Early season conditions

Winter on the Rockpile has had a difficult time getting established. A few hardy and eager parties have stormed the castle but, generally, conditions have been “wet” for climbers and “organic stone grind” for the skiers. I wish I could report cold and snow in the forecast this weekend but it looks like the mercury is going to climb above freezing again today and tomorrow, returning to where it was just 6 days ago. That’s not to say that you won’t find winter like conditions on your next adventure to the alpine in the near future, but don’t count on deep snow. The summit has recorded only 27” of snow this month, following only 3.5” in October. That month saw average temperatures 9F above normal on the mountain with 11 climate sites in New England recording the warmest October on record! All the warm days with cold nights have created lots of ice on trails, on the Headwall, along with the shady gullies of Huntington so remember to bring your microspikes and remember that the Tuckerman Ravine trail gets pretty sketchy when as the ice grows across the trail above the Headwall. Unless you are armed for mountaineering with crampons, consider the summer Lion Head Trail a safer alternative.

The record-breaking warm temperatures and paltry early season snowfall has stood in stark contrast to last season. On December 4th of last year we issued our first General Bulletin of the season. Soon after, two feet of new snow fell on an already snow covered fetch which led to a widespread Considerable rating issued in the first 5-scale avalanche advisory. And it was game on from there. Looking back over the past five years, it’s clear that avalanches happen early in the season. Early winter brings enough snow to fill in the nooks and crannies in the alpine zone and soon after, snow falling there has no place to hide from the incessant summit winds. In short order, our forecast area, along with other areas in the White Mountain National Forest that we don’t forecast, like Gulf of Slides and the summer Lion Head trail, rapidly fill with enough snow to avalanche. Even in a slow-to-start snow year like this one, there are bed surfaces around that can produce an avalanche and certainly a long-sliding fall. Early season, thin snowpacks are perilous for sure, with rocks and stumps and bushes lurking in your fall line. Refrozen snow with drifts camouflaging the old boot prints from previous warm days add excitement and threaten knees even in low angled terrain. In short, stay vigilant, especially in the early season.

Despite the record warmth around New England this fall, winter will come and with it, avalanches. Black Friday is a good day to sign up for an avalanche class this winter. These classes are good for everyone, especially your climbing and skiing partners. The skills you gain pay dividends and will give you the tools you need to shred and pull down with a better margin of safety. We can all use more tools to recognize the decision-making traps to which we are all vulnerable. If you haven’t taken a Level 1 class, or if it has been a while since you have, consider a course with Acadia Mountain Guides or Synnott Mountain Guides, who both generously donated courses to support the education efforts of the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation (WMAEF) and the 7th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop.

Speaking of the WMAEF, stay tuned to social media channels and this website for continuing education opportunities this season. The Foundation will be scheduling locally oriented avalanche awareness presentations around New England along with focused courses of a more technical and advanced nature at IME in North Conway. Both of these opportunities will be a good way to keep your head in the game no matter what your skill level. And if you interested in hosting an avalanche awareness talk at you college or retail shop, email the Foundation at avalanchefoundation@gmail.com.

See you soon! -F

ESAW 2017: In the Books!

Thanks to everyone who attended the 2017 Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop! We were very pleased with the whole weekend and it’s largely thanks to you all for coming and hanging out.

A huge thanks to Jerry Isaak, Sarah Carpenter, Eric Knoff, Mike Carmon, and Ryan Matz for stellar presentations throughout the day.

In addition to this, a huge thank you to our presenting sponsors: DPS Skis and Outdoor Research. I think just about everyone in attendance walked away with something, so thank you also to: Backcountry Access, Catamount Trail Association, Granite Backcountry Alliance, Black Diamond, Julbo USA, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, American Avalanche Association, She Jumps, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, and Frontside Coffee Roasters for their donations and helping us pull this whole thing off!

