Understanding What’s Under Our Skis & How to Manage the Risks Associated With It
As hard as it may be to believe, ski season in the backcountry is not really here yet. What I mean, is while the snow is piling up in the backcountry the early season hazards that historically arrive with a shallow snowpack are also here. These hazards require specific behaviors or actions to help us avoid them and their consequences. Thus, we need to have a better understanding of the hazards that present themselves historically with specific seasonal timing.
Let’s start with defining what constitutes a shallow snow pack. Anything less than 2 meters is generally considered a shallow snowpack. While that may seem deep from a ski area perspective, keep in mind there isn’t much of a tail crew on your backcountry run.
This the first hazard we encounter during the early season are “Snow Snakes”. Downed timber, rocks and any other thing buried in the snowpack that can take your knee out for the season. The management technique with this type of snowpack is to ski lower angle terrain that generally has a grassy cover. Go our hiking in the summer to find these areas.
The second hazard we encounter with a shallow snowpack Is that human triggered avalanches are more common and easily triggered. The early season snow that fell in September and October that was able to persist, metamorphosed into angular grains that do not like to bond with one another…snow that is impossible to make snowballs with…”sugar” if you will.
Starting from the top of the snowpack, you can see in the photo the hand hardness increases until it reaches the persistent weak layer notes in red. These are the large grained facets that age causing a collapse of the snowpack. You might have heard whoomphing during your travels yesterday. This is this layer failing or collapsing.
All this needs snowpack need to innate an avalanche is a trigger, aka skier and a steep enough slope to run on. The weak leader is already there waiting to fail. The management techniques is avoiding slopes steep enough to fail…thus RESTRAINT.
Making goals like being outside with other while skiing and coming home safe should be the only “objective” for sometime. The Bridger Teton has this problem listed as a Persistent Slab. Take the persistent part to heart. The job of the snowpack is to be weak and create avalanches right now. Our job is to avoid avalanche terrain.