You doesn’t love the first snow of the year? Raise your hand if you’re already jonesing for those first turns. I know I am.
Want to hit the slopes in the dark? No need for a headlamp, just light your whole body. Not only is this short video stylish and beautiful, it’s pretty amazing. At first I figured the snowboarder, Will Hughes, must have memorized the slope, knowing he wouldn’t hit anything on a perfectly groomed slope. Then he heads towards the trees. And the powder. You have to check this out.
Winter is back. After over a month of spring-like weather in the Cascades, it looks like we are about to return to a cold, snowy forecast, and I, for one, am excited. Don’t get me wrong, a little sun and high pressure in the middle of the season can be a nice break. But now I’m ready for deep snow, light fluff and powder turns. Without this change in the weather, I might just continue to poke my fingers in other people’s eyes, and that’s not good for anybody.
Here’s the forecast:
Friday should be a pow storm day, with wind and sideways snow filling in tracks between laps. High wind could also shut down upper lifts, but with a little luck and a lot of snow, it could be stellar. Snow levels could go up to 4,000 feet, but that shouldn’t be a problem at Crystal. Fingers crossed on that.
Saturday will offer a brief break in the action, with another storm arriving Sunday. Beyond that, the NOAA forecast discussion is calling for continued stormy, cold weather with mountain snow. Now that’s what I’m talking about.
For more information on how to read the forecast and watch the telemetry check out How To Predict Good Snow Conditions.
I love to travel. New sights, exotic foods, interesting conversations with strangers all stretch me a little.
Travel takes me out of my comfort zone, turns me upside down and gives me a shake until quarters (or perhaps yen coins) drop from my pockets.
I’m in Niseko on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in search of new experiences, legendary powder and the famous japanese powder trees. Excellent sushi, apres ski onsens (the japanese version of hot tubbing) and a lively little ski town doesn’t hurt either. We’ve been here for a week–hence the lack of new blog posts the past few days–and return today. Or tomorrow rather. We leave tomorrow and get back today. Or something like that. All I know is that we leave Sapporo at 2pm on Tuesday and arrive in Seattle at 8am the same day. It’s like a time machine. I’ve been playing Back to the Future in my head like an earworm, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”
Yesterday we skied at a tiny area with one lift used by the military for training. It is surrounded by easy access backcountry peaks carved against the backdrop of the Sea of Japan. After a short skin above the lift, we carved down a protected face of fresh snow, the stellar crystals glinting in the sunlight layering itself across the slope like curtains of light.
Lap after lap we found untracked turns, until we skied down to the onsen and lowered ourselves into the steamy, sulfurous water. Our Japanese friend Kenji claims the sulfur warms you to your bones and soothes sore muscles. He might be right about that.
Sometimes, though, the best part of travel is returning home. Seeing new places can offer fresh perspective, it can scrub away the jaded edges that form around familiar viewpoints. Maybe flying 4,000 miles to ski powder makes you that much happier to know its piling up at home, filling in the jibbed-out lines and
resetting itself for your return. I appreciate more now the familiarity of skiing at home, knowing to ski Appliances when the wind blows from the south, how the sun and temperature affect particular lines, that the trees will protect the snow in Paradise when Exterminator, with a similar aspect, is burned to coral. That Powder Bowl stays dry and chalky even in the midst of record breaking inversion. That you can almost always find untracked lines beyond Boxcar.
I return now to yesterday, to the snow storm that’s blowing in Monday evening, even though its Tuesday morning here in Niseko. The sun is out here and it looks like a leftover kind of day. But yesterday it’s snowing at home.
Now all I need to do is channel some lighting into that flux capacitator and just maybe I can bring some of this japowder home with me.
The Cascade Mountains are in the midst of a major snow cycle. Pacific storms bringing wind and significant snowfall have pounded the Pacific Northwest mountains the past two weeks. As of yesterday, Crystal Mountain had received 40″ of snow in the past two days, and another 18-24″ is expected today. Another foot or two is on deck to Thursday.
