Crazy swings in temperature last few days. 13 below to 40 above in a couple of days with a rain snow mix yesterday in town. Switched to snow to the valley floor sometime Thursday night and woke to two inches on my deck with warm temperatures again.
Went with my buddy Paulie out to Tele Line where we had skied the last storms’ snow on supportable crust, bypassing anything steep(30+ degrees)and north facing again. The constant weather factor for the last few days has been the jet stream wind, up again and howling on the ridges out of the northwest. Same deal today as the next front intensified around 12:30 and started dumping a heavy wet, Pac-Northwest style snow. Nice storm skin as the only two other travelers were ahead of us and disappeared into the white out above the poma.
Hitting the point, the winds were calm again as on Wednesday, and the east-facing run was slathered in twenty cms of dense new snow up top. Did a quick hasty pit, similar shallow pack as Wednesday with the new snow supported by the crust underneath. I went first, skiied through the initial rock pillows and ditched it the trees early and waited for Paulie. No activity. Paulie dropped and met me in a cluster of dense old growth. The upper section skied well and the dense snow was nice supportive powder turns of the year. Bliss.
As we entered the middle section, things changed dramatically. We leapfrogged down to the traverse out, staying next to the ridgeline. Paulie let me know he was triggering whoomphing and propagating cracks in areas that I had skied. The thirty pound differential between us was enough to make the difference and allow him to punch through the saturated crust and trigger failure. We regrouped and went farther into the old stands. Entering lower elevations and into the rain/snow mix layer from the night before, the dense new snow wasn’t adhering to the increasingly saturated melt freeze crust. Bottom line the lower we got, the higher the avalanche danger became. We were able to traverse out in cracking boot top on ground dense snow to the aspens. If we get the snow predicted on Saturday and the pack on the Benchie traverse out becomes deep enough to slide, the traverse out could be treatcherous.The aspens down low were extremely sensitive, and shooting cracks and small slab collapses were all over, even worse than the cracking on Wednesday. Again Paulie, being a beast, was triggering areas I didn’t all the way to the bus.
Snow Pack Discussion.
After Paulie triggered the whoomphing and cracking in the middle elevations of Tele Line, we staged at some trees and I crept out and dug a hasty pit. (Yep it’s a bona fide real pit with NO SAW, it actually has a place in the world of snow science.) On the go assessment. A lot going on in the 60cm snowpack. Bottom 20 cms, 3 mm loose facets. Next, a five mm melt-freeze crust, pencil hard. Following this, fifteen cms of smaller loose facets, 2 mm. On top of this, another four to five mm melt-freeze crust again, finger hard, increasingly saturated as elevations lowered. Topping the cake was the 20-25 dense wet snow in the spot I was at, a sheltered spot, east facing around the middle of the line. (the depth of new snow varied drastically in different aspects and elevations. We were on a eastern aspect, with a good view of north east.) All propagating fractures were easily Q1 shears, but didn’t run any distance.
Paulie was collapsing the crust from mid elevations down and the storm snow was running on the collapsed crust on loose facets below. Danger was even higher today, than it has been in the last few days, especially in lower elevations N-E aspects. Didn’t get to test any W aspects at any elevation recently, but I assume similar types of results. We saw evidence of slab releases in NE aspects at 9500 ft and below. Temps have cooled off since the storm moved through and have skies cleared. Hopefully this will lock up some of the moisture and settle things, but this is just spray(a new phrase I learned today).
Concerned about Saturday, weekend crowds and the lure of pow will have intrepid souls venturing back there in very high danger. Hope all goes well, please let us know if you are out and see anything. Be safe. EVI
Wanted to share this trip report from reader Colby D.:
On our way out we stopped at the BCA park n did some practice digs. We saw Paul there and said he made it out to East Vail earlier but decided to come back (red flag 1). Decided to go anyway. Once we started to go through the windloaded areas I jumped off the track to give it a feel. I felt the snow dropping with every step and in my tracks you could see almost 2 inch air pockets on both sides (red flag 2). So we quick dug a pit. Again I am not a pro and didn’t have a saw so it was a janky pit but it had all the signs saying don’t go. the top footish in the first pit didn’t even hold up and make it to a compression test, second one did but fractured on the first hit from the wrist. that alone was enough to convince us not to go but then we noticed bellow where we had stepped of our splits there were fracture marks to (red flag 3). This on top of the fact there had been slide action in the area, we hit a few fun turns through mushy trees where the snow was heavy but had no problems.
