the summit ridge to an island of safety on the first bench. Shallow snow on a western aspect gave us safe passage into Waterfall basin. There, we chose the lowest angle line that was not attached to anything steeper above, and skied one at a time from high point to high point until we were below the 1700m contour. After that it got icy and the hazard changed from avalanche to a sliding problem. Such is life in the Craigies!

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Persistent weak layers can lead to large avalanches: A warning

Persistent Weak Layers and large Avalanches

Yesterday (July 18) I went into the backcountry from Porters and triggered two large avalanches. Known as remote triggering, I triggered each slope from a distance of 40-100m away. I did not get caught in either slide. The first one was on the Main Line off Allison Peak into Crystal Valley. I entered the top of the slope on the Northern aspect of the line (it wraps to face east). I took out my probe to gauge the snow depth and hiked down about 50m from the summit. The snow depth was no more than 40cm and I deemed it shallow enough that it would not harbour deeper weak snow. I’d skied Big Mama (similar aspect and elevation) on Saturday and saw the bomb craters left by the Porters Patrol. There had been no releases on Big Mama and I extrapolated that Main Line would have similar conditions. I was wrong. As I began to cautiously ski, something felt amiss. I kept pausing to flip my pole upside down and push the handle into the snow to gauge the snow depth. It was still shallow and I was hitting the ground at 40-50cm. On one of these pauses, I noticed cracking about 40m below me. I watched the slide propagate widely, all the way to the low saddle in Crystal Valley. At this point I headed down onto the bed surface as I’d be safer where the slide had already run. I took off my skis and booted back up the shallow snow to the Peak. The avalanche released 200m below it’s usual start zone. My group and I headed down the ridge to the shallower-angled saddle to study the crown wall. We had very easy test results there and everyone enjoyed the education!

On the second slope, our group was on a broad ridge. I went to traverse off the ridge to avoid some rocks, felt a collapse (whoomph) and a south facing slope 50m above and 100m to the side of me released and ran about 300m down and 300m wide.

For several years now – in fact, the past seven years, we’ve enjoyed a mostly stable Craigieburn snowpack. This year is not the case. I’ll describe the problem of persistent weak layers, how they form, what they look like and what it takes for them to go away. I’ll make some suggestions for avoiding them but at this point, it’s best not to go out into the backcountry (although the ski areas are fine). If you do go, stick to ridges and slopes of less than 30 degrees which are not attached to any steeper slopes. Only go if visibility is good and definitely avoid going if the weather is further contributing to instability (it’s snowing, blowing, raining or warming).

What is a persistent weak layer and how does it form?

A PWL is as it’s described – a weak layer in the snow pack that persists over time. It forms when snow falls early in the season. If that initial snow sits around for several cold, clear days, the snow crystal will begin to change (metamorphose) into a larger, sugary weak crystal known as a facet. This year we had snow early and it lingered on most aspects – but only above 1700m. The crystals deteriorated and became extremely weak.
On July 12-15 we had a large SE storm that deposited about 50cm of new snow along the range. The storm was followed by several warm and windy days with winds from both the SW and NW. The new snow plus wind-transported snow was deposited over the pre-existing snowpack. The initial storm snow did not quite provide enough weight on the weak snow. Ski patrols were able to trigger a few avalanches but really, it took the additional days of wind to create enough weight on the weak layer to create the widespread avalanche cycle that we began to see on July 17.

What does the PWL look like?

If you dig (and you have to dig or probe to get an idea of the location of the weak layer as it is variable), you will find a very dense slab about 40-70cm deep sitting over a distinct 5cm layer of weak sugary snow. If you expose a profile of the snow, this strong layer over the weak layer can be easily seen. This mess sits inconveniently on a hard, icy crust layer – which provides an effective sliding layer.

How long can a PWL last and what makes it go away?

