Know The Snow: Here we go again

Riders Noelani Kamahele, Keren Goldbergbelle and Spenser Johnson hike in a flurry on Halloween up Eaglecrest Ski Area to take advantage of the early-season snowfall this year. Even with little snowpack thus far, avalanches can occur.

The approaching snow season seems to be on many people’s minds lately.


This is not a surprise.

The days are getting shorter, temperatures are dipping to sub-freezing and snow on the hills around us is visible from town.

The inevitable winter is just around the corner.

More and more, people ask me every day if I am ready for snow to fall again.

The truth is that I wasn’t ready for it to melt in the first place.

In the beginning of every season I am tempted to try and guess what the coming season will be like. As I sit and write this column, this season has already brought us snowfall that was followed by a prolonged period of clear, cold, windy weather. More snowfall arrived this week.

What does all that mean for our snowpack and how will it may come into play later in the season?

Cold air over shallow snow cover creates a notoriously weak, sugary-like snow grain that avalanche folks call “facets.” The winds over the mountains deposited a cohesive layer of snow on top of the weak facet layer on lee slopes and gullies. In contrast to what we became accustomed to last winter, this weak layer and slab combination can lurk at the bottom of the snowpack for weeks. The additional snowfall in the last few days increased the likelihood that dry slab avalanches could occur and increased the likelihood that enthusiastic skiers and riders will venture into avalanche-prone slopes.

On the flip-side, the cold ground that the early season snowfall landed upon reduces the chance of early-season glide avalanches, which makes many of us avalanche folks happy. This scenario of a persistent weak snowpack layer that lurks for weeks at the bottom of the snow cover is very unlikely with increasing temperatures and rain. In this weather scenario, we may see a short period of small wet avalanches, but the snowpack is likely to gain strength as the weather cools down.

Regardless of the weather scenario, snowpack, or how much you want to head out and play in the snow, it is important to remember if there is enough snow to ski and ride on, there is enough snow to avalanche. And it doesn’t take a large amount of moving snow to push a person into serious trouble.

We faced a sad reminder, barely more than a week ago on Oct. 23, that the snow doesn’t care how early it is in the season before it decides to slide; on that day there was an avalanche fatality just across the Canadian border from Hyder.

The Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center will host an evening of presentations on snow and avalanche beginning at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10 at the JAAC. Presentation topics include what’s new in the snow and avalanche world, the winter weather forecast, how avalanche professionals make sure their clients are safe when on avalanche terrain, and more. Presenters include Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association, Kent Scheler, the avalanche hazard specialist for the Teton Gravity Research, and other local avalanche professionals.

This is a great opportunity to dial in your avalanche skills and ready for the winter. I know I am looking forward to an interesting evening of avalanche education.


• Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster who lives in North Douglas. You may contact him at


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