Jan 232015

Over the years we have kept our products fairly consistent with slow change being a general theme.  In our avalanche advisory formats we have followed periodic agreements made within the professional avalanche community at our annual National Avalanche Center meetings.  Over the past 20-25 years we have gone through several iterations of the danger scale definitions.  We have added another descriptor- “Considerable”, reworked the travel advice and more recently added “Avalanche Problems” as several examples.  Only when you take an advisory from 20 years ago and compare it to today do you get a sense of drastic change.  Saying this, there is no way to ignore the pace of technology and take advantage of digital tools to deliver messages.  One thing we have begun to capitalize on over the past several years is our new WordPress website platform.  Certainly integrating social media tools such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook as well as blogs like our “The Pit” and the “Weekend Update” are recent evolutions.  These were chosen to reach out and make more people aware that we provide daily avalanche forecasts to help them understand avalanche danger and have a safe day in the hills.  As we use these different mediums we have the advantage of using feedback through Google Analytics.  This has been revealing, interesting, and often perplexing on how people use our website.   As an example many more people visit our site to read about the aftermath of an accident than come to see information designed as preventative information to avoid accidents. However, we understand that’s human nature and we’re not much different when we go to our colleagues websites to read more about avalanche accidents.

Using Google analytics has made us think about how we use our time, focus our efforts and determine what we could do better.  This brings me to the topic of the Weekend Update and how many people use this tool.  The intent of starting the Update on Friday nights 4 years ago was to provide last minute updates for people planning a weekend.  In particular, providing updates on higher summit weather forecasts provided by the National Weather Service at http://forecast.weather.gov/product.php?site=NWS&issuedby=GYX&product=REC&format=CI&version=1&glossary=1&highlight=on and the Mount Washington Observatory at https://www.mountwashington.org/experience-the-weather/higher-summit-forecast.aspx  The weather update timing is based around model runs and when this new data is released by the algorithms. Depending on the weather model they are updated every 6 or 12 hours, synchronizing together at midnight and noon.  So the twelve noon info could be very helpful if a weekend storm track is still in question or wind speeds still need to be dialed in a bit.  In reality, it was rare that this model run came together as a critical new piece of data.  Additionally, winter use numbers are quite low for the Friday product, only averaging between 50-70 unique users on Friday and Saturday morning. As we transition into late March these number begin to rise dramatically to a peak in April with a mean around 550-600 visits.  Although we regret stopping anything that people find useful, we have decided to shift our focus and stop providing Weekend Updates during December, January, February, and most of March.  In its place we have discussed providing condition reports, pictures of the Sherburne, updates of the Winter Lion Head Route, etc. when they are time sensitive in “The Pit”, but not on a scheduled weekly basis.  We believe in winter this will be more useful and won’t become obsolete in a day or two like the Weekend Update.  This week we will also provide a questionnaire/survey on the Weekend Update page to get feedback about whether or not to continue it’s use during Spring Skiing when it appears more popular.  We are open to feed back around what products you think will be most helpful and will include a text box to offer comments.  We thank you for reading, seeking advice, and heeding safety suggestions so you can make it back to your car at the end of the day.  It’s been about 25 years for me up here on the big little mountain and I have learned a lot along the way.  In great part for using one mouth and two ears so I’m eager to hear what you think.  To the 50 or so that read this tonight thanks for your commitment and loyalty to www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org  The End. Chris

 Posted by at 6:34 pm
Jan 162015

There is no doubt about it, if you’re getting an early jump on the long weekend expect some of the worst weather Mount Washington can deliver. Tonight temperatures should drop to near -30F with winds gusting to 115mph.  Those two factors together bring conditions to the 99th percentile when evaluating the environment on the “Washington’s historical worst weather scale”.  For those of you who get into wind chill factors this is a dream come true.  A wind-chill junkies’ paradise at -87F.  If you are into knowing what the lowest possible temperature number you were outside in, there certainly are a lot of resources.  Have fun with it, but use these charts wisely as “windchill” can be misleading.

Wind Chill

With that said, weather conditions will recover through Saturday, but will still be full on winter although quite a bit better than tonight.  By dawn the summit should be around -20F with winds backing down to around 70mph.  These will both continue to improve all day with the mercury rising and velocities decreasing.  By dark-thirty Saturday evening we should climb to 5F with  40mph winds.  Cold? Yes….Better? Absolutely.  On Sunday, you should see winds begin increasing again, but the air will continue to warm.

