Mountain Skills: Take the time to be prepared for early season turns

It’s November and many mountains throughout the U.S. have seen some decent early season snow. As a result, stoke is high, especially in Colorado where, after last year’s lackluster season, people are itching to ski. Not many ski areas are open yet, however, and the ones that are only have a few groomers to chose from. This invariably pushes people into the backcountry and the higher peaks where more snow has accumulated in the early days of the season. To further increase the backcountry temptation, many remote roads remain open, providing an even greater ease of access to November turns. But just because it’s early season, it doesn’t mean avalanches can’t happen. As the saying goes, “If there’s enough snow to ride, there’s enough snow to slide.” Here are a few thoughts on how to assess snowpack and steer clear of early season slides.

Steve Banks and friends mining for early season turns on Mt. Baldy, Colo. [Photo] Steve Banks

What Lies Beneath

It may be obvious, but just below that thin snowpack lurks rocks, stumps and trees. It may look deep and fluffy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t hazards just under the surface. I’ve seen plenty of knees split open and busted hands from early season conditions. Take it easy—there’s a long season ahead, and November is not the month you find the deepest pow.

A shallow snowpack doesn’t necessarily mean a stable snowpack. In fact, quite the opposite can be true. We know that a shallow snowpack (less than three to four feet of snow) is more prone to having faceting problems, creating weak snow especially near the ground. The longer days, higher sun and warmer fall temperatures—even if it doesn’t feel that way right now—can also build crusts in between early season storms. In some areas, especially at lower elevations, it isn’t uncommon to see a fluctuating freeze line where rain falls on snow or vice versa. These mixed conditions can create several layers within a shallow snowpack. The more differences there are in the snow the more likely we are to see avalanches.

Different Seasons, Different Terrain

The biggest factor—and often overlooked in avalanche assessment—is terrain. We know we can avoid avalanches much more effectively by avoiding certain types of terrain, and in the early season, the most alluring lines, i.e. areas with the most snow, are also the most likely to produce an avalanche. Typically we seeking out gullies at higher elevations near ridge tops where the snow has drifted in deeper and gives us something to ride. But these are also the areas that host buried weak layers, wind slabs and a higher degree of variability. This time of year, it can be tricky to find the slopes with enough snow to ride, while also presenting minimal avalanche risk. Wind-loaded slopes are much more likely to produce avalanches, but in the early season they are often the only slopes with enough snow to get on. In riding them, we invite more risk into our lives.

Moderate your stoke

Then, of course, there’s the human factor. Our stoke level this time of year is high. All the new ski films are out and we’re anxious to get in our first turns. Maybe we can’t quite find all our safety gear. Maybe we forgot to take the batteries out of our beacons and had a little leakage issue. Maybe our airbag cartridge is empty from blowing it off after that final day last spring.

I know my kit isn’t fully dialed in just yet. Often early season cobwebs are thick and we are distracted by not being fully prepared. It takes longer to figure out how to make the drive/hike/skin approach to the snow, and this leaves us with less brain space for making good decisions. Early season is often much more popular in the backcountry with people who don’t have the experience or knowledge but do have the desire to get out before their local ski hill opens. The lack of options often push more people into the same slopes, dropping in on each other and having widely varying goals and talents for their day in the backcountry.

Take the time to be prepared. Get your kit dialed in. Spend a little more time making your plan with your riding buddies. Be patient with other backcountry users and communicate with them so everyone knows each other’s plans.

Bottom Line: Early season is a great time to get out and have some fun, enjoy the mountains and share some turns with your buds, but don’t overlook the hazards. It would be a shame to ruin your season on a few mediocre turns and a bad decision.

Steve is an AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide based in Crested Butte, Colo. This winter he will be teaching AIARE courses in Crested Butte, guiding in  Japan and Revelstoke as well instructing AMGA Ski Guide courses in Colorado and Canada before heading over the pond to ski guide in Iceland, Greenland and the Alps in the spring. 

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