Nevada Backcountry Skier Coaches on Avalanche Avoidance

By BEN SPILLMAN, Reno Gazette-Journal | April 8, 2014

Backcountry skier Ben Hatchett realized he’d overlooked important weather conditions about the time he heard the distinctive hissing sound of wet snow sliding down a steep mountain.

It was early June, 2013 and he was skiing the Cooper Spur, a 2,000 vertical foot drop on the northeast face of Mt. Hood in Oregon.

“The first couple turns were good,” said Hatchett, 30, of Reno, describing a steep descent with pitches in excess of 50 degrees at points, meaning with each turn he would drop more than five feet. “You are more falling than sliding, you have gone past that tipping point.”

After about five or ten turns Hatchett said he started to see snow from his wake gathering in pinwheels or rollerballs. Not long after came the sound of snow sliding down the incline then plunging over a ledge below and onto the Eliot glacier.

“It was kind of like being in a snake pit,” Hatchett said. “You would hear the hissing, it would be quiet for a second then you could hear the waterfall roar.”

From that point forward Hatchett said the rest of the run was fluff management, calculating lines and turns to avoid getting caught up in the wet snow tumbling and sliding down the spur. Although Hatchett made it safely through the run he realizes now his big mistake came before he even set foot on the mountain.

Hatchett, a mountain weather instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College and PhD student in geography studying paleoclimatology at University of Nevada, Reno, didn’t pay close attention to the net warming trend that changed conditions dramatically on the mountain.

He relives the experience now when he’s telling people about the importance of learning to read mountain weather before heading into the backcountry. He made a presentation on the subject recently at Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Calif.

“If you exit the mountains and you haven’t killed yourself but you came close there is always a lesson to take from that,” Hatchett said.

Hatchett’s mistake was understandable. The harrowing incident came just two days after he’d previously skied the same run under glorious conditions.

During the first trip down it was sunny and about 42 degrees with no wind. Warm daytime weather, cold nights and quick warming in the morning meant snow conditions were about as good as they get, he said.

“The first time it was just perfect spring corn,” Hatchett said. “You can ski wherever you want, you can stop where you want. It is kind of like what we call hero snow, hero corn snow.”

In the ensuing days, however, the nighttime temperatures didn’t drop as much and the daytime temperatures were around 50 degrees. That meant instead of a crystallized, smooth surface that warms into perfect corn the snow was wet, heavy and dangerous.

Hatchett hadn’t given the changing conditions much thought until it was too late.

“The psychological term is probably complacency,” he said. “I didn’t really think far enough into it to say ‘ooh, I think this was maybe not a good idea’.”

Now Hatchett pays closer attention to the weather and he wants other backcountry adventurers to do the same.

During the presentation in Tahoe City for a small audience of skiers seated in folding chairs in front of a drop down screen in the middle of the ski shop Hatchett flipped through slides designed to show different mountain conditions and the weather dynamics that contribute to them.

The presentation covered everything from what different clouds foretell to how to read what wind will do to mountain snow to even the way sunlight interacts with the atmosphere to create an array of colors on the landscape.

It covered recognizing conditions that can precede storms, such as wind shifts or the formation of lenticular clouds, how to watch the wind interact with the terrain to anticipate which mountain faces might lose snow and where it might be deposited and, in the summertime, how to recognize the formation of convective clouds that can lead to quickly developing, dangerous thunderstorms.

Michael Kaplan, an atmospheric sciences professor at Desert Research Institute in Reno, said it is important for backcountry adventurers to go beyond standard weather forecasts and learn the specifics about local climate, terrain and patterns.

“There is an awful lot you can gather from wind direction and velocity,” Kaplan said.

For example, upslope winds in a mountain range can be a sign that precipitation is coming. So someone on the east side of a mountain range would experience upslope winds from an eastern direction while on the west side upslope wind comes from the west.

It’s also important to pay attention to details that are more localized than wind direction, Kaplan said.

“In complex terrain not only do you have stronger vertical motions but you also have all sorts of complex trapping mechanisms and differential heating from the sun,” he said.

Kaplan recommended people who want to make a deep dive into the details of weather where they plan to explore to look at data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research at which has detailed real time weather data.

“You really need to be weather wise in terms of your region,” Kaplan said.

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