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Strange Winter

A Winter of Major Weather Swings

Navigating the snowpack this winter has been a rollercoaster ride of extremes. We find ourselves with a well-below-average snowpack for this time of year, with a complex puzzle of buried weak layers that have demanded our attention for a long time. Our recent encounter with an abnormal mid-winter warm spell resulted in conditions going from bad to worse. It presented a drastic change with rapid loading and warming to the snowpack, which produced a widespread natural avalanche cycle on all aspects and elevations across most of the province. As temperatures drop again, the soon-to-be-buried crust may become a persistent weak layer, requiring ongoing vigilance.

The silver lining is that once the temperatures return to normal, we may no longer have to worry about our previous persistent layers. The rain will likely have saturated the snowpack, and it will refreeze, locking up those persistent weak layers.

As we move forward, it’s crucial to recognize the evolving nature of our snowpack. The layers beneath our skis and boards are a dynamic landscape influenced by temperature fluctuations, snowfall patterns, and wind speeds. While we may not have the deepest snow cover at the moment, the quality and stability of what we have require careful consideration.

If you aren’t jazzed with the current riding conditions, this is a good time to take out your winter equipment and give it a once-over; double-check that your transceiver is functioning properly and everything else in your pack is good to go. Industry professionals continually work on their companion rescue skills and run scenarios frequently. Get outside and practice with your friends and touring partners to ensure everyone’s gear is in good shape and behaving as intended. Is your tape, glue, spare batteries, etc., and other gear in your pack all up-to-date? When was the last time you re-glued your skin? Waxed your board or skis?

This is a great time to run companion rescue drills with your riding partners. Test them, throw down some lunch money. The more prepared your friends or riding partners are, the more confident you can be in their ability to be ready to deal with any type of mishap, minor or major. There is never a bad time to practice any rescue skills.

We are fortunate in Canada to have many resources that are often free and can be helpful in your backcountry trip planning. Avalanche Canada is an amazing resource with many tools for winter backcountry riders to utilize. Some of my favourites are the Learn tab, the Trip Planner and the Mountain Information Network (MIN) tool. Take a few minutes and submit your own MIN report; the process is intuitive and helpful to other users. Find a weather app that works for you; many options exist. I normally utilize and YR.NO, but DriveBC’s highway forecasts (mountain passes) and Avalanche Canada’s Mountain Weather Forecast can provide much necessary information. It’s never a bad idea to take an AST course, even if it’s a refresher.

In the spirit of safety, let’s stay informed, communicate effectively, and adapt our plans accordingly. Winter’s challenges are part of the adventure, and with a thoughtful approach, we can continue to enjoy the wonders of the mountain while managing risks. Here’s to making smart decisions, respecting the mountain environment, and ensuring a safe, memorable and enjoyable remainder of our winter season. Please remember to recreate responsibly.

Take good care and ride safe.

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Happy Holidays – Be Careful

The Dragon is Back – It’s a Facet Farm

It’s beginning to look a lot like… Christmas? The current state of our snowpack can best be described as uncharacteristically shallow and faceted, unless you are from the Rockies, in which case this is just normal.

To quickly summarize our winter up until now, November started with a decent snowfall and relatively cold temperatures. This was followed up by a couple of weeks of dry, cold and clear weather before the taps turned back on again in late November and early December. Depending on where in the province you are, this created a widespread persistent weak layer(PWL) of buried surface hoar and/or facets. You might hear this problem being referred to as the November 21st(or 22nd depending on when it got buried)PWL. This weak layer, although scary, hasn’t really matured for a number of reasons. The snow sitting above the weak layer has mainly been unconsolidated powder and the unusual cold spell has produced extensive and unstable faceting.

The projected rapid warming trend and significant new snow will change that in a big way. The drastic change in weather will increase the complexity of the snowpack. In the short term we will likely see storm slabs failing on this new persistent weak layer soon to be buried (Let’s call it the Christmas layer) but the new snow will also help the snow sitting above the November layer to settle into a proper slab which may or may not produce a natural avalanche cycle. If there is a natural cycle it will likely be big! Once this next set of storms clear up we will be left with a snowpack that may have two buried persistent weak layers as well as some very large facets at ground level. This is not preferred!

