Early season snow comes with early season hazards
Finally! Summer is over and the favored season is upon us here in the Great Land. For snow riders, by the time November rolls around it’s been a solid two months of thinking about, preparing for and dreaming of the bottomless powder riding ahead. With some patience, a few “sick days” at the office and a willingness to chase snow, the deep days of winter are just around the corner; this is Alaska after all.
Riding in November and December can be quite good and no doubt, with early-season snow comes early-season hazards. Of course, there are the obvious dangers associated to shallow snowpack such as rocks, stumps and creek beds hidden by a thin veil of white. For more than a few of us it’ll mean an early trip to your local parts counter for a new A arm, ski track or front-end rebuild.
Perhaps less obvious is the fact that a shallow, early season snowpack can be more prone to avalanching than a deeper, mid-winter snowpack. This is counterintuitive for many and without getting into the physics of vapor transport through the snow, it’s widely accepted that a shallow snowpack breeds more weak layers than a deeper, more uniform snowpack. Weak layers in the snow are what ultimately fail as a rider initiates an avalanche. And a weak layer is more likely to be impacted by the weight of a rider if found closer to the surface; likely the case with a shallow snowpack. Oftentimes early-season avalanches will fracture at the ground taking the entirety of the season’s snow with it. This makes for a very dangerous and potentially traumatic situation if one were to get caught up in a full-depth avalanche.
As storms pile up and riding areas open, weak layers grow old and eventually dormant as we add depth in the backcountry. However, it could be difficult to tell when the snowpack makes that distinct transition from early season to full-on winter. It could happen in a matter of a single storm cycle, or it could be gradual across an elevation band. Your local avalanche center will be tracking these changes daily, so it’s prudent to follow the advisory and heed travel advice of the professionals.
Undoubtedly, we’ve all been champing at the bit for that first ride but as a tip for self-preservation (and snowmachine preservation), it’ll be sensible to treat your first few outings this winter as an opportunity to dust off the cobwebs from your gear and your mind. You and your crew are likely out of practice with your avalanche rescue skills. Instead of lofty objectives this early season, take the time to set up and run through some beacon drills on that first ride, check your buddy’s avalanche safety gear and make sure they know how to use it. And furthermore, maintain discipline enough to stay off of steep (greater than 30 degrees), shallow terrain for these first few outings. The best of winter is yet to come and I for one hope to be riding well into May.
Here’s to a long season of snow riding for both your sled and your body.
Graham Predeger is a lifelong Alaskan who has been working in support of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Info Center (CNFAIC.org) for the past six years. He’s based in Girdwood.