Blog Archive for April, 2014

It’s Springtime!
Enjoy the sunshine, long days, and (generally) stable snow

Tips on how to stay safe in the late season conditions

Topping out in the Spanish Peaks, MT

Topping out in the Spanish Peaks, MT

 

By Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

How can people hang up the boards just when it’s getting good? It seems that every year, the season starts early and riders are itching to make those first turns when the snow flies in November and December. But when March or April roll around, for some reason, motivation seems to dwindle, as biking, rivers and climbing are just on the horizon.

Here in Montana (and many other areas), the months of March, April and May are when it can all come together. Early and mid-winter, the snow can be shallow and variable, plus the days are shorter and colder. But come spring, warmer storms help the snow stick better, and coverage in the alpine seems to shape up overnight. The days get longer, and temperatures become less-arctic. The avalanche hazard often becomes more manageable, and we can finally get out and explore some of those lines we’ve been eyeing all winter. These are the days to get out!

Avalanche centers typically wrap up their daily advisories in April (some stick with a weekly summary), so keep these things in mind as you head out:

Mind the Heat

When the snowpack has entered a full corn cycle (melts during the day and freezes at night), heat is the main thing you want to pay attention to. Be careful when temperatures start climbing and when strong solar radiation is present. In order to work around this problem, we can start early in the day (sometimes in the dark) and time it so that the descent is right when the snow surface is thawing. In the morning, the sun generally hits a northeast slope first and works clockwise, ending the day warming the west and northwest aspects. The harder the freeze and the more melt-freeze cycles the snow has been through, the more room you have to work with on timing.

Early sun on SE facing line - get it early!

Morning sun on SE facing line – get it early!

In corn snow, if the slush starts to become boot-top height; you’re punching through the supportable layer into mank; or wet sluffs/roller balls are starting to happen, it’s best to call it a day. If there is little or no freeze (snowpack is wet), than you might consider not even going out. Also be mindful of cornices: This time of year, they are quite large and serious heat can take them down. Rock fall can be a concern as well, so heads up while climbing couloirs when it’s getting warm.

Problems with New Snow

Up here in the northern regions, we don’t always enter a full corn cycle. Even if we do, they can be short lived. Continual, unsettled weather can certainly persist in the spring, which means that powdery conditions can often be found. Because spring storms are warmer, they often bond to underlying layers, but that isn’t always the case and the new snow can create its own instabilities. In fact, because the snow has more cohesion to it, this new snow can act more slab-like.

Cold snow on a spring day in the Tetons, WY

Cold snow on a spring day in the Tetons, WY

There are many reasons why storm snow might not bond (upside-down layering, graupel, firm bed surface), so unless you’re sure it’s sticking, it’s never a bad idea to let things settle out for a day or two after any significant storm before diving into steep, committing terrain. Hand pits and skin track cuts are really fast ways to see how well the new snow is bonding and how “slabby” it might be. Expect on the first warm and sunny day preceding a spring storm that you’ll experience some avalanche activity.

Don’t forget the wind

Wind slabs can also be a concern as spring powder can be accompanied by that lovely spring wind. These tend to be shorter lived, and warm weather can begin to glue them down within a few days. Keep an eye out for wind slabs at the tops or sides of couloirs, around ribs or side-walls of gullies, and on alpine faces. If you are climbing your line, constantly be on the eye for any suspicious looking pillows or drifts, and pay attention to the surface snow. Also, wind slabs resting on firm melt-freeze crusts probably aren’t going to bond well initially.

Deeper in the pack

Sometimes spring comes late. Abnormal years can make for abnormal avalanche problems. If winter is holding its grip and there’s a prominent layer of depth hoar in the pack, be very careful of big storms, drastic warm up, and intense sun. It’s natural to think that by April, the nasty layer of basal facets must be healed, but this isn’t always the case. Even after the couple big warm ups, if water has the chance to percolate down to the weak layer, it can wake it up, resulting in a massive climax avalanche.

Stack the cards and watch the weather

Slab avalanche casued by the first big warm after a heavy April storm

Slab avalanche caused by the first big warmup after a heavy April storm

The good news is springtime conditions can be easier to manage.

