As we enter the final days of February, the Stellar contemplates the turn towards Spring.
Will March enter like a ravenous lion or peacefully purr on like a housecat?
Is the LOW danger rating we’ve become so accustomed to, lulled us into a false sense of complacency?
Clearly, most backcountry travelers have adopted a Stepping Out mindset lately. Will you be able to reel it in once winter inevitably returns? We historically get our largest storms of the season in Feb/Mar. so don’t drop your guard yet. You may be mountain biking down in Durango, but it is still very much winter in the alpine.
As of Wednesday, February 26th, 2020 the Avalanche Danger in the North San Juans is Moderate (Level Two) Above and Near Treeline, Low (Level1) Below Tree Line. In the South San Juans, the Avalanche Danger is Moderate, ATL and Low NTL and BTL.
It’s been an interesting spell since we last checked in via Stellar #6. Warm, sunny days last week gave way to a right side up, underperforming, dud of a storm last weekend. Following that precip event, the winds picked up and devastated the new snow.
“Strong northwest winds Tuesday made for a rough, cold day in the mountains. Wind speeds were so high that a lot of snow was blown upward into the air versus loaded onto slopes below. Winds decreased overnight, but efficient snow transport speeds continue and will help thicken fresh slabs on northeast through southeast to south-facing slopes near and above treeline.”
-Chris Bilbrey, CAIC Avy FX, 20200226
Understandably, our primary avalanche problem in the North and South San Juans is a Wind Slab concern on NE>E>South facing slopes. This problem is present above treeline in the SSJ zone, & near and above treeline in the NSJ zone. BUT, don’t be surprised to find wind slabs in unexpected, isolated locations at all elevations as you move about the backcountry, field truthing the bulletin.
Our persistent slab problem persists on East>South East slopes NTL and BTL in both the North and South San Juans. The CAIC continues to warn us that the monster is still lurking under the surface on these aspects. When/if this creature will emerge and bite us has been the topic of much discussion by local avalanche professionals lately. Will new, beefy wind slabs be enough of a load to catch us off guard? We’re choosing to be fearful of this potential horror show and encourage backcountry travelers to be conservative as you make your way through this off-piste, haunted house.
In addition to the pressures the new snow and wind slabs are putting on our slow-to-heal pack, there’s been some additional challenges with sluff management in steeper terrain. Remember, sluff is a dry, loose problem and if there’s ample fresh moving downhill with you, relentlessly think about how that mass of fresh snow will impact you- sluff can knock you down, push you over, under and through terrain traps and build to consequential depths quickly!
So what does this mean for all you shred heads out there?
We’ll at the Avy School, we’re taking the week to step back. We’re dialing our strategic mindset down to assessment and are focused on ground truthing these new developments and anticipated problems. We encourage you to do the same- Ask yourself, are these new loads enough of a straw to break the camel’s back? Is our snowpack sensitive, hanging in the balance, just waiting for you (the trigger) to touch it off?
Exercise extreme caution as we transition back to the complexities of a late winter, San Juan snowpack. Utilize terrain to your advantage and avoid steeper slopes until you decrease your uncertainty and increase your confidence. As always, wind sheltered locations near and below treeline on NW>N aspects continue to give up the goods. Stretch your legs beyond the classics and the over-visited, roadside fast food and gorge yourself on the tasty goodness found just beyond established skin tracks and busy trailheads.
Finally, as temps warm, be aware of overhead cornice hazard. We’ve started to see some cornice action and recent winds have surely added mass to these cowlicks of snow, lurking above us on ridgelines and summits. Head on a swivel snow hounds- keep that situational awareness elevated and watch for rapid warming and solar gain as we get back into nicer weather this weekend.
As we enter March and the cautious lines of winter give way to meaty, spring exploits, it feels appropriate to talk about humans. Specifically, all the silly and often stupid things we do. Additionally, our tribe has clearly been stepping out lately- will we be able to put the bridle back on and slow our collective gallop to a slower trot?
The backcountry is always telling us a story. The outside of the classic avalanche triangle model presents us with three, objective focus areas- weather, terrain and snowpack. These focus areas are objective and observable. When it’s snowing, we see it. When we find instabilities and weakness in the snowpack, we note them. We measure slope angles and recognize avalanche terrain via convexities, vegetative clues and likely trigger points. This is all very objective information. So if we can see all these problems and objectively call them out, why are people still getting into trouble in the backcountry?
Because at the center of this triangle is us, the human.
Humans are emotional, ego driven creatures. We see what we want to see. We often do what we want to do. This is all SUBJECTIVE….But in terrain of consequence, that’s a dangerous approach to staying alive. Mother Nature bats last and she often hits a walk off grand slam in the bottom of the 9th inning- just when you think you’ve got the victory all wrapped up. Remember to pump those brakes and ask yourself, “Based upon who I am, and what I’m all about, how am I, as a silly human, influencing what happens next?”
Even if people understand and recognize human factors, indications are this knowledge does not effectively change behavior in the field. If there is any chance of affecting these behaviors it is through a consistent and solid planning process that, hopefully, produces a trip plan that keeps people out of situations where human factors might have a negative influence! -Avalanche Canada
HUMAN FACTORS and HUERISTIC TRAPS are a major reason backcountry travelers get themselves in to trouble. Avalanche Training Courses are designed to give you the tools to plan and prepare for staying out of harms way and anticipating what human factors your group could encounter. Get the Training! Now is the time to review some great resources before step out:
Backcountry Magazine- Guide: Four Steps to Overcome Human Traps
THE HUMAN FACTOR- Intro Video
THE HUMAN FACTOR 2.0- Manuel Genswein
There’s much more winter to come and it looks like the Juans are tee’d up for a good little shot of moisture this weekend. We’ll check in on the other side of this next event and fingers crossed, we’ll end up with a nice little refresh.
Until then, continue to track the season’s conditions, follow the story and share your field obs with the CAIC. And as always, hairy side up, waxy side down & keep it stellar!
The Stellar is a collaboration between Silverton Avalanche School and the Friends of the San Juans. These periodic communications are designed to be an educational resource for FOSJ members and are not intended to supplant avalanche bulletins, danger ratings and one’s own personal responsibility for backcountry travel choices and decision making. Silverton Avalanche School encourages all of FOSJ’s members to join us for additional snow and safety trainings. Learn More at avyschool.org or Contact Us at firstname.lastname@example.org