Many of you know I'm big a big fan of Home Turf Advantage. Learning an area/zone/range and watching how that chunk of backcountry changes seasonally/annually is a sure way to keep you safe, more aware and deeply connected to the places we visit in the wintertime. Without a blanket of snow, you can observe a location's topography in the nude.
When my favorite backcountry spots are bare, I look for/note/photograph slope angles and convexities. I observe and determine which bowls/couloirs/lines of ascent&descent have bed surfaces composed of grass, which ones are mixed geo/veg and which slopes are made up of all scree or bedrock. I watch and track where ice forms and flows. I locate and benchmark terrain traps on my GPS. I create a mental inventory of vegetation-dense willow thickets/hell holes, geologly- cliffs, glacial erratics/boulder piles, and anything "funky" I may not pick up when it's under the snow- ex: old mine shafts, tailing piles or gravel pits, dilapidated cabins old broken down snowmobiles, abandoned cars, campfire rings, trash dumps, rusty target shooting detritus,etc....
Developing Home Turf Advantage is also a terrific excuse to visit and recreate year-round in some amazing backcountry terrain. The same terrain I ride off-piste from Nov-May is the same terrain I hike, climb, paddle, bike and hunt from June-October. Not that I need anymore excuses to log additional time in the San Juan backcountry!
Make no mistake about it- this exercise is a blessed gift. The sense of place I've developed in my favorite backcountry locales is very special. It fosters in me an intimacy with the landscape that few will experience. Bikepacking somewhere new in the summertime, chasing elk into the next drainage I always wondered about, climbing another anonymous 13'er deeper in the wilderness, using a 4X4, the train or rafting the Animas River to check out more remote spots in the range; all of these exploits expose me to new and exciting backcountry ski terrain and remind me that one can spend a lifetime in the mountains and barely scratch the surface. I continuously discover and experience new secrets in the San Juan Mountains everyday!
Recently, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center released a great Early Season Snow reflection penned by Brian Lazar and Blase Reardon
I encourage everyone to digest what these professionals have to share regarding Early Season Snow. Remember,
"... fall snow is shallow. That’s its most significant feature. It’s susceptible to melting or weakening, and both processes can have long-term effects on snowpack development and avalanche conditions as the winter progresses."
What are you looking/watching for in the Early Season? The article suggests:
Snowline elevation: Put a number on the lowest elevation at which you see snow. Find some markers on a slope you can view regularly, compare them to a topographic map, and check the snowline against those markers. Once snow starts accumulating, you’ll know the elevation above which you need to factor basal facets into your assessments. Or conversely, the elevation below which you don’t.
Aspects: Be very conscious of the aspect the slopes where you do and don’t see snow. Use an online mapping tool or a compass to verify your impressions. Being able to differentiate slopes by aspect will again help you include basal facets in your assessments when they’re likely to be present. And deemphasize them when they’re not.
Snow surface: You’ll need firsthand info to determine whether a crust/ facet combination is developing. That can be opportunistic – checking for it if you are up high or asking people who have been – or planned.
I find pre-season observations become critical pieces of info come January- when we've loaded up winter on top of whatever fall mank was hanging out all autumn/early season.
Right now, I've concentrated my efforts on documenting where snow is melting
(W-S-E) aspects and where it's been hanging around since mid-Oct (NE-N-NW and isolated terrain features & shady gullies/drainages/slopes) on the 550 corridor.
I'm also tracking the snowline closely on all four passes (Lizard Head/RMP/Molas/CB) I'm tracking the action BTL/NTL and ATL, making weekly visits to some of my favorite lines- Many of these classics already have 5+ cm of basal faceting as of 11/1
Finally, I've been taking special note of early cornice development, early wind and cross loaded slope formation and changes to topograpgy due to natural events this summer/fall: land/mud slides, drainage blowouts, major timber deadfall, rockfall, etc.
Much can and will change before we flip the snow switch on permanently in December.Keeping tabs on early season snow is an essential strategy in developing your Home Turf Advantage and rewards those making the effort with bigger smiles and better turns.