When it comes to avalanche danger and trends, I won’t rehash what we discussed in this morning’s advisory, but do have a few things to add.  Well… the 650am high summit forecast discussed “a Chance of Snow Showers” with a QPF (Quantitative Precipitation Forecast)  of 0.03 SWE (Snow Water Equivalent) “mainly this afternoon”.   By the time the 1003am forecast was issued that had changed to “snow showers are likely…mainly in the morning”.  Well that sure was clear as Frank and I could barely see each other only 15m apart.  Although brief, snow squalls producing S7/S8 intensity rates (7-8 cms per hour) gave the DOT a quick plow job to do.  The summit picked up a quick inch at the 1300 precip collection and it is still snowing lightly as of 1500.  This snow is being carried on high winds vacillating between the W and NW.  This has the potential to generate some pockets of new slab in strong lee terrain features depending how much we actually get in total.  This will be something for us to consider tomorrow morning for the advisory.  Another factor in the avalanche rating for Sunday could depend on how much human traffic we get on Saturday in certain areas.  We have questions about some of the untouched Persistent Slabs that are waiting to be tested.  One set of tracks through deeper slabs won’t give us much worthwhile information to consider, but a lot of traffic in small snowfields of thin slabs may build our confidence to drop an area rating.  So, it all depends, but undoubtedly with Holiday traffic tomorrow some of our snowfield questions will be tested.  Saying that, be very thoughtful about your route and hazards above you, and not only because of objective mountain hazards.  Objective mountain hazards can come as rockfall, icefall, natural avalanches, etc., but Mount Washington can get busy and this weekend will be no exception.  Be wary of human triggers above you climbing or someone using your route as a descent.  The Lip and Right Gully in Tuckerman and Central and South in Huntington are good examples of typical descent routes.

On the subject of avalanches, you may have read about our concerns with facets growing in our snowpack. If you find the topic interesting but challenging to grasp, you are not alone. Snow metamorphosis takes a sharp turn into physics at a certain point so don’t feel exceptionally challenged if it barely makes sense. Our illustrious and sometimes whimsical leader of the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center, Karl Birkeland does a nice job breaking it down at the new NAC website.  I took some pictures of our facets yesterday in Huntington Ravine while experimenting with some techniques for using a phone camera and a loupe as a microscope. You can see why squares don’t stick to each other on the 2mm crystal card grid:


Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend is often a busy weekend on the Search and Rescue side of things. This weekend will present a number of challenges for those venturing into our diminutive but feisty mountain range. In addition to the issues Chris elaborated on above and the standard checklist items needed for a safe outing, some other notable issues lurk beneath the surface. I may be preaching to the choir here but here are a few things on my mind:

  • All the rental gear in town is rented. Assuming that this gear was rented by novices, which is a reasonable assumption, there will be a good number of inexperienced folks on the mountain. They may be above you on a climb or descending a steep snow slope above you in your fall line. Hey, we were all novices at one time in our outdoor career, but in reflection, most climbers and backcountry skiers I know freely admit to how close they came to blowing it at one point or another. Experience may be the best teacher, but it can be much harsher than a gentle and well placed word of advice. People don’t tend to get hurt heeding advice or playing it safe, but the accident journals are full of the reverse.
  • Inexperienced people have a pretty darn good safety record. Most rational people know their limits, listen to the concerns of the intuition or otherwise make good decisions. It’s the inexperienced people led by people they perceive to be experienced that can create some of the sketchiest situations. This “expert halo” human factor is referenced directly or indirectly in many catastrophes and is a subtle driver in the human decision making game. Peer pressure and normalization of risk taking affects everyone and it’s influence sometimes drowns out the quieter, softer voices of reason.
  • A cascade of errors is the phrase I’ve heard that best summarizes many accidents and incidents.  A wrong turn, a faulty headlamp, iced over goggles, or a turned ankle can all contribute to a bad outcome. Sometimes a simple mistake can lead to much worse. Knowing your limits and thinking through problems carefully is difficult to do effectively with a calorie starved brain, a body robbed of it’s precious heat or a backpack depleted of necessity. There is a fine line between success and failure and it often lies parallel to the line separating preparedness and a too-heavy pack or recklessness and boldness. It pays to always know, and reassess, which side of that line you are on.
  • Sunday night would be a bad night to have some sort of issue requiring a rescue in the mountains. Never mind the wind chill, cold temperatures or avalanche hazards. Grumpy rescuers may be delayed coming to your assistance, especially if the Patriots – Colts Divisional Playoff game is a close one. Obviously, I’m joking. But really, be careful, especially Sunday afternoon and evening.


Finally, Don’t forget that our ESAW Continuing Education Series has begun and the first free session is at IME on Jan. 24th at 630pm.  The topic, “Medical Treatment of Avalanche Victims” is an important skill so we’re sure we’ll see you there.

Have fun out there and be safe!

-Frank and Chris