I don’t know if I do, know when to go I mean. When do you really? Snow is such a complex thing. So how do you know when you know?
How do you know that you aren’t just trying to convince yourself that it is safe because you want it to be?
How do you know that you base your decisions on sound knowledge and experience, and not on events that was caused by luck? How do you know that you are not over confident?
It’s spring time in the Artic. It’s light until late in the evening, and for the past couple of weeks the weather has been magnificent.
The sky has been almost completely blue, and most days there has been very little wind. Temperatures have been relatively low, but the sun has been warm.
And, first time this season, the snowpack is relatively stable. Relatively.
Because, there are reports on RegObs.no of dry slab avalanches, of a poor bonding between windslabs in the snow, and of facets buried in the snowpack.
Still, I have chosen to ski steep terrain (as in steeper than 30°, not crazy steep). I have skied on NW and NE aspects of the mountains, where both windslabs and facets were present. I, the chicken with the heart of a hare, have found it safe enough to both skin up, and ski down, avalanche terrain.
It has been, and felt, absolutely fantastic.
So how did I reach the conclusion that it was the right time to go? And was it really? I will of course never know for sure that we weren’t just lucky, because #nothingbadhappened. But here is what we observed, and the conclusions that we drew. Feel free to comment if you think that our interpretation of the risk was wrong!
Observation 1: No bull’s-eye cues. No shooting cracks, no whump sounds, no fresh avalanches, and no signs of rapid warming or wind loading. Good, but no guarantee for stability, especially if you have a persistent weak layer buried in the snowpack.
Observation 2: From NE to NW we observed windslabs, poor bonding between the windslabs, facets and some icy crusts in the snowpack, sometimes all within 1 meter from the surface.
That’s not something that I like to have underneath me in steep terrain.
So why did we think that it was safe ‘enough’?
Well, first of all, the weak layers were very inconsistently distributed over short distances. Second, the snow underneath the weak layers also varied a lot. While the shear on the “upper” slab was often clean, the surface on the “lower” slab was often very rugged. Third, we found a “sandwich” of thin crusts on top of each other underneath the facets. Fourth, the soft windslab on the surface appeared “dead”. I know that the terminology is wrong, but I can’t find any other word to describe it. When we stepped above the skintrack, we sometimes managed to cut out a slab, but it always broke just underneath our skis, and it always broke up into pieces. It was as if the snow absorbed the collapse instead of propagating it. We drew the conclusion that although several lemons were present in some parts of the snowpack, they were too isolated to produce a slab avalanche.
Were we right?
I don’t know. I know that we did not trigger anything, and that I haven’t seen any reports of avalanche accidents or near miss accidents in Troms during the past couple of weeks. So #nothingbadhappened.
I also know that we checked the snow continuously during our tours, that we communicated what we saw with each other, and that we discussed the implications of our observations thoroughly.
I know that I found the arguments made by my fellow touring partners to be credible. I know that they confirmed my own observations and hypotheses. I know that I, although I (as always) felt nervous, my head told me that it was ‘safe enough’ and time to go. And so I did.
Do I know when to go? Do I really? Do you ever? Probably no, but perhaps you and I can get a little bit closer by asking the right questions to the snowpack, to our partners, and to ourselves. What is the current avalanche problem? How big is the problem – what is the distribution of the problem, the likely size of an avalanche, the additional load needed to trigger an avalanche? What are the most significant dangers – that we trigger something underneath us, that we remotely trigger something above us, that someone else trigger something above us, naturally triggered avalanches? Is it possible to mitigate those dangers?
During the past few weeks, I have had the privilege to tour with people that have been willing to discuss these questions over and over with me. They have listened to my thoughts and arguments, and they have provided me with theirs.
Based on our discussions, we have changed our plan several times. We have chosen to go up and down a different mountainside, or chute, than we originally planned. We have decided to turn around before reaching the summit, and when we found that our observations supported it, or when we could mitigate the risk, we have decided to go for it.
I know that you shouldn’t trust your gut feeling, but it sure felt as if we knew when to go. Did we?