This is the first installment of a weekly series about backcountry travel and snow safety. Sean Zimmerman-Wall is a full-time ski patrolman at Snowbird, an avalanche educator, and an Andean mountain guide. Check in on Tuesdays for resources and education that will help you have a safe and good season exploring terrain beyond the boundary line.
As fall gives way to winter and your gear pile steadily grows with new equipment, the desire to go skiing only grows stronger. Your lightweight touring setup begs from across the room to come out and play. The phone rings. Your buddy from work wants to go on a dawn patrol before your shift in the morning. Four beers deep and amped from hours of the latest ski porn, you give in and agree to meet at the trailhead at 5:30 a.m. Restless sleep ensues. You can’t wait to shred grassy turns high above the sleeping souls in town. But before you head out the door, think about what is going on in the mountains.
October snow still lingers on the north faces, and it has been rotting in the sun for nearly a month. The latest storm cycle brought 14 inches of mid-density snow accompanied by moderate winds over a 24-hour period. Then the sun came out and the temperatures began to creep above freezing. This scenario plays out all too often in the early season. Excitement overrules judgment and the lure of making turns before anyone else is extremely powerful. To avoid the unthinkable, remember the skills you learned in seasons past.
Steep temperature gradients, ranging from hot afternoons to bitter cold nights, coinciding with a shallow snowpack are a recipe to weaken old snow. Add a new storm with fresh snow to the mix, and you’ll have a consolidated slab resting precariously on top of overloaded faceted crystals. It’s a veritable house of cards waiting for a trigger.
Don’t be that trigger. Heed nature’s warnings and remember that an avalanche of any size could be fatal. Rocks, roots, and other strainers lurk below the freshly fallen blanket of white.
To ensure that your first turns of the season are not your last, here are a few tips:
• Check with your local avalanche center to see what forecasters have been observing. Visit Avalanche.org to find one near you.
• Obey all closed ski area signage. The boys and girls are busy setting up the mountain for your enjoyment.
• Pay attention to storm duration, wind direction, wind speed, and temperature trends.
• Objective hazards are everywhere. That beautiful white powder field may cover a massive rock pile.
• Take mental note, or better yet, take photos of your travels to document where there is snow and where there isn’t. This will help you remember where problem layers may lurk come later in the season.
• Quell your anxious thoughts by doing yoga, drinking beer, or waxing your skis.
• Sign up for an avalanche course. Most classes take place from December through March.
• Start a ski journal to document your adventures and decision making. It will help in the future.
It is a long season and more snow will come. Take your time and ease into the rhythm of things. Remember, the skiing in May is always better than the skiing in November.