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Dangers of Early Season Backcountry Skiing | UNITED STATES, WYOMING | 10/28/2008, by powderjunky
On the hike out from a recent early season ski tour, I began to wonder if early season skiing held any unique dangers that are not present during mid-winter or spring. The most obvious is hidden and exposed obstacles. But what about the avalanche danger? I have many friends who don’t even bring avalanche gear early season claiming there isn’t enough snow to cause a serious slide. Well, to get answers we asked Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center, Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and Bob Lee, Board member of the Northern New Mexico Avalanche Center what they thought about the dangers unique to early season skiing.
Bruce said the first snowfall of the season is usually quite safe because it sticks well to the bare ground and is anchored by brush. The second, snowfall, however, is much more dangerous because it can now slide much more easily on the slick snow surface from the previous storm. Bruce continued by stating, “Early season snow packs are also dangerous because the sun tends to melt the snow off the south facing slopes and it forces people onto the more dangerous north facing slopes, where depth hoar commonly grows at the bottom of the snowpack. With each early season snow storm, there is almost always a danger of avalanches on these buried depth hoar layers.”
Ethan agreed with Bruce, warning of new snow falling on old faceted snow and bare ground. The new snow falling on bare ground is generally safe, but snow falling on the old facets (especially on shadier, north facing slopes) can provide a slick sliding surface, perfect for a possible avalanche.
Bob emphasized the importance of early season snowfall contributing to avalanche activity for the rest of the year. “Avalanche conditions are established from the first snowfall. An early storm can lay down a firm layer that could develop hoar or a slick bed depending on the weather conditions. If a good sized storm comes after the unstable bed or layer is formed, it could cause a release right away or store up as an unstable layer that could release a day, week, or even months later.”
Bob also stressed that the time of season shouldn't play into a backcountry user's assessment of the avalanche conditions and danger. “Snowpack assessment should look at all the season-to-date weather factors and cycles, the snow itself, and the terrain no matter what time of year it is,” he said.
All three of our experts asserted that anytime you put yourself in potential avalanche terrain, you should have your gear and know how to use it. Ethan recalled an incident in 2005 where an experienced backcountry skier ventured out early season and left his avalanche gear in the car. He ended up losing his life in a slide…
This sort of story begs the question- how much new snow needs to fall in order to worry about avalanches? Ethan responded that even two inches of snow with the right wind can load a slope and cause a fatal slide. Bruce added, “Many people get a rude avalanche surprise in the early season because they just assume that there is not enough snow to slide.” Bruce cautioned that any avalanche you trigger will usually involve a bone-breaking ride through rocks and stumps.
I also asked Ethan if avalanches are more or less likely to occur in the early season compared to mid winter and spring. He answered that it just depends on the storm cycles. Sometimes early season can be the most active time of year, and other years it is the most quiet.
It appears that the main difference of early season skiing is how the snow can fall on a variety of different surfaces. From grass, rocks, or old snow, this can create many different degrees of stability on the same slope. With stability not constant, it can lead to getting caught off-guard in a dangerous area where you might think it was safe. The other main factor is our ignorance in the myth that because it is early season, it is safe. Other than that the same good judgment used during mid-winter and spring apply to early season and your best bet is to be cautious year round.
Tips for Early Season Skiing
- Fresh batteries in your beacon.
- If there is enough snow to ski, there is enough snow to cause an avalanche.
- Always bring your avalanche gear.
- Pay close attention to the past and current snow depths.
- Know what kind of surface the new snow is falling on and where the wind is blowing the new snow.
- Understand how much snow is melting between storms.