• Keep an eye on the weather forecast and remote weather stations. If it is forecast to snow, think about if it’s coming in warm and finishing cold (good bond) or if the storm is starting cold and finishing warm (upside-down storm, poor bonding).
• While in the mountains, test to see if the snow is bonded, and give it a day to settle out, if need be.
• If you’re worried about rising temps, than plan your day so that you’re not in serious avalanche terrain during the heat of the day (easterly and south in the morning; west facing later). If temps become too hot, than pull the plug and retreat.
• When there’s little or no freeze (again check weather forecast and remote stations), maybe it’s not worth even trying.
• During depth hoar years, be real careful when the snowpack is transitioning and when you don’t get a freeze.

Stay safe, have fun, and milk the rest of the season for what it’s worth!

 

Postcard from Kyrgyzstan

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Mike Handford, Nine Springs snow cave, Kyrgyzstan
Photo by Jock Gunn

British splitboarder Mike Handford and a group of freeride skiers from New Zealand and Australia are currently traveling through Kyrgyzstan riding and skiing the remote mountains that blanket the country. With little information about this former Soviet country, they set out aiming to explore as much of the terrain as possible, while educating local guides in avalanche awareness.

“The terrain, while perfect for freeriding, makes life difficult in this part of the world,” Mike wrote from Kyrgyzstan.  “Lacking the oil or infrastructure of its neighbors, and a huge portion of its landmass buried under permanent ice, there are few sources of income for the traditionally nomadic people.  A painful succession from the Soviet Union and two further revolutions further weakened the economy, the third poorest in Central Asia. While the country is home to a handful of ski resorts, relics of Soviet control prior to 1991, even greater opportunity for tourism lies in Kyrgyzstan’s endless backcountry. Mountain roads and alpine villages provide spectacular and easy access into freeride terrain that ranks among the best on earth. While a huge amount of effort has been put into training local guides for summer hiking, lack of training and avalanche awareness leaves many afraid to venture into the mountains in the winter.”

 

By Mike Handford

We first started discussing the possibility of a backcountry trip into Kyrgyzstan as the 2013 winter season in New Zealand drew to a close. Twenty-four hours and some hasty Googling later, we had agreed the trip was on.  Fast forward six months and we were arriving in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, with little to no idea of what to really expect — but an awful lot of enthusiasm to make up for it!

We spent the first week in Karakol, which had been marketed to us as Kyrgyzstan’s “Outdoor Adventure Capital.”  Unfortunately, after a little exploration, the snow down low was rotten and the ridge lines up high wind scoured, which was a bit disheartening.  It was, however, a great place to spend some time and come to grips with what we had to expect in the coming two months.  We were all very surprised at how much technology has engulfed the culture in the past couple of years.  Everyone has a mobile phone that seems to ring 20 times an hour (although we still have no idea what they possibly have to talk about) and WIFI was easily accessible.  If you pick up a guide book, however, be wary of when it was written:  Kyrgyzstan is a rapidly changing culture right now and it would be very easy to find yourself caught out.

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Mike Handford, Arslanbob pillow line
Tyrone Lowe

Luckily we heard through the grapevine that Arslanbob, a small traditional, mainly Uzbek-populated town in the south west — a mere 18 hour drive away — was having a record snow year.  That was our signal to pack up and head that way. As we wound our way through the many mountain passes on the Bishkek-to-Osh road, the climate and snow level were ever changing, and when we eventually arrived in Arslanbob, it was a winter wonderland.  It was one of the most scenic drives we have ever done!  Topping out at 3586 meters, the Too Ashuu pass is certainly spectacular — if you can find time to enjoy it between one of the near death experiences with the speeding taxi drivers and the negligible road laws.

Hayat, the head of Arslanbob’s community-based tourism, greeted us on arrival and set us up with a host family for our stay. The community-based tourism system all over Kyrgyzstan is great and a really effective way to both immerse yourself in the local culture and help out the local families with some passing winter trade. Arslanbob is situated in a valley, surrounded by 4000 meter peaks and the largest walnut forest on earth, which gives great possibilities for both high alpine mountaineering and stormy day tree skiing.

Mike Handford, Arslanbob Walnut forest, PC TYRONE LOWE

Mike Handford, Arslanbob walnut forest pow
Photo by Tyrone Lowe

Our first trip was to a zone called Jaz Jarum.  We left first thing in the morning and toured four hours into base camp. On arrival, the options were overwhelming!  We decided to have a look at the snowpack and ride a single line before dinner.  After a quick skin up, we were standing atop our line with a combination of both excitement, and a little apprehension.  Alex dropped first and after a huge woomph, the whole face started to slide.  After 200 meters of tumbling over rocks with both skis off and both poles gone, we were relieved to see him giving the OK from the bottom.  He had somehow managed to claw his way out of the main path of the slide and over the ridge into something a little smaller that had only buried him waist deep.  We returned to camp, where the atmosphere was somber.  We needed to decompress and reassess our options.

