It’s fall. Last week I was rock climbing in the sun, today I was swinging ice tools. Next week I’ll be mountain biking and, who knows, maybe squeak in another day of rock climbing.
We’ve had cool fall weather in the Rockies and Columbia mountains for over a week now with below freezing overnight temperatures and several days of below freezing high temps in the alpine. Snow is slowly accumulating in the high ranges after several small storms. More precipitation over the weekend is expected (up to 10 cm in the Columbia mountains, less in the Rockies) and drying up Sunday or Monday. Next week it looks like we’ll have at least a few days of fine autumn weather.
As usual there are many mountain enthusiasts pushing the limits of what the shoulder season offers in the way of recreation. Tales of faceshots at Bow Summit and instagram photos of cold blue ice up in Storm Creek, or ski tracks visible in the background of the Kicking Horse webcam might get you thinking that it’s winter already. Well, the interweb doesn’t lie and I’m going try to give a summary, from my own perspective, of what to expect if you head into the hills this weekend.
Snowpack: There are some accumulations in sheltered areas in the alpine. Recent winds have scoured and moved around a lot of the recent snow. Expect 20-50 cm in the high alpine in sheltered areas.
Avalanche: There is enough snow in isolated windloaded high alpine zones to create deadly avalanches. I would use extra caution on immediate lees and cross loaded gullies. At treeline and below treeline elevations there just isn’t much snow right now.
Rocks and trees: skiing at this time of the year requires a lot of caution and finely tuned senses to avoid destroying your gear and/or knees. Buried hazards like rocks and trees can turn what might have been just a lousy run into a trip to the hospital. As always, put your helmet on for the descent -- if you take a header into a shallowly buried boulder you’ll be glad you did.
Crevasses: with record breaking hot temperatures and the demise of our beloved glaciers, crevasse hazard will be a serious concern right now, especially with the recent new snow and strong winds.
Crowds: I don’t think this is a problem right now, but it will be soon. Skiing or climbing under another group is dangerous, so have backup plans. There are many more people in the mountains these days than just a few years ago so more than ever this is something to consider. Especially in these early days of frozen waterfall ice the options are very limited. Your backup plan might be to just go for a hike -- who knows, maybe you’ll find a new line!
What to do…
Ice climbing -- it’s early season but there’s ice in them thar hills. Especially Storm Creek apparently. Just remember you’re probably climbing a grade lower than you did at the end of last season… and early season ice is usually a grade harder! It’s also thin and hard to protect, it’s not picked out, it’s wet and fragile… Yeah, I know, it’s what you live for!
Skiing -- there really isn’t any skiing right now unless you get way up into the mountains on a glacier. Or go to Bow Summit.
Hiking -- is still very possible, especially at lower elevations. Expect slippery sections with compact snow and icy patches so be sure to bring along your cleats and walking poles.
So where to go? This weekend I would gravitate towards an area I was familiar with, and be willing to turn around if things don't seem right. Remain injury free and you're looking at an 8 month winter season. There's plenty of time for the conditions to improve.
Mountain Guide ACMG/IFMGA
Photos 1+2: Weeping Wall and Athabasca Glacier (Ian Jackson, Parks Visitor Safety); Photo 3: Alpine Guide Nino Guagliano, ice climbing today (TW)