The mountains are moody things, and if there is snow on the ground avalanches are on my mind.
As I walk through the subalpine forest in mid-September with its twisted golden Larch trees and lofty heights, I find new snow and a cool north wind. I begin to feel the changing personality of the mountains I know so well. The thin layer of snow draped over the ground camouflages the surface and highlights lumps of trees and humps of rocks or boulders. This might become the base to this year’s snowpack, I think to myself, and potentially this unassuming beautiful snowfall may become responsible for avalanches. Not thinking too much about it, I carry on my way up and through the pass.
Is September too early to begin processing information? No. Is May late enough to forget about the snowpack and its deadly potential? No.
Reflecting on years past, the days that really stand out and come quick to my memory are of either steep successful ski days or the scary real… real close calls. What are the reoccurring thought processes and or snowpack characteristics in these scary avalanche situations? The human factors are maybe the more important details; clearly, if we truly understood the snowpack and our place on it avalanche accidents wouldn’t happen. As a professional, I feel complacency or overconfidence plays a big part in near hit or miss scenarios. As a recreational rider, there may be many small details missed or miss understood — this does go for professionals, too!
Let’s take a moment to talk about persistent weak layers (PWL’S); they are a variety of layers depending on the evolution of the snowpack and pose a very serious problem. These layers, as they are called, persist for long periods of time allowing us to become complacent or over confidant. We haven’t seen anything run on the November 15th rain crust in a long time, it’s buried down 1.5-2m and is only at treeline elevations and below. Well, how do we know if it is where we are? We dig and that gives us very good information about the layers because we are able to see them, feel them and can do some advanced tests which maybe we understand or not… BUT is it realistic to dig 2m down? Or to dig where we think the layer might be? Well, truly it becomes an educated guessing game that takes time and may give us a false sense of security when and if we don’t happen to find the suspect layer(s).
Quick solutions to a persistent weak layer location, read the avalanche bulletin! The pros behind the AVCAN bulletins have our best interest in mind. They use ongoing snowpack analysis and information sharing amongst a huge network and pull this together for a summarized to the point guideline. If there are persistent weak layers or any other concerns they will be talking about it.
In our packs, we have many tools available. I use my avalanche probe for quick-hit reference of layers often, 2-4 times a day on average. A super quick deep analysis takes 30 sec and can be done at multiple locations to give us feedback such as if there is a Nov 15th ice layer 2m down. Now what?
Avoid steep long slopes with high consequence run out zones. Decision making is not complicated until you throw in a few opinions and a dash of ego!
Where do we go from here? As a guide, the decision is ultimately up to me. As a group of friends you may find yourselves in an uncomfortable situation where the group is divided. Start to think about your own risk tolerance and what makes you feel uncomfortable about a decision. Have an honest upfront conversation with your friends about the objective for the day and the objective hazards and where the line should be drawn. Be sure to also implement the use of other techniques; a very simple one is to space out. Remember, knowledge is power in the mountains in so many ways! Get educated, speak with people, check the bulletin, get out there and do not be afraid to say NO – the mountains are not going anywhere and you can always come back another day.