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By Jim Frankenfield, Avalanche-Center.org Director and Founder

Several recent situations have demonstrated the need for climbers as well as late-season skiers to have season specific education.

There are cases of people waiting for answers from somebody else, even on the mountain.

There are also cases of people making observations which would be more appropriate and significant in winter while overlooking spring factors. Some of these people appear to have taken a Level 1 course in winter where they learned to make these observations.

Level 1 courses, especially in the traditional format, have a crowded curriculum. They are based on winter conditions and the experience of most instructors is primarily or entirely in winter. Adding more instruction specific to spring is not really feasible due to these limitations.

Let's look at some recent examples. (These are not specific case studies and do not involve any kind of incident, fortunately. They are examples of people, mostly collectively rather than individually, not knowing what to look for or how to make seasonally appropriate decisions.)

Situation #1 - Skiers in Alta, Utah

A couple weeks ago (i.e. in the first half of May) there were numerous groups skiing in the Alta ski area, which was closed. At least one group triggered an avalanche which caught at least on skier in their party. There were no serious injuries, only some gear to hunt for I believe.

Afterwards somebody in the group claimed that they had assessed the stability on their ascent and that there were none of the typical signs of instability. No cracking or clear windslabsOpens in New Window, etc. They felt the new snow on the top was bonded well enough to the snow below.

The problem with this is that these indicators mean a lot more in winter (which is the focus of a Level 1 course) than in spring. The key factors in spring are the amount of fresh snow and warming. It does not sound like the new snow depth was too great in this case and in the right conditions it may have settled outOpens in New Window and stabilized. However, it was a warm day with overcast skies. Clouds re-radiate IR energy down to the surface in what is sometimes called a "greenhouse effect". (An appropriate term if not quite correct technically.) When new snow warms too much too fast the tendency for it to avalanche rises quickly.

Factors such as the energy balanceOpens in New Window and the effects of clouds are covered in detail in our Climbers courseOpens in New Window. Climbers and spring mountaineers/skiers need to become familiar with these things.

Rather than concluding the snow is stable from observing a lack of indicators of instability it is more important to pay attention to the warming and the time of day. By May the clouds will not offset the lack of direct sunshine the way they sometimes due earlier in the season in colder conditions.

It also sounds like numerous groups were skiing that day, which would be typical in the crowded Wasatch Range. It's impossible to say how this affects any particular person or party but it does tend to give most of us a sense of security and/or validation of our assumptions of safe conditions. This is normal and something to constantly be questioning and taking into account.

Make a good plan before setting out and don't be too quick to change it based on what others are doing. (We use a great case study of this from our extensive archive in our courses - a skier in Alaska ruled out a slope until he saw everyone else skiing it. He joined them. He was caught in a significant avalanche. His original plan was good but he did not stick to it.)

These "human factors" are addressed in all of courses including the spring Climbers courseOpens in New Window as well as the Level 1 courseOpens in New Window.

Situation #2 - Mt Hood Hogsback Crowd

About the same time, in the first half of May, there were reports of many climbers backed up on the Hogsback on Mt Hood, confused over the hazard and whether to continue or not. (Which is not unusual.) There had been a fair amount of new snow recently.

From the reports it sounds like most of these climbers really had no idea whether it was safe or how to assess that. Which is mostly a matter of warming, as above. They were passing along information of unknown origin which seems like it acquired some changes as it was passed around.

Finally some guy (by some accounts a guide) ventured up a bit, dug a snowpit, and declared it unsafe based on two shear planes.

Shear planes within new and recent snow are not usually very important in May. They settled outOpens in New Window quickly. But the same factors which settle out those layers can cause the entire new snow layer to slide on the previous surface.

I can't say whether it was risky that day or not, or if good or bad decisions were made. I do not follow the weather there and was not present. But clearly there were a lot of people backed up who lack the ability to make their own observations and decisions. Most likely very few of them had a clear plan in place before setting out, particularly concerning snow conditions. And once again the information considered was more appropriate in winter than spring.

Other Observations

There are climbers asking about other routes as well, especially on Mt Hood. For example Leuthold Couloir. Somebody was asking about climbing it a few days or a week later. Fortunately somebody else had been watching the weather, which was clearly not favorable. This route has a history of accidents, although not as many per-attempt as Cooper Spur. Plans for these routes (like all spring plans) need to consider new and recent snow, free air freezing levels and their trends, and other weather and snowpack factors. Information for many of these factors is readily available online these days.

One final comment is to be very wary of climbing into a storm. Apparently there was a fatal accident just over a month ago in Leuthold Couloir, just as a storm rolled in or conditions went downhill. The accident was a fall and does not appear related to snow conditions, or at least to avalanche conditions. The problem was that by the time a rescue effort could be mounted the avalanche risk had become high and this complicated and delayed the rescue. If you decide to try to get in a quick climb in advance of changing weather be aware that if anything happens you are likely to be on your own.

Get Educated

If you are not sure how to plan a safe climb, including anticipating weather and snow conditions, it's time to get some education. One option is our Climbers Course which is specific to spring. As far as we know this is unique. Years ago the avalanche association, when they first tried to get into the world of education, noted the need for such a course. However, nobody else has pursued this. It's not conducive to the kind of big money operation that winter courses are, and many instructors don't have strong alpine climbing backgrounds.

Level 1 courses ideally go more in depth into complex issues and material. But they rarely if ever focus on spring conditions and climbing issues (such as timing, length of exposure, lack of alternatives, etc). We allow our Level 1 graduates to take the Climbers Avalanche courseOpens in New Window free. And if the climbing course is your first one then we let you take the Avalanche Level 1 courseOpens in New Window at a discount.

Many climbing organizations also offer mountaineering and avalanche courses. Not all mountaineering courses cover avalanche safety, many focus on hands-on skills such as self-arrest, anchors, etc.

As a last resort there are books and online material. There is nothing wrong with reading this material but it's not a replacement for a course. We had one student suggest we needed "flashier" materials and they referred us to a piece in the online version of a magazine. This was very professionally prepared because it was, in reality, a marketing piece for a major gear company. Which had it well branded. Unfortunately there were at least three erroneous things in the actual text. So beware of materials that are made for marketing. (Which is probably most of the online things these days.)