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Why ​Backcountry Skiers Need to Start Channeling Their Inner Historian

Examining snow crystals in various layers can help a rider understand the metamorphosis happening in the snow and whether or not crystals are healing (rounding) or becoming weaker. Skier: Ryan Day Thompson. Kt Miller photo. 

Grab your reading glasses and saddle up, because this whole backcountry ski business isn’t for the cavalier cowboy. No, really, backcountry skiing is dangerous. So you read the avalanche report? Good for you. Please keep reading it. However, just reading the avalanche report the day before you head into the backcountry isn’t enough. Reading the avalanche forecast daily and making observations throughout the entire season is the key.

Whenever I teach an avalanche course, one of the first questions I ask students is, “When was the first snow this season?” In November it’s a pretty easy question and most people know the answer. What if I ask that same question in March? Often it’s a bit of a head scratcher by then.

You can think of the snowpack like a book, each layer, each snowfall, and each weather event creates it’s own chapter— it has its own dialog and adds to the larger story the novel is trying to tell.

Digging snow pits and performing stability tests is one way to keep tabs on weak layers int eh snowpack. Thes skills can be learned in avalanche courses. Skier: Brody Leven. Kt Miller photo.

Digging snow pits and performing stability tests is one way to keep tabs on weak layers in the snowpack. These skills can be learned in avalanche courses. 

So at the beginning of the season when the first snow falls, take note. Was it warm or cold? Deep or shallow? Here are a few key things to remember (pardon me if this is a little over-simplified):

- Deeper snowpacks are typically stronger

- Warmer snow (close to 32 degrees F/0 degrees C) tends to bond better than colder snow

- The snowpack likes slow gradual change, rapid change (lots of snow, wind, or big temperature swings stress the snowpack).

So deep and warm(ish) often creates safe(er) avalanche conditions. Which means the opposite—cold and shallow—often creates dangerous avalanche conditions. And the snowpack needs time to adjust to big snowfalls.

So, as each storm or snowfall blankets the mountains with the white stuff that gives us so much joy, we must also think about what kind of layer or chapter in the snowpack book is being written. Is it a warm chapter, or a cold chapter? A deep chapter or a shallow chapter? Or perhaps an in-between storms sunny chapter? Was it sunny and warm or sunny and cold? And what about the wind?

Next, we have to think about how each layer is bonding to the layer beneath. Do we have pound cake on top of marbles, or powdered sugar on top of double-decker pancakes with maple syrup in between. Now put each of those on a plate, tilt the plate to 38 degrees, and let your imagination take over (I can feel your snow nerd developing, keep envisioning.)

Beau Fredlund plays it safe by skiing slopes shallower than 30 degrees during a deep December storm cycle in Montana. Kt Miller photo.

As the snowpack gets deeper, and temperatures trend towards warmer in the spring we can often assume the snowpack will slowly become stronger. The marbles might crumble, the pound cake weighing down on them and squishing them into the pancakes below.

The analogies I’m making might seem like a bit of a reach, but the important lesson is that understanding avalanche activity is a process, and observing the snowpack is like watching a baker make a many-layered cake, or reading the chapters of a book. With a little observation, and tuning into the patterns of nature, we can begin to develop an understanding.

When those first precious flakes grace the ground in the fall, skiers take cue, it’s time to tune your avi-savy antenna. Begin watching the layers, and follow the history of the season’s snow. 

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