Yesterday we posted signs at the ticket windows and the base of all chairs warning people of the hazards of deep snow. We recommend skiing with a partner and keeping them in sight at all times. We also recommend wearing a transceiver and carrying shovel and probe while in avalanche prone areas. Those areas at Crystal are specifically marked. Northway, Southback and Bear Pits are accessed through gates marked “Avalanche Prone Area”. And yet I’m surprised by how many people yesterday in Northway were not wearing transceivers yesterday.
Northway opened at 2pm yesterday after a full day of avalanche control. Moments before the gates opened, the lift went down for a mechanical reason. Eager powder hounds were amassing at the gates.
Ski patrol wanted to open the terrain in order to get tracks in there. Skier compaction is the best way to manage avalanche hazard. Ski and snowboard tracks today will keep the hazard lower tomorrow as new snow creates subsequent layers.
We decided to open “Short North”, asking people to return on I-5 rather than dropping down to the bottom. On a very small but steep section of the horizontal return trail a small pocket of snow pulled out and buried a skier.
She was not wearing a transceiver. The snow carried her about thirty feet to a tree island where subsequent snow buried her. She was not tumbled or pushed very far. Luckily, she was able to punch one arm out of the debris and remove some of the snow near her airway and was therefore able to breath. After approximately 10 minutes, ski patrollers arrived. Witnesses at the scene had already probed her, and she dug her out. She was okay, and able to return to the base area under her own power.
We can all learn many lessons from this close call.
- Wear a transceiver and know how to use it. Even when you aren’t planning on riding in an Avalanche Prone Area, wear it anyway. You just might be tempted to drop in when we open the gates.
- Ski with a partner. Keep this partner in sight the entire run. Plan your run ahead of time. Decide where you will stop and wait for the rest of your party. Make sure everyone is accounted for before continuing on.
- Ski one at a time. Do not drop onto a steep, deep slope with twenty other skiers and riders. Do not drop in above someone else. I know this seems like an impossible task. Often when we drop the gates everyone bum rushes the slope all at once even when we’ve warned them not to. Talk to the other people standing there and stake your lines beforehand.
- Carry a cellphone and put the ski patrol on speed dial. The emergency-only number is 360-663-3064. Witnesses at yesterday’s close call claim that it took a full five minutes before anyone called patrol.
- Carry a shovel and probe. Know how to quickly deploy them. Practice using them (and your beacon) at the Easy Searcher search park located next to the Campbell Basin Lodge.
It’s easy to get “gold fever” when standing at the top of a bottomless, untracked slope just as the sun peaks out. You feel like a hero. You feel lucky and blessed. And you are. Just remember to keep your brain screwed on straight. The best skiers and riders always do.
- How to Predict Good Snow Conditions (kimkircher.com)
Powder hounds love the sound of avalanche bombs in the morning. To wake to the boom and rattle of windows, to feel the deep compression reverberate across the valley, to open your eyes to the alarm clock of explosives means only one thing. Powder day.
But how do we ski patrollers decide when to go out for avalanche control? Some days the rumble of explosives promises fresh powder, and other days the hillsides are quiet only to reveal deeper and lighter snow than before. So what gives? Why do we go out some days with 3″ of new and not others with 8″?
There are no hard and fast rules. This is weather we are talking about, after all. Our avalanche forecasters decide how the current weather will affect the snowpack, and make the decision to wake us all up at 4AM to come in for avalanche control. Also known as “Avi” or “AC”, we mitigate the avalanche hazard by using explosives or ski cutting to create avalanches while the slopes are closed, so that they don’t happen later, when skiers or boarders take their first turn.
The decision to “go out early” is always made before anyone actually sets out on the snow. It would be easy to decide when to go out if we had a clear rubric, if anything 5″ or more meant an automatic callout. But it doesn’t work that way. 5″ of light fluff that falls without wind doesn’t add much stress to the snowpack. However, 5″ of wet, heavy snow that comes in on a southwest wind and deposits snow in our north-facing starting zones could trigger big slides. Avalanche hazard is determined by the strength of the snowpack versus the stress of new snow. The snowpack can weaken or strengthen over time. In a maritime climate, such as ours, the snowpack tends to strengthen over time. The stress of new snow is our biggest determinant in avalanche hazard. We base our avalanche control almost entirely on new snow.
