What is a forecast? When the ave center gives you a green light, how does it affect your motives and goals for the day?
That was the discussion of the day as we skinned up valley under crystal blue skies with what appeared to be a stellar snowpack. We had a big line in mind but our group has been skiing long enough to know that ideas don't mean anything. You might have objectives for the day, but our ski group is equally at home backing off slopes and objectives as we are at actually skiing our intended line (actually the truth is we're perhaps more likely to back off the intended line). "We'll just go up there and have a look," seems to be the mantra every time we start out to do something. And so we go up stuff and look down.
Sometimes we dig a pit and sometimes the pit is good and we embrace the run. Sometime the pit reinforces what we already know and we go accepting the risk. Often it's a justification for turning around and going down the skintrack as fast as fucking possible.
But that's the pit. The snowpack can very different from the forecast. Sometimes it's better than what they say; sometimes you have to read the fine print ("isolated avalanches in extreme terrain"). The question is: how does the forecast affect your decision making for the day?
Ten years ago it seemed the only way people skied big lines in Turnagain was by putting in their time down in the Pass and taking the time to study weather, snowpack and local knowledge before committing to dropping down big lines like the south side of Proper. These days Proper gets skied all the time and good visibility combined with a low to moderate forecast will lead to a dozen plus descents in one day. Would the big lines in Turnagain get skied as often as they do without a forecast?
There isn't really any way to answer that. Certainly big lines get skied on a regular basis in Hatcher Pass even though there is only a weekly forecast. Big lines get skied often in the Chugach - but they seem to get skied by those in the know who have put in their time elsewhere. And those big lines typically don't get skied till the trade routes have been skied out in Turnagain.
There's no doubt that the avalanche forecast has an influence on my objectives. As I mentioned, the weather was perfect and the forecast was low for the day. That in turn had influenced our decisions for the day before we even left the house. And because we had a green light we opted to go big. Had the forecast been moderate we probably wouldn't have left the house with an objective. Had it been considerable we probably would have left the house thinking that we would run laps in the "relatively safe" Tincan trees (for the millionth time).
So we skinned up valley. Around the south side of Cornbiscuit past the run we had skied a week ago. The south faces are changing fast in Turnagain. Large human triggered and natural sluffs are coming off and leaving sizable deposits near the valley floor. The run we had skied on Goldpan a week earlier now looked sun-baked and spooky. But we knew better than to sample south facing slopes so we kept going heading towards the magnificent North couloir that drops off the summit of Grandaddy.
South face sluffing & point releases.
On and on and up and up. It's about 3.5 miles and 3,000' to the pass between Pastoral and Grandaddy from the road. Since it's pretty flat it tends to be a monotonous slog to say the least.
Heading up valley.
It took us about 2 hours to reach the base of the slope that leads to the col. Dan and Yvonne were well ahead (I wonder how much longer I can write off my ankle as an excuse for being slow) and they began picking their way up the slope. By now we had noticed other changes; leeward slopes at the top of all north facing couloirs were loaded with a notable pillow of snow and the slope we were on had an obvious wind layer.
Dan worked upward slowly and tentatively, but then after a while he found a safe path via cornice debris that took us up quickly and safely. When he reached the partially collapsed cornice at the head of the slope he poked back and forth until finally figuring out a path that had us half crawling, half skiing till we finally pulled up and over onto the ridge into the sun and the wind. Then a sharp right turn with hardly a pause as we continued on.
Don't ask, don't tell.
The windward side of the north ridge was pretty hammered. Like solid ice hammered, which meant skis went on the back and progress slowed as we resorted to kicking steps. Dan ventured out on the sunny south face, which commenced into a bitch session about conditions, so I poked around the rocky north side, and started working my way up the easy mixed step in unconsolidated thigh deep powder.
The signs were stacking up: loaded leeward slopes we had spied from the valley floor; the wind slab below the ridge; a hammered south face and now unconsolidated thigh deep snow over rock.
