Last week, ski towns and communities across the West were rejoicing at the most beautiful September sight: the first (ROCK!) snowfall of the year. From the Sierra to the Wasatch, and from Aspen to Big Sky, skiers reveled in (ROCK!) the indication that the heat and crowds of summer will soon be replaced by (ROCK!) plundering (ROCK!) powder with their friends.
Mount Bachelor, Oregon, even opened (ROCK!) last weekend, providing access to a walk-in (ROCK!) jib park. Others hiked for their (ROCK!) (ROCK!) (ROCK!) turns, and dropped the obligatory (ROCK!) social media post.
Utah's Wasatch received 10 to 20 inches of (ROCK!) snow, with Snowbird even being featured on Good Morning (ROCK!) America. The new snow certainly gets everyone excited, but it's also a good time to reflect on what it means for those getting their early season turns (ROCK!), as well as the winter snowpack ahead (ROCK!).
Last week, after the mountains of southwest Montana received 10 inches of snow, with three to five inches of water content (i.e. heavy AF), the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center stressed a familiar, if slightly unseasonal, reminder: "If there's enough snow to ride, there's enough snow to slide."
Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center in Bozeman, advises people to take the same precautions now as they would in the middle of the winter. "They need to bring the same gear, and use proper traveling protocol," he said Wednesday. "It happens every year: It doesn't feel like winter and the snow is not very deep, so we take short cuts. No beacon, no air bag, no helmet. But all the same rules still apply.”
"Right now, we're mostly concerned about injuries," he added. "Run-out zones will have rocks, or be super thin. And if you're not careful, you'll ruin your season."
The new snow also foreshadows danger ahead. This early snow that fell in the high country will soon be buried by more snow, which Chabot said typically becomes a bad layer of instability during the meat of the ski season. "Even though it's going to get warm again, snow will remain at high elevations and north faces," he said. "Not always, but typically, that snow will become a problem later in the winter. It's going to become a weak layer."
“Every year, we will start to see human triggered avalanches getting people hurt long before any of the ski areas are open. It happens every year,” said Chabot.
Drew Hardesty, avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, echoed those sentiments via email: "If we expect the September snows to remain in the high northerlies, those approaching the BC with last year’s mindset may be in for a surprise," he wrote. "In many areas (last season), fatalities were well below average, especially in Utah. Trauma, of course, plays a huge role in early season avalanche accidents. Low-angle meadow skipping in the grass seems to be the ticket."
So have fun out there, watch out for ROCKS!, and keep this checklist handy from the GNFAC:
• Everyone in your group should each carry a beacon, shovel, and probe. Put fresh batteries in your beacon, check your probe and shovel for damage, and practice using them.
• Expose only one person at a time in avalanche terrain, whether climbing or descending.
• Avoid steep slopes with thick slabs of wind-drifted snow, or if there is collapsing or cracking of the snow.
• If you are unsure of snow stability, travel in terrain less steep than 32 degrees.
• Small slides can cause serious trauma if they push you into rocks or trees, and can bury a person in small terrain traps like confined gullies, road cuts, or creek beds.
Upcoming Avalanche Safety Events
The following events are excellent workshops and events intended to help get backcountry skiers—from professionals to recreational users—primed for the season. They are not avalanche classes, but rather places of discussion to learn more about what experts in the field can share regarding lessons, philosophies, tools of the trade, and advances in snow and behavioral science that are currently at the fore of backcountry skiing. Avalanche classes can be found here and here.
16th Annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop, Breckenridge, Colorado
4th Annual California Avalanche Workshop, South Lake Tahoe, California
11th Annual Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop, Seattle, Washington
19th Annual Powder Blast, Bozeman, Montana
3rd Annual Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop, Jackson, Wyoming
3rd Annual Snowbash, evo, Seattle, Washington