It’s persistent so it can linger. Two things will eventually help the layer: One is rain to high levels to an extent where water percolates through the pack. When this all freezes up, the pack heals.
The second is to get enough snow fall (or wind distribution) that the weak layer becomes buried deep in the snow pack. The weight of a skier generally only affects the snow pack to a depth of about 100cm (or 120cm to play it safe). The problem with this scenario is that snow depth varies – it may be 100cm to the weak layer in one spot but only 50cm to the weak layer in another. This spatial variability is the bane of the backcountry traveller and avalanche practitioner and since you cannot be certain of the location of this weak layer, then safe travel protocols must prevail (skiing one at time, eyes on each traveller etc).
In addition, the problem goes from that of persistent weak layer to that of deep slab once more snow falls. This problem is especially thorny in that the likelihood of triggered diminishes but the consequences, if you did trigger a slide, become much higher. You will likely trigger a much bigger avalanche. This is known in the industry as a low probability-high consequence scenario.

At the ski areas, avalanche mitigation in the form of explosive control work will eliminate the problem. Skier compaction in the start zones also helps. We don’t have these luxuries in the back or side country.

 

For now, ski our excellent ski areas and study the terrain and any visible remnant avalanches. Read the advisory every day and make sure to check out the observation pages as well. This is a great year to take an avalanche class. You can learn a lot (check out the MSC website for accredited avalanche education providers. Chill also offers snow safety classes). Watch this next storm – it’s expected Thursday through Saturday and looks to be a big wind event, with snow.

If you have several solid years of experience you can still go but stick to ridges and low angle slopes (less than 30 degree) that are not attached to steeper slopes. Let someone know where you are going and carry emergency gear. Talk to Patrol before you go. Dig and do snowpack tests. Submit your observations to http://www.avalanche.net (your local area).

A PWL is not to be toyed with. You cannot outsmart it but must be systematic in your data gathering on it’s location (aspect and elevation). On every tour, you should look for this weak layer and record it’s location and test results on it. Ride slopes one at a time and realise that with PWL’s, it may not be the first or even the fifth rider who triggers the avalanche. Often all it takes is for someone to hit the deficit spot – the shallow spot which sets off the failure across the entire slope. Therefore, tracks on a steep slope do not necessarily indicate that a slope steeper than 30 degrees is safe.

Remember the bullseye clues: Avalanches running, deposition by wind or new snow fall (but especially wind), cracking and collapsing (whoomphing) – are all indicators that dangerous avalanche conditions exist.

 

 

 

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The Everest Wife and Deseret peak by Ski

Is there such thing as Ski Tourers anonymous?  I think I need to go. Because I’m still skiing at the beginning of June.  Last week, as we eased into summer in Utah, I had the privilege to be the first Utah Mountain Adventures employee to guide Deseret Peak.  40 miles west of Salt Lake city, at 11031 feet, Deseret is the tallest peak in the Stansbury range.  I’ve got a real soft spot for the Great Basin.  Primarily in Nevada, this inland basin of endless sagebrush and mountain ranges, spreads from the Sierra Nevada of California, to Utah’s Wasatch range.  It’s a vast area, a scrubby desert of scorching heat and long evening light. The rivers that drain from the 200 or so ranges never make the sea.  They evaporate in low-lying salty lakes. There’s the odd (and I mean odd) town: Bizarre Wendover, an isolated sin city on the border of Utah’s Bonneville salt flats and Nevada; And cowboy towns like Elko, Nevada (where my in-laws lived for 22 years).

To Deseret Peak:  With Scottie away on Everest (and easing ever closer to the summit), there were many moving parts to coordinate my 5am departure for the peak.  Obie was in his last week of school so I needed both before and after school care.  We needed bikes to access the trailhead (the 2 mile/1000 foot access road being closed until Memorial weekend). I was to guide regulars Neil and Scott.  Fit guys, good skiers, adventurous.

I felt a little weird shouldering my skis and biking out of our garage in the pre-dawn but our meeting place was a mere 5 minute bike ride from home.  Sleep had been marginal as I fielded calls and texts from Scottie at Camp 3 and from Adventure Consultants in NZ (the company whom Scottie was working for) with updates.  Scottie had the flu but somehow was recovering at Camp 2.  That’s how it is being an Everest wife – you multi-task.  It’s a fun, though often fretful challenge.  You worry, you rejoice.  I’ve never been up the South side of Mt Everest but I feel as if I know it.