Here’s how we make that decision.
If the weather is nuking all day long, and we have not had much skier compaction, Chet, the Snow Safety Director, may decide to make the callout “automatic.”
Regardless of what happens overnight, the determination has already been made before the previous ski day ends. If the upper mountain is on “wind hold” during a big snow event, and no one has been up to ski the new snow, we will almost always have an “automatic callout”.
We set our alarms to arrive early to work at about 6AM. Then we all head up the Gondola and disperse from there to our various routes, each consisting of at least one avalanche blaster and one blaster apprentice.
Crystal Mountain has numerous avalanche paths. We are right up there with bigger areas like Squaw and Snowbird for number of detonations.
At other ski patrols, it may take years for a new patroller to gain enough hours to sit for their blasters exam. At Crystal, new patroller usually get enough apprentice hours in a single season.
Every night a ski patroller stays at the Summit House. Back in the day, the late Jack Lewis lived there, and we still refer to the night patroller as “Jack”. It can be a sweet gig with views of alpenglow and starlight or it can be windy and stormy and full of calls to cat drivers and midnight walks along the ridge to the top of Grubstake to determine the snowfall. If Jack determines we’ve had enough snow for AC, he or she will call our Snow Safety Director. If Chet agrees, Jack gets on the phone to wake us all up to come in early.
But how does Jack decide? That’s the 5 Million Dollar question. The snowpack is likea layer cake. Sometimes that cake is hard and dense and well compacted. Other times a light layer sits pretty on top of denser layers. We do not usually go out then.
When we have dense snow on top of weaker snow, that’s a recipe for avalanches.
Dense snow can come from the sheer weight of the snow–a foot of new snow in any form will almost always bring us out for AC. Dense snow can also be transported by wind onto lee slopes.
A few inches of new snow with just the right wind direction can increase avalanche hazard dramatically. Wind, water amounts and temperature all play a role in avalanche control.
Avalanches happen when the stress on the snowpack outweighs the strength. Those days we wake to the sound of booms in anticipation of great skiing.
Ski patrollers are looking at the forecast, anticipating some early mornings in the coming days. It is already snowing as of 8AM Saturday and should continue for the next several days. The 72 Hour snowfall total, above, shows over 20 inches of snow in the next few days. Monday morning could be our biggest day yet. The hills will be alive with the sound of avi bombs.
We’ve all been there. Sitting on the chairlift on our first ride up the hill, the guy next to us asks if we were here yesterday. “Dude!” He shakes his head. “It was epic. Yesterday was THE DAY. You should have been here.”
You remind yourself that today the conditions don’t look too bad. Even though the sky is leaden gray and the air is a bit too warm, the snow along the edges of the runs appears pretty soft. After a morning of “pretty good” you stop counting the number of times someone reminds you that yesterday, with a foot of fresh and clear blue skies, was probably the best day ever. And you missed it.
If you find yourself in this situation, of course the best method is to ignore yesterday’s perfection and enjoy the day you do have on the slopes. The mountains are always better than the city, any day in any conditions. I could write an entire post about finding pleasure in the current moment. And perhaps I will soon.
But today I’m offering some tips on predicting THE DAY. Let’s face it. We all want to be in the mountains under perfect conditions. Below are a few resources for sussing out the conditions, so that next time you get to be the smug guy saying, “You should have been here yesterday.”
The good old National Weather Service is a perfect place to start when planning your day on the slopes. Most of us like good visibility. All things being equal, a sunny day on the slopes is better than a cloudy day. The 7-day forecast is your best resource for finding the sun. Yesterday was a perfect case in point. With firm conditions, the groomers offered the best skiing yesterday. I found dry, chalky snow in Powder Bowl, but the north side of the King was a breakable crust over avalanche debris. Having said that, yesterday was FUN. The sky was that dark mountain blue, the snow was sparkly and pretty and the view went on for miles. So if you can choose a sunny day over a cloudy one, your fun-o-meter will reach a higher potential.
