Early Season Snow… blessing or curse?

I get pretty excited when temps start to drop, leaves start to fall and talk of snowflakes picks up.  After all, this is one of the prettiest times of the year in the high country:

Dogs enjoying the fall colors.. oh wait, they’re color blind

I used to spend hours watching satellite loops, anticipating when snow would start falling on my fave Mammoth Mountain.  That attitude didn’t change when I moved here to Colorado, but should it?

Last season I took my AIARE Level I avalanche class and I have shifted my focus to the backcountry.  In terms of avalanche safety and backcountry snowboarding, early season snow is typically a BAD thing… WHAT!!!!  “How can that be?” you ask.  Well, let’s talk snow science:

Snow is good, but snow doesn’t just fall from the sky lay on the ground and stay there.  It is constantly changing (snow geeks call this metamorphism).  Those little flakes that you see in a snowstorm are great, they typically bond well together and make for a pretty good snow layer, but what tends to happen early season is that they begin to “facet.” These facets do not bond well to each other or other layers and become little ball bearings for avalanches to slide on.

Facets!

If you’ve been in the game long enough, you’ve heard the term facets before, but what causes them and why is it so bad with an early season snowpack?

1.  Facets are caused by temperature differences between lower and upper layers of the snowpack (geek speak = temperature gradient).   Check out this site for a cool video and a ton more info.

Temperature Gradients that cause facets.

2.  These gradients are especially bad with a thin snowpack (like early season).

3.  Facets forming from this temperature gradient in the lower snowpack is called depth hoar.  It sticks around and causes problems for a long time through the season (persistent) and is one of the major causes of injury/fatality causing avalanches

“Never trust a depth hoar snowpack, no matter how deep you bury her”
-Unknown Smart Dude

Overall, for resort riders, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!  For the backcountry types out there, let’s be a little more patient, if it’s going to snow, let it snow hard and keep snowing for months, otherwise lets hold off until it’s ready to dump.
So, in conclusion:  Am I going to stop obsessing over early season snow? Probably not.  Am I going to pay attention to what it does to the avalanche hazard in the backcountry… hell yes and so should you.

Never Go Alone: Sidecountry is Backcountry

It was shocking to me when a couple weeks ago Jess and I were sitting in a hotel while at the Teva Mountain Games in Vail and we heard a news story about a mother and son who decided to “Take a detour” out of bounds and got lost.  They were rescued by a snowmobiler who happened to be at the right place at the right time (and happened to be some contestant on “The Bachelor”)

Watching the report, I couldn’t help but shake my head and grumble when she told the cameras “We were just going to go out of bounds for a little bit and then jump back in.”  The story went on to blame the resort, the forest service and whoever else they could for THEIR mistake.

Unfortunately, not all stories end up with a handsome prince riding to your rescue, last March, a 24-year-old was killed while skiing sidecountry at Big Sky, Montana and Big Sky Search and Rescue has launched a campaign to educate side- and backcountry skiers.

Backcountry Avalanche Awareness from Backcountry Magazine on Vimeo.

Moral of the story, sidecountry is backcountry and should be treated with respect.  If you’re a resort skiier just stick to the resort and save the backcountry for the splitboarders.

A Weekend To Save Your Life: Avalanche Level I Training

I have been told that learning to backcountry snowboard in Colorado is like learning to swim in shark infested waters, or learning to hike on everest.  Basically, we’re in expert territory as noobs.  It IS the most deadly state in the US for backcountry enthusiasts.

Basically, we don’t want to see this and then decide its time to learn something:

Not where you want to get your experience about avalanches

With that in mind we decided we really have to do this “right.”  What is “Right” you ask? Well from our research it goes something like this:

1. Read, read, read as much as you can on avalanche safety.  This book is awesome, if not a little advanced.
2. Attend a few free Avalanche Awareness courses and Backcountry/Winter education classes.  (Lots of shops have these like REI, check your local shop)
3. Buy the gear you plan to use in the field so you can practice with what you will be playing with.
2. Take a multiday avalanche course – (This is the step we’re talking about now!)
3. Find, travel and learn with experienced mentors
3. Start in low consequence, low danger terrain
4. Continue to progress in your avalanche knowledge and education

Jess and I made a rule that we would not go into the backcountry until we had our level I class done and we stuck to it.

First you have to find a reputable course.  That’s where AIARE comes in.  They are the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and they set the curriculum for avy education throughout the nation.  If you are interested in a course go to their website and find a provider near you.  They do one just about every week somewhere in CO.

After some research we decided to go with the fine folks at Colorado Mountain School.  They were very professional and highly knowledgeable, plus they were just cool guys to spend a day in the backcountry with AND the course is set in beautiful Rocky Mountain National Park… win-win-win!

Jess Outside CMS Estes Park

Day 1 started with some classroom time followed by a little companion rescue practice.

Our fearless guides showing us how its done.

"How does this thing work again?"

Day 2 started via classroom but by the afternoon we were out in the field digging pits and observing conditions.

Jess in the Pit

Day 3 was the culmination of everything we had learned and began with reading the avy bulletin and doing some trip planning.  After that we headed back to Rocky Mountain National Park to do a full day tour with the objective of assessing and possibly riding some terrain west of Bear Lake.

Our group touring in RMNP

Overall, an awesome weekend out in RMNP and on top of that we got a ton of really useful info on making decisions in avalanche terrain.  Thanks to Mike and Nate (our guides) for the awesome experience.

Nate making some earned turns

Now, the snow is flying, time to plan some backcountry tours! …safely of course.