Our ride up to the trailhead was strenuous.  It’s always strenuous biking with skis on the back.  I was suffering a little from a fearsome Gym Jones training session the night before but my experiences from adventure racing allows me to suffer just fine.  We ditched the bikes with relief and continued on foot for another 700 feet.  Slivers of resistant snow got us upon skins and we made good progress up through pinyon pine forest.  Gaining altitude, the views to the east opened up.  The Great Salt Lake and it’s salty white flats stretched to the peaks of the oh-so-familiar Wasatch.  Our route narrowed heading into the Twin Couloirs and the pace slowed as we made endless kick turns between the rock walls of the western couloir.  Uncertain of the angle and snow conditions, we’d brought crampons and an ice axe each.  They remained stowed, weighing us down as we sweated to 10400.  A final jaunt on foot took us across a corniced ridge to the summit.  We basked in our unusual 360 perspective of basin and range and strange man-made constructions (military?)  Neil confessed to feeling totally turned around by a familiar landscape seen from a completely new angle.

The hour was getting on and we missed peak corn.  I never think of Utah as a great corn destination.  My friend Kowboy (a forecaster with the UAC) reckons corn is for drinking anyway.  He’s so Midwestern.  Not exactly gliding on the grabby snow, it was still easier than the ascent.  We skied to the bitter end, even lower than our skin track.  The bike ride down was awesome – warm wind, effortless coasting – the truck in less than 10 minutes.

The next day my neck was locked.  A combination of Gym Jones lifting, biking with skis on my back, broken sleep.  I made an emergency call to my Chiropractor, Suzanne.  I saw her twice that day – once in the morning and again that afternoon when I brought Obie in (also with a stiff neck).  It was a miracle.  A little roller action to get the kinks out the following day and I was good to go.

Obie finished school the following day and we rolled west, across the Great Basin toward California to raft with great friends, ski at Mammoth (I know!), visit old haunts, hotpools and sight see.  Arriving in Wendover, the aforementioned sin city, Caro from Adventure Consultants texted me:  “Summit!” I love that moment.  Scottie’s coming home.  We could relax and holiday.  Descending is never a sure or safe thing but it’s downhill.

Antarctic Peninsula & South Georgia Island

For years I’ve wanted to go and guide on the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia Island.  From March 5-27 the dream came true as I got a job with Aurora Expeditions out of Sydney.  I joined the Polar Pioneer, a St Petersburg based ship and it’s Russian crew of 22, for a three week trip from Ushuaia – Antarctic Peninsula – Elephant Island – South Georgia Island and finish in the Falkland Islands (aka Islas Malvinas if you are Argentinean).  Aurora has offered a “Follow the Footsteps of Sir Earnest Shackleton” journey over the past two years to celebrate the “glorious failure” but incredible survival in his heinously unsuccessful attempt to cross Antarctica in 1916.  Our crossing of South Georgia Island would (kind of) follow the final footsteps of Shackleton’s epic journey.

I was to go last year but the sad demise of my dad meant that I ended up in NZ instead and Jane Morris (fellow Kiwi chick guide) replaced me.  In an odd turn of events, Jane broke her arm badly and was not sufficiently recovered; Thus the tables turned for 2017.

Scott was preparing to go to Everest for about the 5th time (I’m not even sure!) so it was hectic in the Simper-Keeling household and we actually missed each other.  Everyone asks: “what about Obie?” but if you know Obie then you know that he’s a versatile boy who is happy to stay with friends.

I’d not been to Argentina or Chile before so enjoyed transit days in both Buenos Aires and Santiago on access and egress as well as setting off from Ushuaia and arriving to the Falklands…. all new and interesting.
The Polar Pioneer is a 75m steel ship, built (obviously) for the Polar regions.  We had about 45 passengers and 4 of these had signed up for the South Georgia Island crossing.  We were a geographically varied team – Phil Penney (old friend from NZ) and I as guides, Eamonn from Ireland, Tats from Japan, Sheona from England and Peg from Colorado.  Everyone was super fit and into it and we enjoyed some great climbs and a lot of ribbing and laughs.