Check the temperatures and snow levels on the forecast. Know the elevation of your favorite ski area. Crystal Mountain elevation is close to 7,000 ft at the summit and 4,400 at the base. That means when the forecast is calling for 5,000 ft snow levels, we could have wet conditions at the base and snow at the top. This is a good day for Gore-tex and fat skis. You will want to ride the gondola or stay on the upper mountain. However, if the forecast is calling for high winds, the upper mountain might be shut down. Your “Gore-tex and fat ski” day could turn into a “rain slicker and hot chocolate in the lodge” kind of day.
NWAC Mountain Weather Forecast
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) is a great resource for skiers. In addition to a detailed backcountry avalanche forecast–a valuable tool for anyone skiing or riding outside of a ski area–NWAC offers other important weather data. Every morning I check the telemetry at Crystal.
Take a moment to check out this graph. There is much you can learn from it. For example, the temperature and relative humidity have increased since midnight. This tells me that the dry snow from yesterday is picking up moisture. The wind is starting to increase out of the south south-west. We have not gotten any precipitation in the past 24 hours. It is important to note that the precipitation always reads from the past 24 hours. It never “resets”. However, the 24 hour snow totals do reset. That usually happens in the morning when a ski patroller clears off the stake and the reading returns to 0. We have two weather plots–one at the top of Discovery Chair and the other in Green Valley. The Green Valley telemetry only reads snow and temperature. Sometimes the snow totals can be way off because the trees don’t seem to protect the site as well as they once did. We are currently studying alternative plot sites in order to get the most accurate weather plot possible. However, just know that under consistent wind, the snow totals might be inaccurate.
The University of Washington Atmospheric Sciences Department is a goldmine of weather information. It can be a bit daunting at first, until you spend some time clicking on the various loops. One of my favorites is the Western Washington 24 hour snowfall model.
To the right is a screen shot of the WRF-GFS 4km Domain snowfall totals for the next 24 hours initialized at 12 UTC Tuesday November 27th. The WRF-GFS is a version of the GFS model that is specially “formulated” by UW for our location. This model takes into account the mountains and water and convergence zones and tricky local conditions. The GFS is merely one of the models that forecasters look at to predict weather.
In fact, that snowfall prediction looks pretty nice for Crystal. Notice the purple on the east side of Mount Rainier? That’s us. Friday could be a good day, as long as the snow levels behave themselves.
Forecasters Talking to Forecasters
Finally I look at the Forecast Discussion on the NWS page. Several times a day, the NWS lead forecaster explains the forecast for the benefit of Weathermen and Weatherwomen across the region. He or she explains in narrative what the models are predicting, compares the various models and explains why. It is a great resource, very similar to the NWAC forecast, but another perspective from someone looking at the same models. It is also a “look behind the curtain” that offers short term, long term, aviation, maritime and hydrology predictions. While not focussed primarily on the mountains, the forecast discussion offers a valuable look at the big picture.
Website and Social Media
Like all of the local ski areas, Crystal Mountain’s website has a weather page that offers links to many of the resources listed above as well as webcams. Crystal’s Ski Patrol Blog often displays a Photo of the Day to give a sense of the current conditions and weather. The ski patrol Twitter and Crystal Twitter offer updates on openings, closures and weather conditions. Crystal also uploads current photos to Facebook.
Now that you know when to go (hint, hint Friday is starting to look pretty good) all you need is to start feigning a cough. That way when you call in sick just when the conditions turn epic it won’t look so obvious. My advice is to pretend like you’re always “on the verge” of the latest cold. You probably shouldn’t let anyone at the office see you washing your hands or eating a salad for lunch either. You wouldn’t want them to think you have an immune system of steel.