Northwest Avalanche Center NWAC, Northwest Avalanche Center

Cascades - South West Avalanche Forecast

Jan 18th, 2020 10:00AM

The alpine rating is considerable, the treeline rating is considerable, and the below treeline rating is considerable. Known problems include Storm Slabs and Loose Wet.

We have a large amount of uncertainty about how the weather forecast will play out on Sunday. Avalanche hazard typically peaks during periods of rapid change, so make time for snowpack and weather observations throughout the day. You may experience changing conditions as the day proceeds with warm, wet weather changing the snow stability in a number of ways.

Summary

Snowpack Discussion

January 16th, 2020 (The regional synopsis is updated every Thursday @ 6 pm)

In the past week and a half, there have been five avalanche fatalities in three separate accidents in the US. 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.

From January 9th to 16th the Pacific Northwest slid into deep winter. A cold and snowy regime brought a nearly continuous barrage of storms through the area. Temperatures bottomed out as modified arctic air made its way south from interior Canada, and many stations recorded the lowest temperatures of the season so far. A snowpack has been growing at lower elevations due to some lowland snow on both sides of the Cascades.  NWAC’s snow depth climatology report shows most stations have surpassed average depths on the ground for this time of year. Quite the comeback from two weeks ago, when most were at 25-64% of normal. 

Location

Total Snow Depth (in) 1/8/20

Total Snow Depth (in) 1/16/20

Hurricane Ridge

51

91

Heather Meadows Mt Baker

95

126

Stevens Pass

63

85

Snoqualmie Pass

33

77

Mission Ridge Mid Mtn

18

28

Crystal Mt Green Valley

66

92

Paradise Mt Rainier

105

138

White Pass Upper

69

110

Timberline

57

118

Mt Hood Meadows

53

98

Snow depths continued to rise. Total snow depths doubled in some locations.

The mountains went through a period of prolonged dangerous to very dangerous conditions as the snow kept coming. Many locations picked up over a foot of new snow per day for a number of days in a row, and storm slab instability was widely experienced across the region. At times, instabilities within new snow layers were very reactive, and you didn’t have to do much to provoke an avalanche. Many people triggered small to large soft slab avalanches, even well below treeline. The cold temperatures tended to preserve these instabilities longer than usual during this time. 

Small ski triggered storm slab near Mt Hood Meadows. January 11, 2020. Scott Norton photo.

This cold, low density snow was also susceptible to wind drifting as westerly winds buffeted the alpine zone from the 8th to the 15th. On the 15th the mean winds shifted, and a south and east wind event disturbed the powder on open, exposed terrain near the passes and at upper elevations throughout the region. This created wind slab problems in some unusual locations.

Wind slabs formed over the low density powder snow. Mt Baker Backcountry. January 15, 2020. Zack McGill photo.

Trailbreaking in undisturbed snow was often very deep and difficult. In most places at any point in the week you could step off your skis or machine and sink in up to your chest in deep powder snow. The deep snow presented hazards of its own such as tree wells, and made it very easy to get stuck on a machine or lose a ski. Many folks experienced excellent, deep powder conditions and stuck to conservative terrain choices. 

-MP

A cold winter’s day over the Chiwaukum Range, from Stevens Pass. Matt Primomo photo.

Problems

Storm Slabs

An icon showing Storm Slabs

Likelihood

likely

Expected Size

1 - 1

Warming temperatures on Saturday started to transform our cold dry snowpack and recent snow into heavier storm slabs sitting atop lighter snow. Further warming and more precipitation on Sunday may continue to develop this upside-down snowpack structure, maintaining dangerous avalanche conditions on slopes greater than 35 degrees. Areas of wind deposited snow still linger from the strong winds on Thursday and Friday, allowing for thicker slabs. Take the time to investigate the upper snowpack structure, using test slopes and hand pits to see if you have heavy snow over weak snow.

Release of a soft cohesive layer (a slab) of new snow that breaks within the storm snow or on the old snow surface. Storm-slab problems typically last between a few hours and few days. Storm-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.

 

You can reduce your risk from Storm Slabs by waiting a day or two after a storm before venturing into steep terrain. Storm slabs are most dangerous on slopes with terrain traps, such as timber, gullies, over cliffs, or terrain features that make it difficult for a rider to escape off the side.

 

Storm slabs usually stabilize within a few days, and release at or below the trigger point. They exist throughout the terrain, and can be avoided by waiting for the storm snow to stabilize.

Aspects:

All aspects.

Elevations:

All elevations.

Loose Wet

An icon showing Loose Wet

Likelihood

likely

Expected Size

1 - 1

As temperatures rise on Sunday, even after the possibility of rain ends, expect heavy snow and natural avalanches. If there is more rain, sun exposure, or warming than expected, this cycle will be more widespread. Loose Wet avalanches often start at a point and can entrain lots of snow as they travel downhill, even triggering slabs as they descend. Rollerballs, pinwheels, and fan-shapes avalanche debris are signs that Loose Wet avalanches are possible. Steer around slopes greater than 35 degrees and avoid terrain traps such as creeks, gullies, or cliffs if you notice these signs or witness rain on snow.

Release of wet unconsolidated snow or slush. These avalanches typically occur within layers of wet snow near the surface of the snowpack, but they may quickly gouge into lower snowpack layers. Like Loose Dry avalanches, they start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. They generally move slowly, but can contain enough mass to cause significant damage to trees, cars or buildings. Other names for loose-wet avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose Wet avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.

 

Travel when the snow surface is colder and stronger. Plan your trips to avoid crossing on or under very steep slopes in the afternoon. Move to colder, shadier slopes once the snow surface turns slushly. Avoid steep, sunlit slopes above terrain traps, cliffs areas and long sustained steep pitches.

 

Several loose wet avalanches, and lots of pinwheels and roller balls.

Loose wet avalanches occur where water is running through the snowpack, and release at or below the trigger point. Avoid terrain traps such as cliffs, gullies, or tree wells. Exit avalanche terrain when you see pinwheels, roller balls, a slushy surface, or during rain-on-snow events.

Aspects:

All aspects.

Elevations:

All elevations.

Valid until: Jan 19th, 2020 10:00AM