A big thank you to the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation for putting this whole weekend together. We’re very excited to see what Beth, Blake, Joe, Chris, and Frank do with this program and getting the kids safely into the backcountry.

Again, thanks for being there and supporting our mission. It looks like winter has arrived, we’ll see you on the hill soon!

Tonight at Allspeed Cyclery

Come to Allspeed Cyclery and Snow in Portland tonight at 6:30pm to show your support for MWAC! Frank will be giving on talk on terrain management and avalanche problems commonly found on Mount Washington. This will be a great opportunity to meet Frank in person and pick his brain about snow science and Lily the Avalanche Dog, especially what kind of sandwiches she prefers to eat. We’ll have lots of giveaways and refreshments. What better way to spend the evening watching the sleet come down than wishing it was snow with everyone else!

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Sarah Carpenter

Sarah Carpenter has spent most of her life on skis. She has been working in the field of snow and snow science since 1998, when she started as a ski patroller at Bridger Bowl in Bozeman, MT. Sarah has led mountaineering trips in the U.S., Chile, India, Africa and Nepal for numerous companies. She teaches level 1, 2, and 3 avalanche courses throughout the west during the winter. She works a ski guide for the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Exum Mountain Guides in addition to being the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute.

One of Sarah’s passions is educating youth. She has done this very well through programs oriented at youth in the Jackson Hole area. With the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund up and running, we are very excited Sarah is joining us this year as one of the goals of the WMAEF is to educate this demographic. We are thrilled to talk to Sarah about how young is too young and some of the tools that she uses in Wyoming. Sarah will be giving two presentations tomorrow; the first about the varying degrees of wind-slab (maybe we can teach her a thing or two about the extreme far end of stubborn wind-slab) and the second will be about using checklists as a tool for decision making. This will be one talk that everyone will be able to learn something from.

Haven’t registered for ESAW yet?!?! Hurry up and go to www.esaw.org and sign up now. We look forward to seeing you tonight at IME and at Fryeburg tomorrow!

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Mike Carmon

Mike Carmon is the senior forecaster for the Mount Washington Observatory. He joined the MWObs in 2008 as an intern after earning his B.S. in Meteorology from Rutgers University. After his internship, Mike was offered a job as the night-shift observer and stayed in this position for four years. In 2013, he became one of the shift leaders, adding the title Education Specialist in 2014. In 2015, Mike was appointed to Co-Director of Summit Operations.

For those of you who haven’t met Mike, he has lived and breathed Mount Washington weather for almost a decade. He is an invaluable resource to the Avalanche Center, always willing to take that morning phone call when we want to dig a bit deeper into the approaching weather. I’m always happy to see Mike’s name attached to the forecast, knowing he has it dialed. Mike is also working with MWAC by working closely with us this coming winter to create a mountain meteorology class. This weekend, Mike will be presenting two case studies of snowstorms that rolled through the White Mountains on April Fools Day and Pi Day. I really enjoy Mike’s presentations, this is one you won’t want to miss.

 

Meet Your ESAW Presenters: Jerry Isaak

Professor Jerry Isaak is Chair of the Department of Expeditionary Studies at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. He is an AIARE Instructor, AAA Professional Member and AMGA Assistant Ski Guide. He received an M.Sc. with distinction in Outdoor Education while studying as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and has worked as an expedition leader and guide in Canada, the USA, Morocco, Kyrgyzstan, Scotland, Austria and the Arctic. Personal climbing and skiing expeditions include journeys in Kenya, Nepal and throughout North America. 

I had the opportunity to ask Jerry a few questions about his work. I’m really looking forward to this Satruday and hearing his presentation: Organizing Doubt: Asking Questions in Avalanche Terrain.

Who was your first snow mentor?