Had a single binocular which was super cool to look at the snow crystals with
you can see the soft sugar snow under the hard layer half way up then the top is windloaded, also some punch tests
Since we decided against east vail yesterday from the top we decided to hike a run we do fairly often with the dogs. I think people refer to it as half chute. regardless we were gonna hike up through the woods as we have an established boot pack and you’re never in any high risk areas. It was a rugged hike and it seemed wicked warm today. the snow was super sticky and heavy. Once we got to the top the snow had gotten lighter so we decided to dig around and check the snow out. We had already broken the top zone into mellow sluff slides in the trees on two prior occasions so we were wondering if it was much different than the area we dug yesterday.
the pups loving the deep snow
As we started clearing out the area there was a small fracture.
I increased the contrast on this shot and you can easily see the different layers, harder on top, softer underneath. Shitty but we came to this area because there is little consequence with the crappy pack.
Kinda tough to tell what;s going on here but the bottom block slide of the sugar pile above it on the 7th wrist compression. Further proving the consequential areas of east vail could leave you having a real bad day.
Thanks to Colby and his crew for the report and pics. We appreciate it andalways welcome outside content and comments-EVI
Big storm was supposedly headed our way. The jet is on us and it looked promising for last night. The blob NOAA showed us coming in from the Northwest made giddy as a schoolgirl. Huge and dipping below AK towards us, finally in a more west to east pattern. Bring it. I went to bed with powder dreams dancing in my head.
Woke up to another swing and a miss, somehow it went from 1000 percent chance of snow and a blizzard warning to really nothing. All bark no bite. A reoccurring theme this year, not sure how NOAA got it so wrong. Again. Now Saturday looks better, but, but honestly I give up on getting excited for storms that NOAA predicts for us this year.
Wednesday saw the temperatures and humidity rise with the incoming front. The recent new snow down lower in the aspens by our second run had begun to settle and were cracking, although not propagating more than a few feet as we plowed through it. A great indicator that even at lower elevations in the trees, the possibility of avalanching is on the rise. Rapid change in any piece of the avalanche puzzle weather, wind, temperature is always a warning sign for increasing avalanche danger.
Winds are still up, and the loading continues. 21 is open today, so the skin out won’t be as long. Two yesterday and my legs are feeling it. Might be taking the day off and writing hate mail to NOAA. Be careful out there, anything in the North facing, wind loaded aspects that haven’t ripped have a good chance of going at all elevations. Really a strange year so far to say the least.
Day off from Troy’s today and I was eager to get back out to EV to see what the ten inches and jet stream winds had done to the north facing aspects of East Vail. I definitely was concerned and I had a feeling that Avi rating was easily considerable as CAIC had reported, and probably more like high danger specifically in EV due to what had been occurring weather/wind wise over the last two days. If I was heading out I was going to make damn sure I was in good company. I was. I met up with our snow science and event coordinator Luke, along with Haines heli guide extraordinaire Will at the Visti. Solid.
Spooky day all around. The constant sound of the bombs tossed by Vail Ski patrol resonated over the howling ridge top winds. The bruised, purple grey clouds thickened and lowered all day over the scoured moonscape of the Gore. Small tendrils of snow touched the tops of the peaks, but nothing from the predicted blizzard yet.
Geared up at Two Elk and we were off. The skin up to chair twenty-one was spent catching up with Will, hadn’t skied with him since Valdez. Luke and I skinned listening to stories of Haines spines, helicopters, film crews and Oakland Raiders Cheerleaders that were so over the top they had to be true.(Check out This is My Year to see what Will, Xavier De La Rue and crew and SEABA have been up to) Our storm day was rolling along. The high winds had transformed the rippling ridge lines and angular faces of the Gore Range into a peppery black, brown and white moonscape as all the storm snow that wasn”t locked down was now in Kansas.
Up behind chair twenty-one, we get our first indicator of how things are gonna be . Patrol holds us up at the backside of the lift. Blasting over in Red Square, Wayne the patroller says, fifteen minute wait. No problem, EVI has nothing but total respect for patrol, so we hung out.
I turned to check out the area behind the lift that drops into Mushroom Bowl a saw a good size slide had ripped out with Patrol’s two pound bomb. Another patroller and a Vail photographer were perched on top a hanging block checking it out. 150 ft wide, two to three feet deep winds slab failing on the old snow/new snow interface, a knife hard, wind scoured crust. It ran over the roll and into the trees. Same place behind the path to China Wall that ripped a week ago. It’s a great test slope as the 3o plus westerly winds load it fiercely. Luke Will and I took notice and headed out as soon as they let us. Wind loading was, no doubt, going to be a factor on our route decision.
