Many folks took advantage of two nice days in a row to get out and about in the Ravines. Thursday was bluebird with very light winds on the summit and dead calm in Tuckerman. Huntington ice climbs continued to grow with Odell looking huge with about an 80′ Grade 4 option on the right. Alpine conditions are shaping up with just a little ice crust over faceted snow to deal with in addition to the new wind slab in some lee areas. Fine weather conditions like these made it easy to leave the laptop work behind and get out in the field to continue to get a handle on our snow pack. Looks like conditions will turn a little cooler and a little cloudier but not a bad weekend, weather wise. Don’t forget to check out our Youtube channel for some snow pack discussions and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for information in addition to our morning advisory. Some thoughts came to mind today while making assessments in Tuckerman and Huntington that I thought I would share, hopefully I won’t bore you.
People sometimes think that assessing avalanche conditions, ice climbing in avalanche terrain, or skiing mid winter in Tuckerman is crazy. Generally this assumption is held by people who might think Bart Simpson clapping loudly can trigger an avalanche. (personally, I love that scene in The Simpsons Movie). If avalanches were completely random events, then these activities would indeed be crazy. But we know that avalanches, like most everything else, aren’t random and play by a set of physical laws that govern our known universe. Als,o like anything else governed by physical laws of gravity, friction, and thermodynamics, the prediction and study of these events can get complicated. Fortunately, accurately predicting avalanches isn’t really possible and I remind myself of this whenever I travel in avalanche terrain. We can evaluate snow pack conditions, weather forecasts and terrain features and, a lot of the time, we can make pretty accurate generalizations about the likelihood of an avalanche. Guides, experienced climbers and skiers, and avalanche forecasters all do this to varying degrees. And it doesn’t take long playing this game to realize that no matter how carefully you study those conditions and learn about those physical laws that govern our universe, two possibilities will always exist. One is simple. You can make a mistake. The second is more insidious. You had incomplete information. Uncertainty is out there. This is why we hedge our bets. We wear seatbelts. Helmets. We carry beacons, shovels and probes. And we don’t travel in groups in steep terrain particularly on days with active wind loading and persistent weak layers buried in the snow.
The really maddening thing is that I can easily take chances with no adverse outcome. I can text while driving without incident hundreds of times without incident. Until one day I ram into some poor fool at a stoplight. If the only risk is to me, no big deal. It’s a free country right? But, let’s say for example, I join a small group of people riding in Tuckermans. If I ignore the wind loading and low probably/high consequence concerns of a deeper slab avalanche and I am by myself, fine. My mother would be upset, but hey it’s a free country. But, say I have folks in my group that are new to the terrain, have limited understanding of avalanches and their risk, and I am leading them, maybe even egging them on in subtle or not so subtle ways, I create two potential outcomes. One is that we climb up and ride down without incident. Great. We had a ride we can brag about. And we learned that poor travel techniques are ok and we can carry this habit out into the world and apply them to other terrain with other friends. Texting while driving is fine right, as long as you don’t hit anyone? The other outcome is more immediately dire. You trigger an avalanche and EVERYONE is caught, maybe buried, maybe killed.
Given that the physical laws governing avalanches are complicated and create degrees of uncertainty in our universe, most rational people try to reduce their exposure to risks, especially when it doesn’t cost us anything. Saving that text for later, or at the stoplight, are two ways with varying degrees of effectiveness to reduce our risk. Each have their own cost, in timeliness of the delivered message. The time cost (or any other cost) of travelling separately from safe zone to safe zone, approaching high consequence terrain from above, or avoiding the fall line of avalanches whenever possible is so minimal that it should be an easy choice. But frequently safer alternatives aren’t chosen and, for some, they may be unknown options.
I know I’m getting preachy….my apologies. On a brighter note, on our way over to South Gully from Right Gully we watched a party of two travel one at a time and then ski one at a time down the Chute. One “straight-lined” a narrow variation of main Chute. They did some digging on the way and reduced their exposure with their travel techniques and ultimately skied very bold lines in conditions with lingering uncertainty. A buried weak layer or two, some thinner trigger points and a sluff generated slab at the choke point which always carries a low probability/high consequence price tag were risks that they were probably aware of but that they handled effectively. Hats off to those of you doing your homework and handling these risks and enjoying the rewards of a well played journey through uncertainty.
On a more practical note…a look at the weekend weather. -Frank
A few days ago, we were looking at two, maybe three days of warm temps and sunshine. Today had sunshine from the start and high thin clouds coming in late in the day. Now we’re looking at a small chance of snow showers after lunch tomorrow and some cloud cover most of the day, so reel it back in and stow away the sunblock till April. We’re still in the sweet embrace of winter and Mother Nature is not letting go easily. The sun today was tempered with some brisk winds and not too warm temps. Plenty warm in the sheltered sunshine, but Jeff drew the short straw and had to go in to Left Gully and there was no sunshine there. No corn in the near future for this mountain.
It looks like we’ve reached our high temps already for this weekend and Saturday will see dropping temps from the low-teens and increasing winds 45-60 mph with higher gusts. So enjoy your way up to the summit, because it looks like it’s going downhill as the day progresses, maybe throw in an extra layer for the descent, or bring a warm friend.
If you are hiking with just a T-shirt and shorts the wind chills are forecasted to be 10-20 below zero, which I think means bare skin freezes pretty quickly if left outside. Not much exciting to talk about for Sunday, other than it’s followed by Monday. Mid-teens, wind and some cloud cover, not to different from Saturday.
A quick nod to our Director, Chris Joosen. He is the Keynote speaker on Saturday evening at the American Weather and Meteorological Society and National Weather Association’s Northeast Storm Conference. I heard Lou McNally, and other big names in the weather world will be there to hear him speak about our little slice of heaven.