My first snow mentor was really two people, Austrian/IFMGA Mountain Guides Hans-Peter Royer and Heli Rettensteiner. I met them both while I lived and worked in Schladming, Austria for a year after college. I went for my first ski tour in the Dachstein Range and have returned several times since. It will always hold a special place in my memory. Tragically Hans-Peter was killed in a paragliding accident in 2013. I think of him often, especially when ski touring. Heli and I are still connected via social media and we are hoping to bring SUNY Plattsburgh students to Austria sometime in the future.

How did you get hooked on studying social risk tolerances/decision making and snow?

I got hooked on this topic after living in Austria but then even more so after studying in British Columbia at Thompson Rivers University with Canadian/IFMGA Mountain Guide Ken Wylie (author of Buried). Ken is another person whom I consider a valued mentor. His experience as a guide and survivor of a tragic, high profile avalanche accident has helped shape and inform my own thinking on traveling in avalanche terrain. I now play many roles related to avalanche education and operations (guide, teacher/instructor, researcher) but my favorite aspect is my own continued learning and personal development. As I grow in experience in this field I am ever more acutely aware of my shortcomings and lack of knowledge. This is humbling but also incredibly engaging intellectually. I look forward to ESAW each year and to every issue of The Avalanche Review as an opportunity to learn more and gain different perspectives on my own practice in avalanche terrain.

Why is the snow the best in the East/ why do you choose to live here?

To be perfectly honest, the snow in British Columbia is the best in the world (sorry Utah)!

I’ve lived in many different places over the past 15 years but I’ve just recently passed the 3 year mark in Plattsburgh (upstate NY). Before this I lived in Oregon, Scotland, British Columbia, the Yukon, Austria and Chicago. I chose to move to Plattsburgh (from northeast Oregon) because my job as Professor of Expeditionary Studies is a one-of-a-kind. I get to work with students in perhaps the only undergraduate degree program in the world which has exploration at it’s core. I direct a small but exceptionally talented and experienced faculty and oversee roughly 50-60 students in the 4-year degree. I think I have easily the best job on campus!

 Do you ever ski with a GoPro?

I have skied with a GoPro in the past, though it’s not a regular part of my backcountry ski kit (which is not to say that I’m opposed to GoPro’s, simply that I don’t use one). However, this season I’m testing out a 360 degree camera as part of a Google Expeditions project. Telling the stories of adventure is an ancient human practice. Filming and sharing films or posts on social media is another way to tell these stories. The changes we’ve seen in the past 10 years have amplified those stories and changed the publishing cycle but I believe the impulse remains the same as it always was. As an educator I do my best to engage with my students on this topic, rather than attempt to ignore it. I’ve had some really interesting conversations on social media and technology in class this past year. These conversations and my own experiences have inspired me to begin writing a book on the impact of social media and technology on adventure. The Google Expeditions project is indirectly part of the book project as are the many lessons I’m learning from my students.

 

Have you registered for ESAW yet? Visit www.esaw.org and reserve your spot. The silent auction items are stacking up. This will be one day you won’t want to miss!

Risk and reward

Avalanche debris extending into the trees, almost to Connection Cache, in Tuckerman Ravine. This avalanche followed 24″ of new snow and wind loading on Dec. 29-30, 2016.

 

I’d love for this post, just days before the 7th Annual Snow and Avalanche Workshop, to be an avalanche advisory. Heck, I’d be content with a General Bulletin warning of potentially unstable pockets of snow. But the reality is that the weather, and the climate, sets the stage for mountain travel conditions and the snow stability issues that spring forth. But, as the West continues to get hammered with snow and we skiers, riders and mountaineers suffer through our western friend’s Instagram glory, I will soldier on through this prolonged Fall gloom and rain knowing that it is best to be careful what you wish for. The days will get darker, the air colder and all this moisture from a super-heated Atlantic is likely to bring plenty of snow and ice to our hills.

