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Photo by Jamie Tackman. Currently a touchy, dangerous snowpack coats the local mountains. And the problem could persist for weeks... 

It’s been an unusual winter of extremes. First we received low amounts of snow and high amounts of fair, cold weather through November, December, and January. This was followed by much higher than normal amounts of snow in February. The old snow that accumulated during the first part of the winter has some real problems: 1) it’s rotted in places with temperature gradient snow down by the ground and its upper surface contains a combination of crusts and hoar frosts on different aspects that did not bond well to all the new February snow. That means huge slabs of new snow are capable of sliding on the surface of the old snow and, once things get moving, it’s quite possible the slide will step down into some of the rotted snow down deep and the whole snowpack will come tumbling down. Sounds like some Biblical story about Joshua.

Photo by Brad Whiting. Explosives were used to release this particular slab in Bowl 4  (Mission Ridge), but big slides like this are currently possible in the backcountry.

This is a good time to be exercising patience. Furthermore, these conditions are likely to persist for weeks if we have normal wintertime temperatures so this could easily be a long exercise in patience. As much as I hate to wish for sloppy weather, I need to agree with Rob Mullins who emailed recently to say, “I
look forward to a soaking rain event (that can) eliminate all of this then refreeze and be covered with March powder.”

Illustration from Allen and Mike's Avalanche Book (Falcon Guides) a very practical, easy-to-read book imparting lots of good avalanche knowledge.

Until that happens those of us who value living long rather than flaming the brightest at every given moment, should be thinking about suitable, safe skiing options like downhill skiing, Nordic skiing the groomed trails, Nordic skiing Forest Service Roads (ones that don’t cut across steep slopes), skiing/snowshoeing gentle ridges or slopes with particularly good anchors, touring low-angle terrain (i.e., slopes under 25-degree slopes) that can’t be overrun by slides running off steeper terrain overhead. All these options are out there –study our Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, and snowshoeing guidebooks to find them.

Winter enthusiasts might even consider the option of eliminating temptation for a few weeks by switching sports until the snowpack stabilizes. Rock climbing at Vantage or road riding up the Palisades might be smarter than touring gentle terrain where a nearby (but steeper) powder slope could tempt you stick your neck into a mousetrap.

For now, know the hazard is out there. Read more about it at NWAC’s avalanche reports and through reports of what local skiers are saying on the WenatcheeOutdoors Forum.

 This is also a very good read that applies to the current conditions in some of the Canadian Ranges north of us. They’re dealing with the same issues and here’s a cautionary article currently posted on Canadian Avalanche Center’s site.

If you are going to backcountry ski or snowshoe, bone up on your avalanche knowledge, practice your companion-rescues, and practice strategic-shoveling techniques. Of course, make sure you have the right gear, too, like quality transceivers, probes, and shovels.

Finally, because this is a season to be particularly worried about, use our WinterReports conditions matrix to monitor what’s happening in the mountains. This one matrix quickly lets you click between the local avalanche reports as well as the regional telemetry sites with information about total amount of snow, snow in the past 24 hours, daily temperatures, wind direction, and wind speed. All of this impacts the safety of slopes you might climb or descend.

Oh yeah, also use CalTopo maps with the slope-angle filters at our Topographic Map area.  Look at the slopes you’re thinking of visiting and use the slope-angle filter to quickly reveal slope steepnesses that will provide safe travel or that might be dangerous right now.