While the likelihood of triggering these deeper weaker layers is low(ish), the consequences of triggering it or having a smaller avalanche step down to these layers will become impressive. And scary! A lot of very experienced backcountry riders are seeing similarities to the 2002/03 winter season, which had many tragic consequences. Hopefully we can stay vigilant and err on the side of caution as we move into January.

Take good care.

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Snowpack & Avy News

Early Winter Info

Taking stock of the winter season?

As we approach the end of November, now is a great time to take stock of what we can anticipate for our snowpack going forward.

After an unusually warm and sunny October for most of the province, winter arrived seemingly overnight in early November with low freezing levels and plenty of snow. This got folks excited for ski season and the reports of early season adventures started to flood social media and we all collectively forgot to continue our snow dances, which led to a mostly cold, snow-free and sunny two-week period.

Now that we are finally looking at the end of this current high pressure and the return of falling snow, we must move forward with caution. At the moment there are lots of reports of widespread facetting as well as a variety of surfaces, sun crusts, and surface hoar. All of this will be buried by the next set of storms and will most likely be our first proper avalanche cycle in some areas depending on the snowfall amounts. Keeping in mind our current surfaces, we might also be faced with some persistent weak layers as we transition into December which will require a humble approach and discipline to stick with our conservative terrain choices when needed. Most ski hills, guided operations and other sources of snowpack data are not up and running yet so information is limited, making it more difficult to get a grasp on things. 

If you do get out, remember to take photos and post MIN reports! This helps Avalanche Canada produce their public bulletin and provides other backcountry users with current info.

Interesting in taking an AST course? Check out our current schedule at Colwest Avalanche Training.

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Trip to Mt Assiniboine

Trip into History

Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park is a place of soaring glacier clad peaks, alpine meadows, powder snow, turquoise lakes and remote wilderness. For generations the area was the center of trade routes. Earlier this month the Assiniboine Lodge crew, along with Chic Scott & BC Parks celebrated its 100th year anniversary.

Masten, leading through the “red” band

I was fortunate to have spent a week in the Assiniboine area under nearly perfect weather. After hiking in a lengthy but the well-maintained and pleasant Bryant Creek trail over Assiniboine Pass, my climbing partner, Masten and I headed up the Gmoser Ledges to the RC Hind Hut. The next morning brought perfect conditions, we cruised up the many coloured bands of rock that delineate the climbing route on Assiniboine, the red band is definitely my favourite. It was warm, calm and the spectacular views from the summit were unencumbered in all directions. After a leisurely lunch we moseyed down, thanks to BC Parks for all the bolted rappel stations, very convenient. It was an amazing day, a mountain I have always wanted to climb. Thanks to the staff at Assiniboine Lodge, Masten and Mother Nature for their important parts in making this trip so nearly perfect..

View from the summit of Mt Assiniboine

All these years later the Assiniboine Team and Family stay true to the deeply held values of the early Assiniboine Lodge pioneers. The minute you arrive at Assiniboine, you are welcomed with open arms into the Assiniboine Family. Guests ski the same meadows and the same ski runs as Erling Strom did with guests 90 years ago. They hike the same trails. And after a day out in the mountains they gather to share hearty food and stories. Don’t miss any chance you get to visit this very special place.

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Warm Weather / Weak Layers

Weak Layers

As we approach the halfway point of February, we are yet again facing an onslaught of warmer weather as a ridge of high pressure moves into BC and establishes a pattern of dry weather and warm air aloft, creating quite a strong temperature inversion in many areas. The first half of February produced a series of storms that buried a variety of persistent weak layers under 50-100 cm of snow. These weak layers formed during our last period of dry weather at the end of January and have been a recurring problem these last couple of weeks with multiple skier accidentals across BC.

Enjoying spring-like conditions

Skier reactivity on these layers had started to subside as time passed but with the forecasted warm weather and solar input, we should expect things to become more reactive again as the snow above the weak layer settles into an even more cohesive slab. The possibility of cornice failures and subsequent avalanches triggered by these cornices would be very large if they fail on the persistent weak layers. It will be important to practice conservative terrain choices for the next little while as the nice weather will try and lure us out into bigger terrain and untouched slopes. Be mindful of your overhead hazards and any steeper, unsupported terrain especially around treeline. These weak layers are difficult to pinpoint and will be your classic low probability/high consequence avalanche problem.

