Smart Skiing on a High Hazard Day
I couldn’t believe my eyes; I even refreshed the website a time or two to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. We were several days out from my next avalanche course and the Stevens Pass weather forecast was for snow, snow, and more snow. Starting Wednesday and lasting all through the weekend. This was that epic storm I dream about at night, powder billowing over my head and shoulders. But the storm wasn’t to be without its issues. The freezing levels acted like a 10 year old with a new yo-yo; up and down and up and down again. It was setting up to be great skiing but with very dangerous avalanche conditions. Indeed the Northwest Avalanche Center forecasted High avalanche danger for both of our field days. High avalanche danger is defined as “natural avalanches are likely, and human triggered avalanches are very likely”. This was going to be the real deal.
Craziness at the ski area. No lines in the backcountry that’s for sure. Dallas Glass photo
Ok, maybe one line in the backcountry. Just our group grinning on the ski track. Dallas Glass photo
Throughout the winter I have the opportunity to teach a variety of courses from free avalanche awareness courses all the way to professionals. Whenever I talk about skiing on high hazard days, the reaction seems to be the same. “Would you really go ski on a high hazard day?” My answer, “You bet!” It’s a little simplistic. The answer is right there on NWAC’s website, “Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.” It doesn’t say stay home, it doesn’t say go to the ski area, it doesn’t even say fear for your life. It simply says, “Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.” So, that’s exactly what the class decided to do, avoid avalanche terrain.
Every bit of thigh deep. Lauren reaps the rewards of planning and execution, skiing blower snow on a high hazard day. Dallas Glass photo
With epic lift lines at the ski resort, we started uphill into the snow covered trees near Stevens Pass. Trail breaking was deep, but rewarding. We practiced on-the-move snowpack and weather observations, finding exactly what NWAC had described, Wind Slabs and Storm Slabs. The group had already decided that all avalanche terrain was off limits for the day, so we made sure that we didn’t even set a single toe in anything that resembled avalanche terrain. Our observations continued to line-up, and our terrain selection seemed appropriate for the hazard. So when we finally hit the ridge, what do you think we did? That’s right, skied it! We dropped off the ridge into knee to thigh deep blower powder. The group could hardly contain themselves. I’ve rarely seen such big grins.
Learning backcountry boarding techniques makes for a sweet day. When it’s this deep it may feel more like surfing than snowboarding. Koranin says that’s why he loves the board. Dallas Glass photo
Our group learned a very valuable lesson, that good safe skiing can be had on a High hazard day. How did they do it, you ask? A solid plan and avoiding avalanche terrain. I’ll tell you what, fresh tracks and 20 – 25 degree gladed tree skiing; Amazing!
~ MM Guide Dallas Glass
Making an indepth snow observation. Best part of a powder day: falling into the feather bed. Dallas Glass photo