Photos and words: Erin Hogue
The coastal mountain region of British Columbia is experiencing a high-consequence snowpack this winter, resulting in larger more destructive avalanches with fewer warning signs. Avalanches are being triggered from up to 500 meters away, terrain that doesn't usually experience activity is sliding, highway closures are constant and there are more burials than there have been in years. A deep weak layer coined "The Drought Layer' has been blamed for the escalated activity.
The Drought Layer was caused by the serious lack of precipitation at the beginning of season resulting in the formation of weak layers near the ground. Over a month with only traces of snow, temperatures ranging from minus 25 Celsius to T-shirt spring conditions, wind-crusts, sun-crusts, surface hoar and faceting created a layer of weak, sugary snow. In a relatively short amount of time this weak layer was covered by up to two meters of fresh snow, at such a rate that the layers did not have the chance to properly bond together resulting in what Canadian Avalanche Centre forecasters are referring to as the "crappiest layers we've seen in years".
I caught up with local Whistler pro Chris Rasman to get his perspective on the situation.
You've been sledding for seven years and have a lot of experience in the backcountry, reading the terrain and judging the conditions. How do the avalanche conditions this season compare to previous ones?
Well, to put it into perspective, we've had to be far more careful this year than any other year in the past. We've stayed clear of big faces, landings that are too long, and any sort of terrain traps. Not to say these are things we don’t usually avoid anyways, but we are far more timid and the guard is up big time. It seems that the bad layers that are spooking everyone this year are here to stay, and it stretches all over the Coastal mountains and the Rockies.
What signs have you seen that the snow pack this year is sketchier than in previous years?
I'm noticing a lot more natural slides and slides on faces that I have never seen go before. In January, myself and my crew were exploring some new zones near Revelstoke. We had posted up in one area and were sledding there every day for about a week straight. It warmed up a bit and created this weird hoarfrost layer on top of all the pow, and then continued to snow on top of that. It was a layer we were keeping a close eye on and was getting accumulation on top of it quickly. On the first day we decided not to go up a massive slide wiped out our single track into the zone. It was about a kilometer wide and had come all the way down to the valley, crossed a creek, and made its way up the next mountain a little, wiping out big trees as well. We saw these debris on the next day heading into the zone, and it spooked us enough to call the trip and go home. A few weeks later in Montana, we were watching everything slide with human weight on it. Short jump landings, small pillow fields, tiny little faces, even mellow pow runs in the trees were moving. We did not ride any lines or longer faces that trip.
Have you had any close calls this season?
In Montana myself and the iNi Team were hiking above a pillow line, ready to take turns riding it and all of a sudden the entire face ripped. It was a close on for sure. Other than that, so far, so good. It's hurt a little bit to say no to some of the things, but I think we have been making the right calls.
What precautions do you take to accommodate for high avalanche danger?
To name a few, I read the reports every evening and ever morning before going out, stay away from terrain traps and any avalanche terrain when the warnings are high, take turns and watch each other closely when crossing avy terrain on our snowmobiles, and simply just be smart about decisions we make considering how we have seen this season go so far.
As a result of these conditions the CAC forecasters are advising people to wait longer than usual before moving onto larger, more aggressive terrain. Some runs might have to wait for a couple of weeks or more. Some might be out for the rest of the season. This is especially important for people in the coastal ranges who are used to waiting a few days to let things settle down, then going for it. The snowpack out there, especially the south coast, is like nothing many people have dealt with before. Don't use your coastie tactics and expect them to work this season. Think more like the Interior or even the Rockies guys right now.