Apr 172015

Spring has been in the air!  Last weekend, the snowpack went isothermal and people feasted on mashed potatoes and corn snow.  Four out of the past five days, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded the weather as “In the clear under clear skies.”  Talk about a harbinger of A-frames, coolers, and beacon tans.  Unfortunately, all good things must come to end.  This was all too obvious as I drove to Pinkham this morning and turned my windshield wipers in order to see the dense cloud encasing the mountains.

A weak cold front passed through today, delivering mostly rain to Mount Washington.  The summit hovered at the freezing mark all day while the temperature steadily increased down the vertical temperature profile to the mid-40s at Pinkham.  Steady precipitation ended late morning and it looks as if the next cold front will arrive late Saturday morning.   Rain, sleet, and snow are terms all being thrown around by various forecasters.  It looks as if the colder air will move in after precipitation starts, transitioning to snow by early afternoon.  By the time the front passes late on Saturday, we are expecting 2-6” of snow.  Winds on Saturday will be increasing to hurricane force during the night and then decreasing to the 30-45mph range on a possibly sunny Sunday.

Two to six inches… sounds like ankle-deep powder in April!  Almost.  Remember, this is The Whites, where if you don’t like the weather, wait two minutes and it will change.  Colder temperatures following a rain event will lock up the snow into cement in places.  Once this happens, add a few inches of snow transported on hurricane force winds and we may see heightened avalanche danger.  Most likely, we will see a fine display of extreme spatial variability.  Although the Mount Washington Avalanche Center is a micro-scale forecast center, even we do not get as detailed as a safe traveler will need to be over the next 48 hours.  Expect scoured cement next to pockets of potential touchy wind slab that are insulating areas of rain-saturated snow, next to dust on crust, next to sheltered spots containing actual skiable snow that is stable.  I’m starting to exhaust my vocabulary in thinking of conditions you could find if you go into avalanche terrain this weekend.  Have I mentioned long, sliding falls, crevasses, falling ice, or undermined snow yet?

It’s about this time of year when I feel like I transition from an avalanche forecaster into a spring hazard forecaster.  Do you have crampons and an axe in your mountain kit?  These tools can make that ascent of the headwall feel much more secure.  Have you bought your “Ice-Out” ticket for when the Sluice ice will come crashing into Lunch Rocks?  Make sure your lunch spot of choice is not directly underneath that hanging cleaver.  While on that topic, you should realize that Lunch Rocks is more accurately “Icefall Rocks” and has been the site of dozens of significant icefall caused injuries.  It is not a good place to hang out as we transition into the middle of icefall season.  Who will be first to take the leap of faith over the waterfall hole currently opening in the Lip?  Now is the time, more than ever, to ascend the line you plan to ski.  It’s much easier to assess how big those crevasses are as you work your way up the boot-pack, rather than as you fly by on your descent.  Do you think that snow-bridge on the Little Headwall is strong enough to hold your weight?  Perhaps you should buy that Dynafit race suit just to keep you weight to a minimum.  As you climb up to the Bowl from Hermit Lake, be sure to look to your left.  Plot on your mental map where those open holes are on the Little Headwall.  Talk to a Snow Ranger or ski patroller in the Bowl to get the best advice on whether it’s better to ski or walk down.  Walking or skiing with maybe a swim in the Cutler River, it’s a tough answer that will change by the minute this weekend and into this coming week.

The John Sherburne Ski Trail is still completely open.  It will remain so for this weekend.  Looking ahead at the coming week with inches of rain in the forecast, we will begin closing the bottom sections of the trail.  Please respect this closure when it happens as the trail is not built for foot traffic.  Crossing over to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail helps prevent erosion on the ski trail, making early and late-season skiing possible.  As to the current conditions, you will encounter large moguls, rocks, grass, and open partially flooded water bars.  Classic spring skiing.  The Tuckerman Ravine Trail still has snow coverage from Pinkham to Hermit Lake.  Skinning is possible the entire way with some careful navigation exposed rocks down low.