We woke the following morning to another amazing bluebird day and, after talking things over the previous night, we decided to ski some really mellow terrain and get a more concise understanding of the snow pack before we went back to any steep faces.

NOORUZ HUT SHASHLIK KEBABS PC TYRONE LOWE

Nooruz Hut Shashlik Kebabs
Photo by Tyrone Lowe

On our return, we were greeted by the arrival of a few more of the crew.  Blake, Chris and Jock had all just arrived from Bishkek and brought in a great boost of energy after the previous few days happenings.  We immediately started planning to head out for five days, staying at the base of a peak to the west of town called Nooruz.  After talking to Hayat, we were informed we could stay at a shepherd’s hut close by, complete with a wood burning stove, insulation and, as we later found out, mice that steal your eggs. This was great news and it turned out to be an amazing place to eat, rest, and dry out our gear.

We managed a summit on our second day in camp, topping out at 2876 meters. We woke at 4am one morning to catch the sunrise from a nearby ridge and rode some amazing lines. Definitely a zone we would recommend and, to top it off, the snowpack was becoming more stable, which gave us confidence in what we were riding.  Hayat and his CBT guides came and joined us for the last evening, cooking us amazing food and sharing stories. The following morning we arranged to take all the guides out for some avalanche education.  We spent the day talking them through digging a pit, identifying snow layers, testing the snowpack along with terrain and approach selection. This was something we had talked about doing while organizing the trip and it was great to pass on knowledge that will keep the guides and their clients safer. It was a great way to end the trip into Nooruz.

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Hayat avalanche class for local guides

On our return, we heard that the 21st of March was New Year’s Eve on the Persian calendar.  This coincided with Chris heading back to Australia, so we decided to head back towards Bishkek.  In the three weeks we had been away in Arslanbob the city had completely changed. All the snow had melted and the atmosphere was much more vibrant. We spent the day around the Ala Too Square, which although the centre of many political clashes had been transformed into a huge street party filled with music, entertainment and a lot of balloons. The crowning glory of our day was definitely starting a street party with a group of kids from a local dance group. Growing a crowd of ten to hundreds within minutes will certainly live long in my memory.

As I sit writing this, we are currently preparing to leave for the last two weeks of our trip. First on to Bokonbaev where Hayat has arranged for us to meet up with the CBT there and then on to Narin before finishing up in the high alpine of the Ala Bel Pass.

Keep up to date with our travels on Instagram: @renegades_ob

or Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Renegades-OB/1423971274519585

Baker Splitfest: A Journey To Cascade Country

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Destination Baker

We weren’t the only ones who made the journey to this years’ Mt. Baker Splitfest. Between the variety of Splitboards on hand from a number of board builders, and the trailer of Spark gear we towed along for demo, there were no shortage of pow grins out on the mountain. Following local’s advice, we made it out early morning to get the snow at its coldest. Headed in the direction of a zone we had been up in the past, we found ourselves standing at treeline where everything above us was lost in an endless gray void. We retreated back to protected trees at lower elevations and had no trouble finding deep pow glades to session for the rest of the trip.

Demo Day / Pow Day

Sparks to the People!

Looking at our trip’s worth of routes on the topo map within the context of what’s out there beyond the range of visibility we had, only proves we had just begun to get our feet wet — at least in the figurative sense. In the literal sense, it was not only our feet getting wet, it was our hands, arms, legs, and everything in between. That’s not to say we had anything short of awesome riding, it’s just to say, be prepared, there is no amount of waterproofing that can possibly be done to keep dry under a Spring storm in the North Cascades. With the Baker Area being one of the snowiest spots on earth, it’s a place where deep is what you can expect. And that’s what we got.

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Baker Splitfest HQ @Chair9

After tons of fun, on and off our boards, and truckloads of gear raffled off to benefit the Northwest Avalanche Center, it was time we get back to the shop. Our first sighting of Mt. Baker towering under blue skies at dusk didn’t make it any easier to head for home, but we rode the storm, and shared great times, and we will be back for more.