I had two torn rotator cuff muscles repaired, and the underside of my acromial bone smoothed out, five and a half weeks ago, and now I’m sitting here at my computer dreaming of ice climbing and backcountry skiing. Sadly, I’ll be doing none of that until mid-February 2021, ten weeks from now. But it is important to dream, so that’s what I’ll do.
I’m pretending that I’m getting out on the ice tomorrow with one of my buddies. Of course, I immediately seek the most challenging climb that is in the best shape. I typically get far more out of climbing than I do out of skiing but I fully realize that for a lot of folks, the fulcrum of risk vs reward is balanced on their skiing. Steep, deep, sick, blower pow is their raison d’être. Because I’m on the opposite side of the coin I’m going to shake things up in my dream and drop the ice climbing. Tomorrow I’m going skiing!
I envision my gal, her two girlfriends and I enjoying nice slow linked turns in boot-top powder on shallow, twenty to twenty-five degree, slopes that rarely produce slab avalanches. My bias for steep ice may increase my risk tolerance from avalanche with so many climbs forming in gullies, but my lower expectations in skiing tend to steer me away from slopes with higher avalanche risk.
Checking the avalanche forecast
Where to go tomorrow? It is still early season, so I’ll favour the 93 North Highway because it will have the most snow. Next, I’ll go to avalanche.ca and bring up the map of Western Canada. At first glance, I can see that the southeast corner of BC and the southwest corner of Alberta are the safer places to ski right now. Indeed, everything from Glacier Park south to the 49th parallel in the interior and Rocky Mountains is blessed with low and moderate danger ratings. Not as safe as it gets, but getting there, definitely on the safer side of the scale. Clicking on the forecast for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay Parks I see that the danger ratings are forecast to stay the same until Wednesday and that the number one problem is wind slabs on northwest through south aspects at treeline and in the alpine. That loading pattern speaks to 25-50 km winds out of the west and southwest that blew a bunch of snow onto the opposite side of the mountain -the northeast, east and more broadly the southeast and south, and north and northwest. Sounds like a lot of wind slabs, and worry, on those sides of the mountain at and above treeline so I’ll stay away from those. The second most concerning problem is a deep persistent slab on all aspects at treeline and up until 2500-2600 metres. A picture of a large natural size 2.5 deep persistent slab avalanche out of a steep southwest-facing cross-loaded alpine slope is included in the forecast and it is spooky.
The Mountain Information Network
There are also a couple of Mountain Information Network reports citing good ski quality in the area. Given all that, I’m deciding to ski west-facing slopes below 25 degrees in the Observation Sub Peak Roadside Glades. I won’t have any wind slabs on this aspect because the wind that made the slabs blew out of the west, and I won’t have any overhead threat, which I could have, in unison with wind slabs, on the Bow Summit (west) side of the highway. I’ll stay well away, and far below, any steep west and southwest facing slopes that produced the avalanche pictured in the bulletin.
Next, I’ll click on the forecast details and from the weather forecast I see that an additional 5 cm of new snow may fall, cool, and that the winds will increase to strong out of the southwest. The wind shouldn’t build any wind slabs on my west-facing objective, which is good, but it could possibly scour some of the powder off of my slopes. But that remains to be seen. In the snowpack discussion, it is heartening to see there is between a 70-130 cm deep snowpack at treeline. There was minimal avalanche activity observed on Sunday with the exception of the pictured size 2.5 deep persistent slab. “Low frequency, high consequence” rings in my head.
I head back to the weather map to click on the icon for the Bow Summit remote weather station, which sits at 2040 metres. We’ll skin by this station five minutes out from the car. I see that in the last 24 hours the low temp was -15.9 C and the high -7.9 C. That gives me a good idea of how warm to dress, but I’ll check it again before we leave in the morning. I also see that there has been just a trace of new snow over the last 24 hours and that the height of snow has settled from 73 cm to 68 cm. The snowpack is always doing something and without new snow inputs, it is losing height and ever so slowly getting denser.
Communication, Preparation and Group Dynamics
In my mind, I live the pleasantry of communicating my suggestion for the day to the three ladies. They defer to me as a Mountain Guide, yet all three are quite experienced backcountry skiers with hundreds of days under their belts. Two of the gals are technically better skiers than I am and it is great that I get questioned about my choice. Grilled a bit actually: Why? Where are the wind slabs? Is it steep enough to trigger the deep persistent slab? My plan is accepted, carpooling arranged (I’m also dreaming that COVID is in my rear-view mirror). I’ll carry a group first aid kit and emergency VHF radio. I’ll give my rescue shelter/toboggan to my partner to carry, the logic being that if I get buried in an avalanche, I don’t take all of the group gear with me. Both other gals have emergency personnel locator beacons. This gives us three options to call for a rescue. Time to check my personnel gear, pack up and get to bed. Tomorrow should be good …
Alas, if only it were real. I’m looking forward to February and being on my skis in the backcountry, getting back to the place that dreams are made of.
- Be sure to educate yourself in avalanche safety before heading out into the backcountry this winter. Avalanche courses can be found at https://yamnuska.com/avalanche-courses/
- The Mountain Conditions Report is provided by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides https://www.acmg.ca/03public/resources/mcr.aspx. Its purpose is “to assist recreational outdoorspeople in making reasonable, informed decisions in the field” and is “prepared and submitted on a volunteer basis by ACMG members”.
- Avalanche Canada provides the Mountain Information Network and a Mountain Weather Forecast within their Backcountry Resources at https://avalanche.ca/
- Parks Canada Weather Stations: https://avalanche.pc.gc.ca/station-eng.aspx?d=2020-12-10&r=1