Every morning, I repeat the same daily ritual. Rise sans alarm in the dark, stumble to the bathroom, make coffee, check the weather. And each day I grow excited for what the forecast could (should?) bring.
I log into NOAA, check out Wunderground, bounce over to Intellicast and finally commit to the CAIC rabbithole. These early am times fuel my passion, fill my notebook with data and obs and motivate me to get after it on the daily.
Unfortunately, the 2017-18 season in the San Juan’s has been a complete dud. As is the story across many locations in the American West, a ridge of high pressure has essentially blocked all moisture to date. But a boy can dream and I stay committed to my morning ritual- One day soon the forecast will change and winter will arrive here in earnest.
Another bit of fallout related to a lack of winter in these parts are cancelations at work.
I had a full calendar of December on-snow awareness courses, backcountry trainings and 3 Level Ones on the books- all but one experience was canceled! I’m trying to keep it positive but it’s a tough year to count on the snow to pay the rent. I empathize with all the resort folks who are really in a pickle. At least I can still pull off avalanche instruction high in the mountains.
How you ask?
By climbing high. By staging courses at altitude (i.e: living and basing courses above 12k in SJMG yurts) There's enough winter out there to find sufficient snow for companion rescue and snow pit profiles. But it's only possible if participant's give up the expectations for turns. There's no blower over the windshield out there. Hell, I've yet to connect more than 20 turns on a single patch.
For now, we've got to return to our roots as climbers. I am encouraging participants to embrace backcountry travel strategies not often afforded us in December.
My mountaineering skills developed in concert with my snowboarding skills. To date, this winter has been a great season for mountaineering and peak climbs. It’s been a nice return to my non-sliding alpine roots. It's important to be able to move in the mountains- with or without your skis! If you've never been a mountaineer, now is the time to learn!
The ability to climb high has allowed me to “go find winter” in a range reluctant to give up late autumn conditions. And when I’m up there, it’s been incredible to witness these high peaks and alpine locales walk the tween’ season tightrope. Some really cool and unique shit has been happening up high and you really can choose what season you want to travel in!
Depending on aspect and elevation, folks have been climbing ice, playing in the snow or shredding single track on mtbs. A buddy of mine took this rare weather opportunity to walk from Silverton to T-ride over RMP, facing minimal challenges this past weekend as he and his pup quickly dispatched Black Bear pass.
Lack of snow depth has also kept some critters out, active and up high. The poor snowshoe hares now strike a sharp contrast; their white winter coats betraying them via all
the exposed, brown ground so prevalent throughout their habitat.
Megafauna too- Bull elk are still ATL and I’ve seen fresh bear tracks as recently as two weeks ago above Ouray at 11k. The animals know shit is weird too and unless they’re true hibernators, they are out an about. With a severe lack of people out in the backcountry right now, things feel pretty wild.
I trying to not view this atypical start to winter as some apocalyptic harbinger but rather a unique, albeit challenging chapter within the greater story of global climate change. A future “remember when” I’ll share with folks when we’re stormbound under three feet of fresh….
Winter will arrive soon enough my friends. I will continue to embrace each new day with anticipation and I remain ever hopeful for a change in the current forecast. Until that time, I’m going to keep chasing winter up high. It’s important to bear witness and remain vigilant as the alpine morphs and adapts to this season’s funky start. I’m watching and waiting for more. We’ll see you up there.