Top of the World and we started poking around. Small cracking as Will checked out skier’s left off the top, left side of Abe’s. Punchy thigh deep on the windward, north facing Benchmark side. On the ridge top and the lee side of the ridge, it was scoured and bushes and rocks poking through, by far the thinnest I’ve ever seen EV on the Top of the World in January. We all took a look over the ridge, assessed it, then we talked about it. We decided we didn’t want to mess with the loading in the left side of Abe’s, even though other tracks were already in the far skier’s left trees of the run. We all felt pretty sure it was going to rip, probably at the first rollover that steepened to 35 degrees and had the punchy wind slab(80 plus cms)There are small shelf cliffs that make a great trigger points off the top and this area releases often after storms.
The decision was made to go ski the more sheltered and lower angle East facing run off Joint Point, the Tele Line. The snow pack was going to be shallower over there due to the East facing sunhit and lack of windload. It was coated and blank and looked like a better option.
Scooted down the ridge to the corner at Joint point. Dug a hasty pit. The snow pack was weak of course, but very shallow, 30 cms and had new snow over a condensed crust over 2 mm facets. Better than off the top of Benchmark. Pulled out the handle of Little Pepe, and offered the drop to Will. Skipping over the stepdown, snow coated rocks, Will took off down the left side. The snow held with variable boot top to knee fresh on a thin pack. Luke dropped next, me last. Regrouped and leapfrogged down the pitch. Powder??? Dense, wind affected but yes, it counts. Finally, after all this wait. Thank you baby Jesus( I had to work the ten inch day morning).
Made our way down through soft snow on tops of the dead grasses to the aspen cut over, ignoring the now familiar sound of rock grinding edge (my route involved twenty-five yards of ski hiking a new sport) and picked our way to the bus. The out is still a pain in the ass. Nice trip and at the bus we all agreed that we made the best of what was available and headed in to town, John pulling up at the moment we stepped out of our skis.
Second round I met up with Tom and Stew from Snowell at the Poma shack and with the first run info we all decided to roll back to Tele Line. Had gotten a text on the Visti from J that his group (just after us in the morning) had skied left side Benchmark(Abrahams’) and had ripped out a quarter of the bowl while poking around on the edge. It broke below them and no one was caught. Eager to see the aftermath, I hustled ahead to the TOTW and rolled over the edge to see a 100 ft wide eighteen inch to two foot crown starting from the ridge over the Mushroom Rock area, stepping down. It rolled past the flats and through the second cliff band, to the next flats. Again the interface betweenpencil/ knife hard scoured scarp covered with the recent windslab was the culprit, triggered by the weight of a skier at the cliffs. HS-AS-R2-D2-I (look it up on Google).
Second Tele line was just as good as the first. Both Tom and Stew seemed glad to get the first run monkey off their backs for the season. Again the East face held the snow and no activity and blissfully out of the wind. Thanks to them for letting me tag along with their group and for the pictures.
So the snow has fallen and we are on the cusp of the “Full On” EV season. Too many red flags for us to venture back into EV today with the peaks flagging hard and the obvious avi activity in the back bowls off Two Elks. Took Martin’s advice and rolled up on a perfect powder day in the untouched Beacon Park. Scraped the rust off my single and multiple burial skills and waxed the time to under 3 minutes. Try and hold your breath for 3 minutes, imagine it being a lot worse when you/your buddies are buried and counting on each other to rescue them/you in time.
Hopefully, the two groups of skiers that braved the obvious warning signs and B-Lined back to EV or Mushie today are super dialed in. After meeting up with some of the crew, it was a no brainer to let the potential human avi bombs go do their work sans EVI. Besides, it was a perfect blue day to go rip Colorado’s finest packed pow.
We had a ton of fun ripping the front side and staying out of the danger zone. Sometimes you have to make your own decision to hang it up. I ultimately made the personal decision to not risk my season or my life based on my observations and gut feeling on the day. Tomorrow is another day and you can bet if all adds up to a safe drop, we’ll be back there doing what we do best!
Now that I’m safe and all cozy in my abode, I was digging through some folders and came across some notable pix from the snowmageddon season of 2010-2011. Just take a gander at these pics from 1/16/2011 and compare them to the pix in the Benchie Pit post… huge difference, enjoy.