I also hugely enjoyed my fellow staff – the Expedition Leaders Stephen and Anna (both from Oz), Naturalists Heidi (Canada/Oz) and Marilou (Falkland Islands!), historian Alisdair (Oz), Hotel manager Justine (NZ/Oz) and Leila (Argentina).  I hope I get to go again!!

I wrote an account for the ship paper about the South Georgia crossing:

Stephen, the Expedition Leader, positioned us climbers perfectly in terms of weather.  The SE gales began to ease on March 17 as Marilou dropped us on the shores of King Haakon bay.  This is where Shackleton and his four men alighted after their desperate 800 nautical mile journey from Elephant Island in the 20 foot wooden lifeboat, the James Caird .  Clouds scudded for the brisk 2km walk over glacial moraine to the glacier toe.  Roping up, it was a steady 300 metre/5.5km climb to Shackleton gap and view into Possession bay.  The plan was not to set out on the full trek this day, instead opting for a fairer forecast the following (an option obviously not available to Shackleton and his men!)  We gazed into Possession bay, less than an hour’s stroll away.  An overnight boat ride around the Northern tip of the Island would let the storm die out completely and set us up for best success.  The next morning  dawn spread it’s shining perfection into Possession bay.  Shackleton had crossed to Possession on the initial part of their trip so the start of our trek would look somewhat similar to his (our modern gear, our half start and a half wheel of brie notwithstanding).

The first disembark point was vetoed due to an actively calving glacial face and Marilou (our trusty zodiac driver for almost every one of our trips) dropped us on a beach below Shackleton gap.  Our trail came within 200-300m of our track the day before.  The two rope teams angled toward the Tridents – a series of 650 metre black rocky peaks that are generally agreed to be the crux of the journey.  Firm ice conditions made for fast travel as we cramponed crisply in the morning sun, shouting joyously on occasion that we were finally making this historic trip.  On the East side of the Tridents, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley made the infamous bumslide in the dark.  We sweltered under hot sun and descended via the lowest point – a steep, narrow glaciated gully that compressed just enough to allow safe zig-zag passage through crevasses.  On the lower section, in an attempt to emulate the Shackleton experience, we slowly bum-slid toward Crean camp.  The snow was thick and slow like mashed spuds.  For momentum I ran down the slope pulling Sheona and Peg behind me.

Stopping for lunch at Crean camp, we scoffed quarter of the brie wheel with crackers.  The Crean camp is on a lateral moraine above Antarctic bay and from it, we had a clear view through to our next objective, the Nunatak, 450 metres higher and 9km away.  There followed a fairly nasty section weaving through an old and tired blocky section of glacier.  Alternately balancing on ice stacks then mushy snow, the odd person (mainly the guides) stumbled through hidden crevasses.  Seeping wetness eased unpleasantly  into socks.  A long hot push into the afternoon took us back to 550 metres and we stopped to camp on a rocky shoulder opposite the Nunatak.  Sunset from our eyrie flooded us in a diffuse gold light as tents were positioned and hot soup consumed.

A slightly cold and uncomfortable night for us was nothing compared with the all-nighter that the Shackleton team endured in late May 1916.  We woke at 5.  I had set our stove in the tent vestibule and it was a simple thing to light from my sleeping bag for several nice hot cups of tea before trekking out at 6.20am.  Grey wispy clouds obscured nearby peaks but looked like they’d burn off to another glorious day on South Georgia Island.  We crunched down the Fortuna glacier in our usual two rope teams –  ladies on one rope, gents on the other.  I wondered at our wide trajectory to the north but all was revealed as the glacier rolled into a low angle icefall.  A fabulous section through serac (blocks of ice) corridors had cameras clicking as we wove into the glacier and emerged at the “Fortuna Pinch”.  This secret route was figured by guides before us and passed on by GPX file (to our GPS), making  for an aesthetic and fast route to the lower Fortuna glacier.

Fortuna bay sparkled below as we finished the morning’s 10km trek with hours to spare.  Finally we could take the ropes off and a small celebration ensued; The billy was boiled and Eamonn’s magic green bag of chocolate treats was produced.  Last: a simple stroll through the terminal moraine to the beach.