I’ve enjoyed lots of good rock climbing weather and I know the surfers, mountain bikers, trail runners and other mountain/outdoors folk haven’t been lacking for good conditions for their chosen sports. All of these games that we play outdoors come with some degree of risk, to our health or even our lives. Many of us face risks that threaten our health, or life, at work. Some risks are palpable and clear, like re-roofing a steeply pitched roof, felling a fire damaged tree with a chainsaw, flying an airplane in challenging weather or climbing and skiing a steep gully. Other risks that we face don’t present as direct a threat or at least they seem more routine. Providing patient care in an ambulance, driving a car on the highway or making healthy food and lifestyle choices. All these things involve some degree of risk and all require us to make decisions as active participants, either alone or with others. We may make decisions that affect other people’s lives directly. According to research, an adult makes 35,000 conscious decisions a day. Most are mundane, like the 226 decisions about food that we make per day. But others are more serious. How do we make the right decision at the right time?

Our state of mind when we make these decisions is one of the major factors that determines when and how we live and die. It’s an awesome responsibility when you step back and look at it from a distance. I’ve been privileged to attend most of the ESAWs put on here in the Mount Washington Valley and I’ve travelled to 2 International Snow and Avalanche Workshops. Each one has sparked my curiosity in directions that have lead me to challenge my views, not just on the mechanics of snow and avalanches, but on the assumptions that I make about how I relate to those high-risk snowy slopes. This year, at the 7th Annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop, we’ll be looking more closely at risk decision-making. The speaker’s presentations and our panel discussion will allow us a glimpse at their world and engage risk from their perspective.  Their many years of work and play in snowy places along with the effort they’ve put forth to unravel the process, will likely shed light on my process, and yours too.

In 2009, legendary Canadian ice climber Guy Lacelle was killed in a small slide in terrain just like ours outside Bozeman, MT. Gallatin forecaster Eric Knoff will share this tale and hopefully shed some light on the incident that could easily have taken the life of you or me. Similarly, an accident in a deep weak layer claimed the life of a friend of our own Ryan Matz. He will tell this tale in a similar spirit of learning and gives us an opportunity to check ourselves. Jerry Isaak will share his approach to forecasting in remote area of Kazakhstan with no data but direct observation and the questions required for safe passage. Sarah Carpenter, co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute, will share her thoughts on checklists as tools for making the right choice. These are just a few of the presentations on tap next Saturday.

The speaker’s agenda is set and I’m making the final adjustments to the list of discussion topics for the round table session. It’s an exciting line-up, heavy with experienced backcountry ski mountaineers and guides and forecasters that share our passion for snow and travelling on it. No matter what the weather this week, or this winter, brings, we’ll all be facing decisions traveling in the mountains soon. Save the day to tune up your mental process and challenge your assumptions, not just about decision-making on powder days but anytime you face a choice when uncertainty of outcome looms and various pressures take their toll.

But it won’t be all serious! You have plenty to get excited about. Not only have you made some good decisions so far, at least since you’re reading this, you’re alive at least, but you’ll have some opportunities to win some great prizes though silent auctions and giveaways. The new lower cost of entry continues to buy you an adult beverage ticket from Saco River Brewing and a bunch of tasty snacks served through the day. And if that’s not enough, we have a number of big ticket items from skis, to jackets and packs to bid on, and a bunch of free stuff as well, so most folks will walk away with some sweet gear or schwag.

If you haven’t registered yet, do it now at esaw.org so we can get a close handle on how much food and beverages we need. It’s $50 General Admission, $25 students and military, just bring your ID. Folks that serve on our local SAR teams get the student rate as well, we’ll have team rosters at the door. Proceeds pay for the cost of the workshop and any profits will go to the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation’s effort to educate youth in snow science and avalanche safety…we’re working on an awesome curriculum to plug into Middle School science classes this year!

Thanks to our many sponsors donations to help fund this event and the WMAEF – the American Avalanche Association, DPS Skis, Outdoor Research, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Sterling Ropes, Julbo, Acadia Mountain Guides, Equinox Guiding Service and Friends of Tuckerman Ravine.

I hope to see you there!

-Frank