It’s that time of year again when Avalanche Canada has paused forecasting for avalanche hazard (although their ongoing daily weather synopsis is a great product at https://www.avalanche.ca/weather/forecast), most winter operations such as ski areas and lodges have shut down, and reports on the Mountain Information Network become fewer and fewer. So a number of us guides will be providing regional conditions updates throughout the Summer and Fall in an attempt to both keep the readers informed of current condition as well as offer ideas, and I daresay inspiration, for mountain adventures.
The mountains are nearly always in transition. Yes, there is something like “slack tide” between the ebb of deep winter and flow of brazen summer. But late Spring into early Summer is one of those periods of rapid change where those adventurous enough to press on to the summit will embrace a myriad of conditions, and not all of them favourable. Avalanche debris, apathetically shrugged from the shoulders of mountains and piled high in the valleys below, is still melting out. Avalanches, especially the vernal variety, act as natural bulldozers connecting the alpine with valley bottom, plowing vertical highways into the mountain sides. There’s a lot of life in these paths and this week we’ve seen tracks of bear, cougar, and wolverine, perhaps all in search of whatever ungulates also left their prints. It is awe-inspiring to be working through these huge piles of avalanche debris, evidence of Winter’s massive power, while a dozen species of birds call in Spring all around and trickles and roars of water juxtapose the silence of the hardened snow.
The valley-bottom avalanche debris isn’t all old; in fact, much of it is from recent slides. Cornices, those frozen waves on ridge tops, succumb to the weight of their own ambition after looming and clinging on all season long. The infernal intensity of the sun bores into these features, usually only causing failure by degrees, but occasionally the whole cornice will let loose with tens of thousands of pounds descending at once. We’ve also seen large wet slab avalanches lately, both on the Island and around the Coast, with the whole seasonal snowpack failing on some early November interface. Glide cracks have also been in the forefront of my mind this past week as mid-elevation rock slabs and heathery slopes divest themselves of their 5m-deep winter covers. Similar to cornices, these glide cracks can release imperceptibly with small sections moving mere meters at a time…or the whole snowpack can calve off, scouring and gouging the earth below. Timing or predicting these events is garage science at best, though these failures typically occur during the hottest periods of the day; still, we’ve woken up trembling in our tents in the middle of the night by the echoing peals of large avalanches or returned somewhere in the morning to find fresh debris that wasn’t there the afternoon before. There are two basic strategies with dealing with these type of avalanches: minimize your time in terrain with large overhead hazard or practice avoidance altogether. Finally, loose wet avalanches are a common and near-daily occurrence. We’ve noted these on mid-to-lower elevation, wet and water-saturated slopes steeper than 35 degrees where a single ski turn can initiate a small sluff that grows into a tree-snapping force as it builds mass on descent.
I’ve been on skis every day this last couple of weeks, sometimes regrettably on some bushwhack egress with isothermal snow threatening to suck said skis from my feet.
Be warned: below-treeline skiing is marginal at best and I would prefer to call it commuting rather than skiing. The current average snow line is around 1300m and, depending on the (perhaps exact) time of descent, the skiing may or may not be enjoyable. We’ve mostly been skiing below 1800m at the end of our day which has been rather arduous and may have been better earlier in the day. But above 1800m we’ve been rewarded with some very pleasant skiing, aspect and time-of-day depending. Above 2400m I’ve found perfect stellars (classic snowflakes) in sheltered and shaded aspects, tiny and beautiful vestiges of winter still hanging on and making for some lovely powder turns. High east through north aspects are still holding dry snow despite the high temps we’ve been seeing, and a clear night is all it takes this time of year to refreeze the snow’s surface at mid-to-lower elevations. The right aspect at the right time provides truly excellent skiing! Imagine skiing on silk…
In the high alpine winter isn’t over. Yesterday’s brief storm was a reminder of that as we crawled across our summit after cramponing up one side in blizzard and whiteout conditions, with 10cm of new snow quickly deposited around us. Eyewear rimed in minutes. Wind-driven snow grains pelted our faces and eyelids glued shut as we staggered around the summit, desperately looking for the way down the other side. There was no going back the way we’d come up. The windward side of our bodies, poles, and ice axes developed 1-2cm of ice and our previously wet clothing crunched into frozen angulations. Turning into the wind was the direction we needed to go but, by golly, it was hell to do it. A couple hundred meters below the summit we skied some powder, albeit slowly due to no visibility; then we emerged from under the belly of the maelstrom, the shrieking winds abated, we could see, think, talk, and laugh as relief gently filled our sails and lifted our spirits. Of course all such terrors and threats of adventure can be safely avoided by rock climbing, bike riding, trail running, river floating, fishing and all the other glorious valley activities available at this time of year.
With snow line still relatively low, one might assume glaciers and crevasses are easy travelling. But with very warm temps in the forecast, bridges will continue to sag and collapse. Whatever storms we are still getting, such as yesterday, buff over those sags and cracks with new snow. I know of at least two recent falls into crevasses along the Coast recently, one minor and one the real deal. Visually, the glacier may appear smooth but, at least in the case of the latter crevasse fall, there was no visual indication of a crevasse at all. Thankfully that team was roped up and knew how to perform a rescue. In general, though, probing around on glaciers this last week we found well over 3m of snow which definitely helps ease glacier navigation with most crevasses well-bridged or covered completely.
With the forecast for the weekend, it will be a truly glorious time to be in the mountains. Temps will be high during the day, kissing the freezing mark overnight in the alpine, with enough cloud cover to season your experience with adventure and, if you’re lucky, a bit of uncertainty. As for me, I’m going to keep my skis out for a while longer, eschewing the siren call of the rocks and single track for another week or two before succumbing. It is a wonderful time of year to be in the high mountains on skis and we are fortunate to live with mountains in the backyard.
Have a great weekend everyone.
IFMGA Mountain Guide