A slow transition into winter is occurring. Beautifully sunny and crisp fall days are interspersed with precipitation events where the snowline is gradually creeping lower down the mountainsides.
In the past week there has been some excellent autumn weather where many objectives are possible. At other times, including today, not so much. It is snowing down to low elevations in some places in the Columbias and the Rockies right now. Webcams are showing the white stuff on the ground at road level in Rogers Pass, below treeline at Marmot Basin in Jasper, and in the Banff townsite. Other areas have not been hit...yet.
For the coming week a common theme for all areas is a cold precipitation event coming through late Saturday through Sunday, after what looks like a nice day on Friday. The precipitation will likely fall as snow well below treeline in many areas. After that things look up, with some clear days early and mid week as the system passes. Temperatures will remain hovering near the freezing mark at the elevations we like to play at though.
Conditions are typical for the season. Sunny days may clear enough snow from some lower mountain objectives, but the higher elevations will remain in winter condition until next summer.
There is not enough snow to create good travel conditions on the glaciers yet. Expect difficult and probably dangerous travel in crevassed terrain, with snow bridges too thin and weak to carry the weight of a climber (or a skier for those of you wishfully thinking). One thing to note is that after this hot summer it has been observed that there are areas of new crevasses on some glaciers, which have not been seen before. Slow, thoughtful travel and probing is essential.
Some alpine snow/ice or mixed objectives may be reasonable after a few days of warm daytime temperatures and cold nights that may set up snow and alpine ice conditions for good travel, and may create the water ice conditions necessary on some routes. But remember, you often need to get across a glacier to get there.
Hiking can still be good at lower elevations. Time will tell how the upper elevation hikes fare after today and this weekend. All the fall colours (including larches) are just past their peak now in the Rockies, but the Columbias still seem to be in full glory.
Sunny days on low elevation, south facing rock climbs could well be possible again by next week, but those days are numbered.
I know some of you are thinking about skiing. For me we are not there yet. If you go out please don't ski anywhere that there is vegetation beneath you, skis easily damage our fragile alpine areas. On glaciers the crevasses are still too open for it to be safe. So unless you know a spot where there are no crevasses or vegetation, which is smooth enough to ski without hitting rocks, it is time to be patient and wait for real winter to arrive.
What the main hazard is will depend on what you are doing, but start thinking winter issues. Slab avalanches could well be in play right now, and from my observations fresh cornices that mask the edge of ridges and are too weak to support a climber are a certainty.
Snow also creates slippery conditions for climbers, scramblers, and hikers. It may create route finding issues too.
Here is my regular autumn hazard checklist:
- Days are short, nights are long, and temperatures are cold. Bring headlamps and extra clothes.
- Cornices are starting to form.
- Rocks will fall when fresh snow starts melting.
- Crevasses are poorly bridged and may be hidden, either by snow that has rotted all summer or by the recent snowfalls.
- Snow may also make route finding harder if trails, landmarks, and markings are covered. Trails are also slippery with snow on them.
This week I may be headed for:
- low elevation rock climbs in the sun
- simple glacier climbs (carry a probe and use it!)
- considering snow, alpine ice or mixed routes after the snow has been allowed to settle (carrying avalanche rescue gear is essential for alpine climbers at this time of year)
- low elevation and treeline hikes (especially in the Columbias)
I am avoiding:
- alpine rock
- complex glaciers
- scrambling, unless I know there is no snow on the route
- hikes above treeline
Lastly, we can't ignore the fact that our hospitals are under strain right now. Play it safe and try to avoid an accident that would add more stress to the health care system. There literally may not be a hospital bed available for you.
Enjoy the last glories of the autumn season! Winter is coming.