A feature of the climber journey to both the Peninsula and South Georgia was our constant-seeming sprint from ship to shore, quick changes from gumboots to climbing boots, harnesses and crampons and mad dashes to climb a peak within the timeframe of Polar Pioneer stops.  We arrived at Fortuna hours ahead of schedule and were able to finally relax on a beach in the sun and watch wildlife.  King penguins eyed us curiously.  Fur seal pups bounded in and out of the water; Sometimes growling, sometimes chasing us; Fat, lazy sea elephants dozed and moulted on the beach, occasionally scratching themselves with surprisingly supple fins.  Idyllic.  Eamonn dozed off at one point and woke to find himself surrounded by fur seal pups.

Marilou and Stephen scooped us by zodiac; We had a heartening welcome back onboard the PP, a quick lunch then boots back on for the walk to Stromness with all of the other passengers and many Russian crew.  Big packs were jettisoned  and we merrily chatted our way over the hill to Stromness to the now-dilapidated whaling station that had welcomed Shackleton, Crean and Worsley back in 1916.

Over the three days we hiked a whisker under 47km with 1360m of elevation gain and loss, mostly on glaciers.  The weather was unbelievably perfect for an island that receives rain 300 days a year – calm, clear with travel conditions as good as you can get. We savoured the well-filled crevasses and good firm ice travel.

South Georgia crossed, the team settled into ship life and joined excursions to the north side bays of South Georgia –  the old whaling station – Grytviken and some other glorious spots – Gold Habour, Hercules bay and maybe some others that my simple mind has lost already.  Glaciers spilled to the beaches crowded with seals, penguins of all kinds, sea elephants and the stealthy skuas and other opportunistic birds (some of the group watched a penguin chick get chomped right from it’s parents).  At sea we were followed by several species of albatross, prions and various types of petrel.  We’d go to the bridge and watch for hours.

If you read this and feel an inkling of keenness, let me know.  I want to go back to both the Peninsula and South Georgia and I also want to ski there!  October-November would be best for skiing but March works for climbing.

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Me n Phil

Phil & I, Peninsula

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Me and my friends of Fortuna bay

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Peninsula – Livingston Island

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Polar plunge (had to be done)

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Marilou releasing a prion (the naturalists are super vigilant about trying to prevent bird strikes on board). Marilou grew up sailing this area with her parents and brother. A remarkable 23 year old!

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Gold Harbour King penguin colony

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Russian crew on the Stromness hike

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Sad big guy

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Stromness hike – Phil & the ladies….

Adventuring with kids

20130419-221439.jpgThis is a blog I wrote for Chill a few weeks ago.  As we adventure with Obie, I often wonder – am I doing this for me or for him?  It’s a good perspective to maintain.  It’s a long weekend and Scott, Obie and I are going down to Mt Cook National Park to fly in by heli and stay at a high hut then ski the Tasman glacier.  I do this a lot for work but the boys haven’t done it so I think it’s fair to say this is a bonafide family trip!

Oh and I didn’t run the Snow Safety courses during the spring holidays.  Look out for them in the next July holidays.  They’ll be advertised on my website.

Kids and Adventure

Is it a good idea to take kids into the backcountry or side country?  Since side country is backcountry in terms of being outside the ski area boundary, then there’s really no difference.  Here in the Craigies at least, it feels like it’s a bit of an issue as people duck in and out of the ski areas.  It’s easy to take the kids on missions with short hikes.

