Ski Touring Planning — “Be The Observer”
Winter is nearly here and with it longer days and a more stable snowpack. But, the hazards are not gone and its no time to get complacent — careful planning still required. MM guide Stephen Heath shares some ideas here.
One of the more daunting aspects of backcountry skiing is the art of observing what’s going on around you and turning those observations into good decisions. Your morning plan will set the foundation for your day, giving you direction and the key things to keep an eye out for. Sometimes the key message in the avy forecast gives you a clear picture of terrain to avoid and other times the problems for the day combined with the likelihood don’t add up to a clear decision on whether to rule out certain terrain or not. On these days it’s especially important to be in tune with what’s happening around us and spring backcountry trips are no exception. To help with the planning if you’re going out in the Cascades, the Northwest Avalanche Center can provide that key info when there is some uncertainty.
Once you head out you should be asking yourselves and your partners questions about what we’re seeing. Try to find smaller less committing “test slopes” on the same aspect as what you want to ski and feel what’s going on with the snow before laying tracks into a more consequential slope. We need to purposefully force or minds into the role of the observer so that we can attempt to base our decisions in what’s actually happening around us and not the narrative that gives us whatever we want and the turns we desire. These principals apply to all seasons, whether its a big winter snowpack or a consolidating spring snowpack.
I like to break observations down into categories to help me make a sound decision.
Yellow Flag obs give me pause, they put my spidey senses up and I’m looking closely at what’s going on, seeing if it adds up to something more. Yellow Flags include temperature change, heavy snowfall, evidence of wind-blown snow, snow melting off trees and rocks, point releases, and changes in snow density. The next level, red flags, are enough to shut down a slope for me and look for other terrain and aspects to ski.
Red Flags include shooting cracks, whoomphing, test slopes producing evidence of instability, large roller balls, evidence of recent slides on same aspect and elevation as what we’re planning on skiing, and wind loading. It’s important to not only be looking for these things and aware of what they mean but be willing to change the plan and go ski the terrain that’s matching the conditions you’re finding that day.
With new snow still flying in the mountains, it may still seem like winter, but spring is here. Better access to the high peaks and good weather on its way be ready to shift gears if you’re heading out onto the glaciers. Some of the best descents are on the Cascade Volcanoes. Check out the options for ski descents, like Mount Baker, Mount Adams, or the Forbidden Traverse; or take a ski mountaineering course to get dialed on the glacier travel. But, whatever you do, get out and enjoy there’s turns to be had well into spring and early summer.
Photos by Arthur Herlitzka and MM collection