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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 Windy.com 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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Avalanche Training Backcountry Climbing Mountain Culture Mountaineering Ski Touring Splitboarding

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.

Categories
Avalanche Training Backcountry Climbing Mountain Culture Mountaineering Ski Touring Splitboarding

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.