Ski mountaineering is about balancing risk and reward. You recall the history, watch the signs and consider the reward. Throw in an avalanche report and you have a baseline from which to start, but you must be careful not to let that baseline distract you from the signs. A green light on the web page at 7am when you're nursing your morning coffee should not make you overlook the signs. Sometime it works the other way; a yellow light at 7am only to find the perfect snowpack at noon on the run you didn't think would go.
An important lesson to remember is that once you've left the road runs things change. And even when the signs are good you're still rolling the dice to a certain extent. As I've reiterated [again] [and] [again] on this site, climb or ski long enough and you or someone you know will be involved in an accident. Given recent news this point strikes home: Steve Romeo skied with friends of mine and Yvonne and I met Chris Onufer on Denali last season. In the high profile avalanche at Stevens Pass, the surviving victim, Elyse Saugstad, was from Girdwood. The recent burial in Turnagain Pass was triggered by one group of friends and buried another acquaintance.
And so there I was in thigh deep snow on a rocky ridge doing my best to balance the signs with the history and my desire. Getting over the rock step required some wallowing but there were no signs of instability and no cornice so I pushed on. Up past the first rock band, then up and over the second rock band with a glance over the shoulder to make sure everyone was still following. Then onto easier ground where Yvonne once again passed me.
Me on the ridge. Photo by Dan Boccia.
More signs made an appearance - constant wind from the east and sastrugi the ridge - but we were on the summit ridge now and the going was safe and easy so we pushed on. Finally we were on top.
Dan B. on the ridge.
Dan H. on the ridge.
Let the mind games begin: Signs, History, Desire.
The Signs tell us the top is steep, hard-packed and that the steady winds have left a notable wind slab and gnarly cornice. History tells us that we're looking at one of the best snowpacks in recent history. Desire tells us that to a certain extent the only way to ski runs like this is to accept the risk.
We poked and prodded and then dropped further down the ridge in search of another entrance that would enable us to bypass the top. At a safe stance the discussion began. Anyone who skis has had this discussion; basically it's everything I've said above summarized in about 25 words shouted over winds. This discussion usually ends with someone taking off skis, pulling out the shovel and traversing out onto the slope to dig a pit while the others watch from a safe stance.
I dug the pit and the pit was not as good as I wanted it to be. The top six inches sluffed easily as expected, the next 18 inches were well bonded but then we had a block of sugar. It didn't shear when I did a compression test and we'd probably ski it elsewhere on an easier run. But here the run-out was bad, the signs were stacking up and intuition told us not to go.
But the mind games weren't over. The signs state don't go, but history and desire still come into play. We all knew that the snowpack was as good as it gets and I've stood at the top of this very run once before and had this very same discussion so the desire was high.
Which brings me full circle: When the ave center gives you a green light, how does it affect your motives and goals for the day?
Fresh in our minds was the incident we witnessed last week. The forecast for the day said low but the fine print read, "Cornices have grown into huge overhanging lobes, especially on some West facing aspects. We recommend keeping your distance from these features and approaching with caution." In the late afternoon we witnessed a skier triggered cornice avalanche that filled the valley floor with debris. Even after another 16 inches of new snowfall that debris was still visible 8 days later.
Note skiers btm-left and cornice debris mid-right.
Now we were sitting at the top of a run where wind slab was a concern thinking about a forecast that told us ave danger was low yet also told us to watch out for "touchy wind slabs". And so the forecast played two roles: that of justification for pushing it, but also that of moderation because of route choice.
I'll spare you the ongoing mental discussion. In the end we backed off and skied back down the skin track. We were able to link turns down what we had to boot pack and we enjoyed a fun pitch of steepish snow with some good sluff to get back down to the valley floor where we pointed ski tips downhill and coasted back into the sun and warmth.
Dan B. down the ridge.
Back on the valley floor we reflected on our decision briefly. The three factors had shrieked each trying to outdo the other. I wanted desire to win but that green light receded before us. Before long we were slapping on the skins and heading up a road facing powdery west face in the hopes of one more run before we had to head home. On and on and up and up till the first bench where skins were pulled and the skis pointed downhill. Then down into knee deep stable snow where signs, history and desire melded into linked turns in the fading light.
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