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Managing Persistant Weak Slabs

Posted on December 07 2013

Managing persistent weak layers
The first Wednesday of the month the shop becomes a forum for the backcountry community to discuss the crucial topic of avalanche awareness. On December 4th, twenty or so backcountry ski and snowboard enthusiasts gathered to hear local avalanche forecaster Blase Reardon speak on managing persistent weak layers. This is a very relevant issue for Colorado and other continental snowpack zones. From this very focused presentation the night morphed into questions and discussions about our current snow season and decision making for what can be a very dangerous sport. 
Avalanche Education at the shop
For those of you that want to read what a pro like Blase has to say, check out his powerpoint.
 
The following are my synthesis on a few other points that are not directly addressed in the slides.
  1. It has long been a belief of my ski partners and I that terrain selection is more important than pit digging, especially in a zone that you constantly ski and observe.  These observations should lead to developing an understanding of each weather cycle be it a storm or dry spells.  This was reaffirmed that night, but it was also evident that merely being comfortable with terrain is not enough to make it skiable during high risk times. If you don't have an inclinometer, buy one and use it often, especially on pitches you have already surmised are less than 30 degrees to see how you are doing. As Blase said, "bet your buddies the beer cooling in the snow bank by the car on the angle of a slope, just to practice." 
  2. Skier compaction is not an effective way of managing persistent weak layers. In popular backcountry spots all over the country, it is believed that skier traffic is breaking the basal layers similar to the boot packing that goes on for Aspen Highlands or other ski areas. However, the density and penetration is not significant enough to stabilize the snow and a slide can still propagate. Check out this video of the Saddle Peak Avalanche and the hundreds of skier tracks that were just revealed. 
  3. Lastly, I have been begging friends to set lower angle skin tracks for years to no avail. Even if going STFU is the fastest way to the top it is not as efficient as a low angle skin track. Blase reminded the audience that from a safety and communication aspect, it is very hard to talk while being hypoxic and it is hard to look around at your environment when all your concentration is spent on not back sliding.

Blase was an exceptional speaker and I found his presentation invaluable. He will be back the first Wednesday of February, but anyone traveling in the backcountry should check out our forums every month.

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