Tuesday I made the most of the sunny afternoon to shoot up to the top of Benchmark, poke around and see what’s going on back in EV. Skinning out from Two Elk’s, it’s pretty obvious we are no where near the much needed snow pack to get things rolling in the back bowls. I love the sunshine, but seeing a brown-out on all the south facers that were caked deep only twelve months prior is a bit of a downer. Guess the snow is only hanging in the shade and baking in the sun. The slopes are littered with surface hoar, caused by the clear night’s frost and the sunshine baking bonds into weak facets.
Storms like this past Saturday’s is a little more what we could use three times a week for the rest of the month, but let’s face it, what’s here is now… and now we have a pretty weak snow pack. Studying the avy roses of the CAIC, the weakest areas should lie on the east facing slopes in the Vail-Summit Zone. I decided that’s exactly where I would belay to a shaded 38 degree slope on the NE side of the tall pines that separate East Abe’s and the open east facing slopes of Benchmark. Reason being, this is most likely where persistant weaknesses will remain throughout this season’s snow pack.
I harnessed up and tied in with the glacier line around a stout tree. Please be clear, it is not my intention to rope off and start popping off slides on purpose. A safety line is in every guide’s pack and is an extremely important tool for any back country traveler. Not to mention, it is the 8th Commandment in Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”: “Thou shalt use a Belay rope! Most serious avalanche professionals carry and use a belay rope.”
I am not an avalanche professional (yet), but I do posses the knowledge and self-preservation skills to have a 30m glacier line as a part of my BC toolkit. Hopefully it’s a last resort preventative from crack, pop, pin-ball ride through trees and a push off a cliff.
I dug a pit in what could be the sweet spot of a likely starting zone. During the careful descent amongst sloughing loose snow and little failures of the top layer my observations showed that there weren’t any cracks propagating off into the distance, but the small failures under my skis were enough to be wary of.
Got settled in, dug the “pit” and started to gather some data. There are presently as of 1/10/2012, 3:00pm above 11,400 ft. East Vail Proper, three layers to this shallow 70cm “snow pack”. The bottom 30cm is basically larger facets slightly bonded resting on depth hoar. The next 30-55/60cm are comprised of faceted loose grains and the very top layer 55-70cm is the last storm accumulation. The exposed snow is already riddled with surface hoar. Doesn’t look too great for the future, but some avi cycles are likely to occur with a big snow and flush this particular zone of some of those pesky white dragons for the time being. The snow pack is constantly changing and this does not mean that those dragons will not creep back into the mix in the future. So, beware.
An isolated column test resulted in the top 58-70cm layer failing after four shots from the wrist. Not too surprising, while the break was not completely a shear one (Q3). Four shots from the elbow failed at the 30-58cm range, again not a clean break (Q3). Under the right conditions, I’m sensing a collapse in these weaker layers after a good snowfall, or a human loads them.
For the real snow nerds out there (myself included), I measured the temps of the pack to see if there were any major gradients. Chose to use 20cm increments to measure within the noticeable layers and came up with 0 deg. Celsius at 10cm, -1.7 at 30cm, -3.4 at 50cm and -6 at 70cm. Towards the bottom 10-30cm that’s 8.5 deg/m, 17 deg/m in the middle
and 13 deg/m at the top. The numbers below 30cm represent a weak temp gradient (<10 deg. C/m). The rest of the snow pack has a strong temp gradient (>10 deg. C/m), and results in a loss of strength with facet formation. Math aside, we have plenty of weak snow to make conditions unfavorable in the future.
Cautiously negotiating my away from terrain traps and cliff bands, I skied my way to the lower angled aspect of East Abe’s and made some really fun turns. Crossing the creek and sticking skier’s right, I rode through the deeper shaded snow amongst the short pines until the waterfall. The ride was sugary and mellow. After the falls, the traverse left into the woods and the scarcely packed ski trail was extremely variable. We definitely need some serious snow in those woods to make the ride back to the bus a little less rough. The last bit of the trail is packed down by some snowmobiles and make the last portion along the water tower a welcoming slide home.
Not bad for my first “benchmark to water tower” trip of the year. Grand from afar, far from grand. It will be interesting to see how the snow pack in the zone evolves and how conditions will change as our season trudges on. Glad I was able to take the afternoon for some recon and gauge conditions until the next storm. Until then, keep it safe and pray for more snow!