Amazing hoar crystals

If you need any more information about your specific area, make sure to visit Avalanche Canada’s website and also make sure you review the Special Public Avalanche Warning they posted last weekend. Results of testing we did on Sunday, Feb 13th clearly reflect the reasoning behind Avalanche Canada’s SPAW. Here are the details, N. aspect, 2040m produced a CTM(14) and a ECTP down 38cms on surface hoar to 10mms. This is a pretty dramatic result and worth noting.

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Beware the Dragon – December Crust

Yet another atmospheric river!😒

The tail end of 2021 and the first couple of weeks of 2022 were dominated by colder temperatures and frequent snowstorms across most of BC. The early December crust that was formed after a series of atmospheric rivers at the end of November is now found anywhere from about 100 to 200cm down in the snowpack across most regions. Natural and skier triggered activity has been sporadic on this layer, creating a low probability/high consequence avalanche hazard which makes it tricky to manage our risk.

Looking ahead to this week we are yet again facing another warm atmospheric river making landfall on Tuesday and Wednesday with rising freezing levels and high levels of either rain or snowfall. We can anticipate having our persistent slab problem wake up in many areas creating a widespread cycle of large avalanches during this storm.

If you venture out into avalanche terrain over the next few days, it will be extremely important to choose your terrain carefully and manage your exposure to large overhead hazards. Also keep in mind the potential to trigger storm slab avalanches that could act as a step-down trigger and wake up the sleeping dragon that is the early December crust.

Know Before You Go
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Snowpack Update

Impact of Rain and High Freezing Levels

As we move into December it is worth doing a quick summary of what the snowpack currently like, after a very stormy but mild November. This last week saw yet another series of atmospheric rivers crash into BC which pushed the freezing levels up to around 2000-2200 meters, depending on where in BC you are located. A large avalanche cycle followed suit with multiple forecast regions reporting large slides running full path into valley bottom. As the weather now returns to more seasonally normal temperatures it is safe to say that BTL and TL elevations will have a significant rain crust that will taper off as you transition into the alpine. There is significant variability in snowpack depth with alpine elevations sitting anywhere from 1.5 to 2 meters of snow while lower elevations are below threshold in some places as the warm temperatures and significant rainfall have melted away much of the early snowpack. 😞

Until the lower elevations recover with more snow it will probably not offer much good skiing and in the alpine you will have to navigate wind slabs and watch for further wind loading as the next set of weather systems shifts to a more northwesterly flow.

Avalanche Canada is now up and running with forecasts for all regions. Make sure to check your local forecast as well as any MIN reports that refer to the area around your riding destination.

Awesome AST 1 Crew
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Atmospheric River

BC Snowpack Reset?

Our thoughts and concerns are with anybody who has been directly affected by the recent unprecedented weather event. Thanks to members of SAR, BCAS, PEP, RCMP and other individuals for their amazing efforts while helping others in need.
Backcountry enthusiasts should also consider what the “atmospheric river” may have done to our early season snowpack. Regions of BC received over 200 millimetres of rain in a scant 48 hours. In some mountainous areas freezing levels rose well above mountain tops. Many alpine areas have likely seen a significant snowpack reset. When that much rapid loading (precipitation) is combined with high freezing levels, any concerning weak layers have likely been flushed out with a major avalanche cycle during the storm.
Constant rain at elevation will have also have saturated the snowpack, then refrozen it to the point that we can now effectively consider that the new baseline when tracking the snowpack.

Colliding paths? Where is our snowpack heading
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Return of La Niña!

Check out the cross-loaded features

The cold and wet fall weather certainly has kick-started the ski season for many folks out there. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) we have now officially entered a La Niña phase for our second winter season in a row. La Niña years tend to give Western Canada a winter with below average temperatures and above average precipitation amounts. HALLELUJAH!

So far it seems as though Ullr agrees with the weather models and there are lots of social media and MIN reports out there confirming that we indeed have quite the early season snowpack setting up. At least for certain elevation bands. So, as you dust off your skis and avalanche safety equipment and brainstorm excuses to get out of class early or take a COVID-work-from-home day to snag some November turns… Here are some things you should keep in mind when you head out the door.

