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

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