Cascades - West Avalanche Forecast
Jan 15th, 2020 12:49AM
Avalanche danger will increase throughout the day on Wednesday as winds pick up and transport low-density snow into wind slabs. There is a lot of new snow out there right now, and you will need to manage this hazard with good decision making and your own observations. Access to upper elevations and observations have been limited, so ease into terrain slowly.
Updated 8:45 AM to correct the order of the avalanche problems.
January 12th update: In the past week, there have been two fatal avalanche accidents to the east of NWAC's forecast area. One occurred near Kellog, ID and another outside of Baker City, OR. Local avalanche centers will perform accident investigations including final reports. You can find preliminary accident information at avalanche.org.
January 9th, 2020 (The regional synopsis is updated every Thursday @ 6 pm)
As we said Happy New Year and rang in 2020, snow was turning to rain at many trailheads and lower elevation Passes, not exactly the fresh start winter recreationalists had in mind. The snowpack was already looking a little thin throughout the region, especially at lower elevations. Low snow in places like Snoqualmie Pass made backcountry travel difficult and hazardous. NWAC’s snow depth climatology report was showing snow depths 25-64% of normal to kick off the start of 2020.
Things can change quickly in the Pacific Northwest and they did as we entered an extended storm cycle between January 2nd to January 8th. Strong winds, fluctuating temperatures, and heavy precipitation offered few breaks in the weather over this period limiting observations and hampering travel. Despite periods of rain at lower elevations, most areas saw several feet of new snow with big jumps in total snow depths as a westerly storm track strongly favored the West Slopes of the Cascades and the Olympics for the highest precipitation totals.
Total Snow Depth (in) 1/2/20
Total Snow Depth (in) 1/8/20
Heather Meadows Mt Baker
Crystal Mt Green Valley
Paradise Mt Rainier
White Pass Upper
Mt Hood Meadows
We may have started with a shallow snowpack, but most locations increased their snowpack by 70% or more over this storm cycle!
During this extended and impressive storm cycle that included backcountry avalanche warnings, natural avalanches were reported in many areas Jan 6th-7th.
The Stevens Pass area was especially active over the period with over 100(!) avalanche observations made on the 6th and 7th. Professionals reported numerous avalanches in places that they hadn't previously observed avalanches and some paths avalanched multiple times in a 24 hour period. Observers reported a few very large (size D2.5-3) avalanches, originating at upper elevations with deeper crowns that likely formed from wind drifting. Topping off an active couple of days, warming temperatures lead to a widespread loose wet avalanche cycle.
The southern Washington Cascades, the Wentachee Mountains and Mt. Hood either saw less precipitation, warmer temperatures leading to more rain than snow, or some combination of the two and ended up with relatively less active avalanche conditions than areas further north.
A large natural avalanche on Rock Mountain near Berne along Hwy 2 east of Stevens Pass that released Jan 6th or 7th. Photo: Josh Hirshberg 1/7/20
Many small storm slabs released in the Crystal backcountry 1/6-1/7. Pinwheels in the photo suggest loose wet avalanche activity occurred when temperatures rose above freezing and snow turned to rain.
Another active and colder weather pattern is on it’s way. Enjoy yourself out there and be sure to check the forecast before heading out. Remember, NWAC is a community-supported avalanche center and when you submit an observation you make the forecast better!
It’s getting deeper! Photo: Jeremy Allyn
With winds set to ramp up Wednesday, expect wind slabs to develop on leeward slopes and on the sides of gullies. With east winds in the forecast, loading patterns may be different than what you are used to. Wind Slabs are much harder than the low-density snow we have been dealing with the past few days, are often smooth and rounded, and may sound hollow. Watch for wind stiffened snow, shooting cracks, and changing surface textures as clues that wind slabs are present. Avoid all slopes where you notice these signs or suspect wind loading.
Release of a cohesive layer of snow (a slab) formed by the wind. Wind typically transports snow from the upwind sides of terrain features and deposits snow on the downwind side. Wind slabs are often smooth and rounded and sometimes sound hollow, and can range from soft to hard. Wind slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.
Wind Slabs form in specific areas, and are confined to lee and cross-loaded terrain features. They can be avoided by sticking to sheltered or wind-scoured areas..
Wind Slab avalanche. Winds blew from left to right. The area above the ridge has been scoured, and the snow drifted into a wind slab on the slope below.
Wind slabs can take up to a week to stabilize. They are confined to lee and cross-loaded terrain features and can be avoided by sticking to sheltered or wind scoured areas.
Loose Dry avalanches start at a point and fan out as they move downhill. Humans, treebombs, or snow falling off cliffs can initiate a Loose Dry and it may entrain lots of snow as it travels downhill, possibly triggering slabs. Be aware of where you are in terrain and avoid stopping underneath steep slopes or near terrain traps. Cold temperatures and low-density snowfall during this storm has prevented slabs from forming as much as we are accustomed to. That doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Observations still tell us that slabs are lingering, so you should keep them on your radar. Unsupported slopes, large terrain features steeper than 35 degrees, and any slopes with evidence of wind-drifted snow have a higher likelihood of avalanches and should be avoided.
With significant storm totals in the past week, deep snow alone can be dangerous. Make sure to travel with a partner and to be aware of the danger. You can learn more at www.deepsnowsafety.org.
Release of dry unconsolidated snow. These avalanches typically occur within layers of soft snow near the surface of the snowpack. Loose Dry avalanches start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. Other names for loose-dry avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose Dry avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.
Loose Dry avalanches are usually relatively harmless to people. They can be hazardous if you are caught and carried into or over a terrain trap (e.g. gully, rocks, dense timber, cliff, crevasse) or down a long slope. Avoid traveling in or above terrain traps when Loose Dry avalanches are likely.
Loose Dry avalanche with the characteristic point initiation and fan shape.
Loose dry avalanches exist throughout the terrain, release at or below the trigger point, and can run in densely-treed areas. Avoid very steep slopes and terrain traps such as cliffs, gullies, or tree wells.
Valid until: Jan 16th, 2020 12:49AM