Early touring high in the alpine

If there is enough snow to ride it’s also enough to slide. Early season skiing is a fickle thing. You will spend most of your day touring up through BTL and TL elevations with snow levels barely at, or even below, threshold for avalanches and yet as you gain elevation and start poking into those upper treeline or alpine zones you will have to stay vigilant. Up high you could very well have a snowpack of a meter or meter and a half plus whatever the wind has deposited in lee features. You are going to have to make sure you re-evaluate as you go along and travel through these drastic spatial variabilities in snowpack depth.

If you do go out for some skiing, this is a great time to start collecting first-hand information about the snowpack. Any snow profile you dig right now will be quick and easy as there just isn’t that much snow yet. Now you can start tracking those early season melt-freeze crusts (Hello Nov 4th) which will be good to know going forward.

Gathering info on the snowpack

Post MIN reports to Avalanche Canada. As many guiding operations and ski hills have yet to fire up for the season this is a great time to help everyone out by giving Avalanche Canada as much information as possible. No matter your experience level, if you go out and dig in the snow or ski (or both), take pictures, take notes, and share them!

Take it easy. Remember, it’s only the second week of November. You have a full 5-6 months of skiing ahead of you if you are lucky. No need to risk a season-ending injury on day 2. So, watch out for those barely hidden stumps and rocks, keep it simple and enjoy the process of building up to a season full of fun and safe ski days! Also a good time to brush up on your companion rescue skills.

Companion Rescue Practice
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Early Season Snowpack?

Fully developed snowpack, the base is being laid right now

The first official day of fall has just past and that means our days will start to get noticeably shorter and darker as we get closer to winter and the riding season. This weekend we expect an early season snowfall in most of the mountain regions across the province, with some areas receiving as much as 25-30 centimeters. If you’re a backcountry skier/snowboarder or snowshoer, this is the time to start paying attention to what is going on.

What should we make of the early snowfall? It certainly throws a wrench into the works for folks who were still hoping to get a few alpine hikes and mountain bike rides in, while others will be celebrating Ullr’s early arrival and the promise of a great winter season.


Linus cruising some nice Coquihalla powder last winter

From an avalanche forecasting perspective, it means we should start to keep track of what happens next because there are a few different ways in which this snowfall could become problematic later this winter. The biggest problem with early season snowfall is that it is a (very) thin snowpack which is susceptible to either melting or weakening – or both.

If the temperatures stay cold and dry, we will see this thin snowpack start to become weaker as the snow starts to facet. With time the snow will consist primarily of large-grained facets. This will then sit at the base of the snowpack and once more snow arrives it becomes depth hoar. These types of layers take a long time to heal and sometimes never fully recover and are with us for the rest of the winter.

Very mature surface hoar

However, if we get a longer stretch of nice, warm and sunny fall weather, the early season snow will melt down to bare ground. It melts faster on sunny aspects but depending on freezing levels and temperatures even shaded aspects could be back down to bare ground. From an avalanche perspective this is probably our best scenario because it means that once the proper winter snowfall arrives, it will fall on bare ground.

If we get a bit of both we could end up with a melt-freeze crust above a weak layer of facets that then becomes buried by our winter snowpack. This in turn may mean ongoing persistent slab problems and eventually deep persistent slab problems. Not good. Luckily it is still only October so there is a reasonable chance we still have another warm spell or two before winter really sets in.

So what can we do from now until the start of winter? Mainly, we should monitor the snowpack and the weather. Keep track of the distribution of any potential future weak layers by keeping tabs on what elevation the snowline stays at and what the snow coverage is like on the different aspects as we get closer to winter. This will help you eliminate elevation bands and aspects that don’t have any snow left on it and shouldn’t be a concern for these particular problem layers going forward. Checking out webcams from highway passes and weather stations to gauge how warm it gets up in the alpine are some of the tools available to us from a distance.

In the meantime, this is a great time of year to take out your winter equipment and give it a once-over, double-check that your transceiver is functioning properly and that everything else is good to go. Industry professionals continue to work on their rescue skills year after year and run scenarios at the beginning of each season. Get outside and practice with your friends and touring partners to make sure everyone remembers what to do in case of an avalanche incident. No time like the present!

Why most of us do this.