I recently read world champion Adventure Racer, Nathan Fa’ave’s book “Adventurer at Heart.”  I was both inspired and appalled by the level of adventure he was prepared to hit with his kids.  Sea kayaking around D’Urville island, Nathan paddled a double sea kayak with his three kids while his extremely able wife, Jodie, paddled a single kayak.  They got caught in rising seas and a tricky tide as they tried to negotiate their way past a headland into sheltered waters and camp.  Nathan’s water experience from 20 years at the top of Adventure Racing, as a sea kayak guide and his sheer physical strength got them through but I was left wondering: “What if they’d bailed out?  Three kids and Nathan swimming and Jodie trying to pick up the pieces in rough seas…”  Although I’m ok in a boat (I can take care of myself only) sea kayaking is not my thing.  It’s easier for me to view the scenario in the mountains:  Myself and another able adult take three kids into the backcountry – say the Ryton from Mt Cheeseman.  We are two hours from Cheeseman ski field at the quickest and two hours from Mt Olympus ski field.  Weather comes in and stability is changing rapidly – a fast moving southerly hits hours earlier than expected.  Can we adults handle it?  Can the kids?  Are we equipped for it?  We may need to change course and hike further with skis on packs.  We may need to drop straight to the valley or take a longer route on the ridges to get to safety. Worst case – we may need to dig in and wait out the storm.

I’m a proponent of adventure with kids and like Nathan and Jodie, I believe in the benefits in terms of life skills and resilience gained in the outdoors.  However, skiing in avalanche terrain (which the Fa’aves don’t do with their children) takes a new level of seriousness to me.  Last year two promising 20 year olds (friends of a friend) from the US junior ski team died in an avalanche after they crossed a boundary rope in Colorado.  Fresh powder would have been clearly visible from the ski area.
When our kids ski black diamond runs so young, it’s natural that we’d seek out better runs for them – or they’d find it for themselves.  My son (9.5) has been asking to go into Crystal valley for a couple of years now.  I did take him there last year with some other kids and adults but we pulled the pin at the top due to poor visibility and deteriorating snow stability.  Once you commit to skiing into Crystal, there are huge slopes above and you cannot escape.  It was better to leave it for another year.  Everyone was a bit disappointed.

The thing that bothers me about these mostly stable recent years in the Craigieburns is that one year, it will change and become a season with persistent weak layers in the snow pack.  And we must be able to adapt to that change and change our behaviour.  How and what we model to our kids is especially important.  We are churning out these solid skiers.  Where will they take their skiing?  To Europe?  To the great off-piste runs of Chamonix?  To North America (Whistler, the Colorado and Canadian Rockies, Red Mountain, Montana, Utah, California)?  To Japan – where the hazard rises and falls very quickly due to ongoing snowfall?  To Northern India?  In these amazing places, access to the backcountry may be very easy but avalanche conditions can be decidedly less defined.    A world of ski adventure awaits.

Risky behaviour is fine when there’s low risk and you are aware of the risks you are taking.  However low avalanche hazard never means no hazard and it’s important to understand that – and understand what it takes for hazard to change.  If you have the experience to go backcountry or side country with your kids, teach them about avalanches.  The younger ones can’t really probe or dig – but they should know how to use their avalanche beacons.  Older kids should carry a probe and shovel.  They should be aware of what exactly is avalanche terrain and have an understanding of slope angle, aspect, elevation and slope shape – and how these factors work together to create avalanches if there is unstable snow.  There are simple tricks for understanding surface snow instability and kids can easily be taught the class one signs (avalanches running, cracking, collapsing, snow or wind loading, rapid warming etc) to help them identify when the  likelihood of avalanches increases.  Teach safe travel protocols – how to spread out and how to identify and regroup at islands of safety.

To alleviate my angst over this issue, I’m running a snow safety course for youth (12-18) at Broken River on the best day of September 27 or 28.  Numbers are limited to 8.  Tune into BR for details:  http://www.brokenriver.co.nz/prices/avalanche-courses/
Next year I plan to run them earlier in the season at both Mt Olympus and Broken River.  I’ll probably take 10 year olds by then!

Weather Forecasting – Art or science?

If you live in NZ, chances are you are obsessed with the weather.  My husband (who is from Utah – where the weather is continentally stable) reckons that weather and sport are New Zealand’s biggest obsessions.  And rightly so.  Before the internet, I tried to never miss the weather on channel one at 6.55pm.  I’m happy I’m no longer so restricted to the 6pm news but I still try to see the news weather if I can.

