*Note: This is a re-post from last Fall. With snow hitting the western U.S. right now, we figured it’d be a good time to get back into thinking about the snowpack. The early season snow stoke is inevitable. You’ve made it through a snow-free summer and spent your Fall going to ski movie premieres, so obviously you’re going to be psyched that it’s snowing. Just remember that this snow is likely what will form the foundation of our snowpack all winter long. We caught up with avalanche professional Lynne Wolfe, who writes for The Avalanche Review, guides for Exum and teaches avalanche classes with the AAI to talk about what to be paying attention to…
[Earlyups] People are fired up on the early season snow here in the Tetons. It’s fun to see, and it helps sell ski gear but what happens if it stops snowing?
[Lynne] Great question: if it gets cold and clear then the foot to two feet on the ground will start to facet, becoming a weak basement for the rest of the season.
[Earlyups] It seems like there are a ton of different scenarios to keep an eye on: a) it keeps snowing, b) it stops snowing and gets warm, c) it stops snowing but stays cold. What are the best and worst case scenarios?
[Lynne] Best case: faucet turns on and stays on, it starts piling up slow and steady. This is what happened two years ago, gave us a strong foundation. Next best is if it warms up so much that it all melts. The in between, and probable option: south sides and down low melt out, leaving north slopes and especially up high with a weak base. Look at how much snow there is, and how cold it gets. Really cold and shallow snow depths are worst-case.
[Earlyups] Is there a difference between getting “a lot” of early season snow and “a little” in terms of the formation of depth hoar?
[Lynne] Depends on how cold it gets….
[Earlyups] If you could control the weather, what is the recipe that you would put together to create a stable snowpack at the beginning of the winter?
[Lynne] See above, or look at the fall 2010 weather pattern. (Editors Note: the Fall 2010 weather pattern here in Jackson Hole that Lynne is referring to saw about three feet of snow a few days before Halloween and it kept snowing just about all winter long without many “high and dry” breaks in between storms)
[Earlyups] If we do end up with a weak, faceted layer at the base of our snowpack this season, is there any way we can hope for the snowpack to recover?
[Lynne] Sure, it just needs to start snowing and “smush” down the depth hoar. Often here in the Tetons once we get 1.5 meters on top of the depth hoar it starts to calm down, ameliorate (improve) the temperature gradient. Digging to look at that layer is crucial- see if there is free water in there (means that the warm is staying in place, rather than chimneying to the surface. Once it gets buried, the PST (Propagation Saw Test) is a great tool to see if it is still “touchy.”)
Here’s a PST (Propagation Saw Test) via the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center:
[Earlyups] What do you recommend people do in the early season to make sure they’re ready to ski the backcountry for the upcoming winter? (Test out beacons, beacon practice out in the limited snow, reading material, avy awareness nights, etc.) Is it important to keep your eyes on slopes you like to ski and observe whether or not they have early season snow on them?
[Lynne] Great list, all of the above. Get out the rust, try to be better than last year. If you had close calls or friends who did, talk about them- be honest about what you know and the holes in your knowledge. Find partners who are willing to have those conversations, not just say “let’s rip it!” Don’t be impatient. Ask good questions and really listen to the answers, even if they are different from what you think.
[Earlyups] Have you been unlucky with the early season skiing and skiing on a thin snowpack in the past? Care to elaborate on things to keep in mind that aren’t necessarily avalanche related in regards to early season skiing?
[Lynne] I haven’t had such bad luck myself, just seen a few patellas shattered on tree stumps, skis broken by tips diving under downed trees, and (yes, myself on this one) hit the ground under a thin pack.
This year I am recovering from meniscus surgery, so must be patient early season. But I will still follow the formation of the snowpack, try to interpret how the weather is affecting and creating the pack in different aspects and elevations
The other thing I would caution folks is that new toys and tools don’t give you a license to go anywhere, any time. Preliminary statistics by trusted researchers from Canada tell us that an airbag or balloon pack only add about 14% to your survivability if you get caught in a slide. Best option is to not get caught in the first place.
If you haven’t yet, take a Level 1 Avalanche course! Nobody (including us) is going to ski the backcountry with you if you haven’t!