Be sure to read the tomorrow’s Avalanche Advisory for the latest update.  See you in the morning.


 Posted by at 5:37 pm
Apr 102015

Every recreationalist I encounter in the mountains has their own acceptable level of risk.  The more we talk about these levels as a team and as a community, the better we will be able to understand one another and establish realistic goals for the day.  I find constantly re-evaluating this level is important as conditions change day-to-day as do circumstances in life.  This concept has been in my mind a lot recently as the number of avalanches on Mount Washington, particularly human-triggered slides, seems to be higher than in past years.  Did our community suddenly get together and decide we would all up the ante this year?  Or rather, has this been the result of skiers and climbers communicating better and being aware of each other’s goals and willingness to hang it out there.

This is not meant to be a rant about people pushing the limits too far, nor do I want to come across as chastising those who have set off an avalanche.  Just this morning, we were discussing how several of these slides were results of ski cuts.  I applaud these efforts.  Folks recognizing the hazard, making informed decisions to travel safely, and then doing what they can to mitigate the risk are things we as a community strive to see.  I believe our extended winter may also have something to do with it.  Slabs encountered in these events have been softer than the mountain’s typical windboard.  Rocks that are often exposed are covered.  Run-outs are well filled.  These are all factors that come into play when looking at a line and deciding whether or not it is within your acceptable level of risk.

Speaking of our extended winter, will spring skiing ever start?  The forecast for next week looks to bring warm temperatures and sunshine.  However, we have a weekend of classic New England weather to get through first.  Rain that started early this morning has diminished, dropping almost 0.3” of water onto the mountain.  We are expecting another hour or two of rain this evening.  The snowpack absorbed this water and skiers venturing as far as the Little Headwall are reporting wet, heavy snow, making turns quite difficult.  The forecast for tonight is increasing winds, dropping temperatures, and mixed precipitation possibly becoming snow.  This sounds like a mixed bag of conditions to me.  Expect the snow to slowly turn to cement.  I would think edgeable crud in the morning, becoming an ice luge by the evening.

Tomorrow, Saturday, is the annual Son of the Inferno Pentathlon.  This race always draws a large crowd, including racers, spectators, and recreationalists.  The ski portion of the course looks to be held on the Sherburne Ski Trail. Please be aware of this as you ascend the Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Hermit Lake and again as you descend the ski trail.  This race is fun to watch and support, and the trend we often see if spectators venture into steep terrain after the race to make some turns themselves.  If this sounds like your plan tomorrow, I would advise you to be prepared for unfriendly conditions.  The temperature will be dropping all day.  While you may find good soft snow and slush in the morning, I expect snow to be quite firm by early afternoon.  Long sliding falls are a distinct possibility tomorrow, even on lower-angled terrain like Hillman’s Highway.  Crampons and an ice axe would be a good addition to your kit tomorrow and should make you think twice about the skiing if you deem it necessary to use them on the way up.

Starting tomorrow, we will no longer issue a daily Avalanche Advisory for Huntington Ravine.  We will post a General Advisory and update this as warranted.  Each year we debate when to make this change and it seems more often than not to happen around the same weekend as the Inferno.  There is still potential for avalanches in Huntington and soon springtime hazards will appear.  We find the Huntington travelers this time of year are likely to have discussed their acceptable level of risks and the crowds in Tuckerman are, well, crowds.

As I finish this up, I am learning of another round of avalanches on the Westside, at least one of which involved skiers.  The details are few and I will refrain from guessing about them, but it again draws my attention to the dramatic increase in these events of late.  Your acceptable level of risk is a personal thing and should be something you create, not your partner.  But the more we talk about these levels and events like slides triggered, the more we will understand each other and make better-informed decisions while in avalanche terrain.  And ultimately, that is what it is all about.


Helon Hoffer