As a backcountry ski guide who skis 5-7 days a week, weather forecasting is essential for planning my activities.  Last Friday I began one of my Craigieburn Haute Route trips at Craigieburn Valley and travelled to Cheeseman the same day. On Saturday the plan would be to head across to Mt Olympus. For weeks now, we’ve enjoyed fine, stable weather during midweek only to see it crap out for the weekend.  True to form, last week’s forecast predicted deteriorating weather heading into the weekend.  The good news was that the low would cruise right across the south island, hopefully bringing some easterly snow at the tail end of it’s passage.  The cruel news as Friday approached, was that the storm would begin right as we did.  The tricky part of forecasting was the call on wind and rain/snow levels.  Too windy and wet and conditions would be too dangerous to travel with a big group (there being less of a margin for error with a larger group size in rain and wind).

Sometimes I wish I was better at physics and had better skills for weather forecasting but when it came to Friday, the best thing was to get up early and look out the window.  Hazy stars were visible and it was calm with no frost.  I sat down at my computer and ran through all of my favourite weather forecasts in order to get an idea of the rain/snow line and wind speeds.  All forecasts agreed that winds would be calm but the freezing levels differed per forecast.  My co-guide and I decided that we’d need to stay high – above 1500m to avoid the risk of getting into the rain zone. No wind made it good enough.

I recently asked some local experts where they got their weather forecasts.  My neighbour, author of the guidebook to New Zealand Backcountry skiing, James Broadbent recommended WindyTY.  This site gives a broad overview of Southern Hemisphere wind patterns and direction and you can select temperature and rain/snow as well as wind speed.  The format is similar to that of Google Earth so it is handy for general pattern identification.  I often use this for the general picture.

Doug McCabe, head of snow safety at Broken River and a year round patrol leader in both NZ and the US kindly sent me his process.  A man of restraint, Doug avoids the temptation of going straight for forecast models like snow-forecast.com or the computer generated ski field models on Metservice.  He uses a combination of weather station data and the simple act of being out at the weather station, on the mountain, to establish a baseline or “nowcast”.  Like me, he checks out weather radar for the South Island to get a sense of precipitation location, intensity and movement.  Both of us have taken the same Mountain Weather Forecasting class in the US and from this experience, we seek out the pressure charts at the 700millibar level (approximately 3000 metres) for wind speed and direction at ridge top and above.  I’m happy to report (since these are the forecasts I mostly use) that Doug believes that both Metservice and MetVuw do a good job at providing this information.  Doug additionally recommends earth.nullschool.net for the big picture.  This site was unfamiliar to me but it’s actually very similar to WindyTY.
My next port of call was Luke Armstrong.  Ops Manager at Porters, Luke was a mine of information.  The week before he’d shown me a weather site that was completely new to me.  It’s called FNMOC and is put out by the US Navy and Luke uses it for the big picture.  Unfortunately my server did not allow me access to it as it is a US government site.  However, I did read the FNMOC guide to forecasts and analyses.  Although very technical, the usefulness of this model was in it’s ability to predict rain/snow levels using the 540mb line.  You’ll need some time to work this one out!

Luke did place credibility on the Metservice “Three-day rain forecast model” and this is one that I frequently refer to also.  Three days out seems like a reasonable prediction in most situations.  The Metservice model is automated and is thus less confusing to look at the the bright pinks and blues and tight isobars of MetVuw (which I still refer to anyway).  We were both dismayed last Friday by the Metservice computer generated forecast for the Craigieburn fields that gave a prediction of snow to 800 metres but a 1700 metre Free Air Freezing Level (FAFL).  Basically this created the distinct impression that Metservice, like the rest of us, were uncertain about snow levels as the low crossed the South Island.  It could snow to low levels or it could rain to high levels.

As it turned out on Friday, we made it from Craigieburn to Mt Cheeseman, thanks to the hospitality of lunch at Broken River’s Palmer lodge and the friendly patrol who let us ride the BR main tow for faster progress.  We hedged our bets on the FAFL and  never descended below 1500-1600 metres unless passing through a ski field and we enjoyed a calm, snowy but wet day with limited visibility and great skiing up high.  Various forecasts had predicted anywhere from 15-25 cm of new snow and we ended up with 15cm new for the rest of the trip across the range.  My studious attention to the forecast in the preceding week had paid off – but not as much as advice from Ski Guide Trev Street, who wrote and told me that his favourite weather forecast would always be http://www.lookoutthewindow.com.  Why? “It never crashes, it’s constantly updated, 100% accurate , and it works off line….”

Get up early and look outside.  If you are not in the mountains, ring someone who is.  Or go direct to the ski field’s website and trust that they are telling the truth.  They’ll provide a 6am nowcast.  Bear in mind that it may change by the time you get to the field – and that’s where a solid weather forecast comes into play.  Look at several of them and get the average prediction for temperature, wind, FAFL and cloud cover.  Good luck!

 

Ode to my Dad, Rick Keeling

A shout out to my dad, a ski enthusiast and the life of the party.  He died on June 13 and we sent him off in huge style from Castle Hill village.  This is from my Chill blog:

Ode to my Father (Rick Keeling)

In 1986 (God, 30 years ago?), I was heading to school one spring morning.  My dad was on the phone making rallying calls (exhortative calls) to supporters urging them to buy into the ailing Porter Heights after several marginal seasons.  There was a triumphant shout from my old adventure racing team mate, Sandy Sandblom:  “I’m in!”  Rick gathered a crew and the place was rescued from closure.  It was the ultimate sacrifice really.  Not only did my parents lose a bunch of money (that was ok because they loved the place and my dad thought making and losing money was just a game) but my brother, Adrian died there on June 19 1994 in an earthquake that astonishingly triggered an avalanche that hit the groomer he was driving, and flipped it.

My dad died on June 13 this year after a long but good fight with Parkinsons and associated dementia.  He still sparked, his wit remained but he became increasingly confused and less mobile in recent years.  Last season my husband Scott Simper, took him up to Porters to ride the Easy Rider chairlift and see recent developments on the ski area.  Inspired, my dad then commanded Scott to take him skiing.  I showed a complete lack of faith in this project and refused to have anything to do with it except watch.  Scott is a methodical man with excellent patience.  He coaxed Rick into his ski boots, got him onto his skis and they rode the platter lift.  My dad skied as he always had – slightly in the back seat (he hated me calling him on this but it was true – he rode the back seat but I reckon he did it because he enjoyed the rush of speed it’d give him).  He made three successful runs on the platter, accompanied by his men-in-black and urged on by a group of lady admirers on the sidelines (myself included).  We then took him to the cafe for a coffee and he announced his official retirement from skiing.

At my dad’s life celebration, there was a big crowd of Porters people.  Uli spoke.  I spoke to or received messages from ex Porters ski club members, half of the Porters staff were there, and many old staff from Springfield, including several who were great friends of Adrian. Many acknowledged that they had jobs or great holidays and memories because of my dad and his optimism and passion for Porters and skiing.  The guy went for it.

In 2013 as part of my ski column for the Christchurch Press, I interviewed Stu from Chill about his vision for the Chill pass twenty years ago.  Initially Stu’s idea met a chilly (sorry – pun so unintended!) reception from ski areas.  When I asked him who made the leap of faith, Stu told me “it was actually your father.”  My dad was an ideas man and he liked people with ideas – especially those who could follow the ideas through!  So years down the track, now that I’ve returned to the Craigieburns, there’s a real satisfaction in joining forces with Chill, working with the Craigieburn ski areas and carrying on the type of vision my Dad had.  Of course, Rick was all about lift expansion and I’m all about lung expansion and linking the ski areas by good, honest hiking – but we are kind of the same (although I’m less cavalier with money).

Rick Keeling was a good man, kind of brash and direct but generous, with a total lack of self-consciousness.  One friend recounted the time he rallied a big posse to ski Bluff face with him.  She joined nervously, linking hesitant tele turns down the big face.  My dad yelled encouragement to her, leading the fray in his mad and heinously awful Union Jack jacket, charging the slope in his oh-so-slightly unorthodox style.  It wasn’t uncommon for him to shout to people to let him ski first or they wouldn’t be allowed to ski at Porters anymore.  I used to die of embarrassment but now I’m proud.  He was a crazy visionary, the life of the party and a character with a capital C.

Throw some turns down for him this season….

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