I am not a professionally trained, experienced forecaster, slash practioner, slash snow geek…but I am a born and raised Alaskan who has been here more than six decades and loves to recreate in the snow. And I did spend more than 15 years of my working career hanging out with these said professionals as their company director. So I think I know a snowpack lasagna building when I see one.
Don’t get me wrong, I value and appreciate the professionals who dig pits and stare at snowflakes through magnified loops to tell us what’s happening in the snowpack so people like me and my friends don’t get buried. I highly recommend them to everyone I know. If you plan to get out in the mountains this winter and spring you should definitely make your number one starting spot be websites like https://alaskasnow.org www://hpavalanche.org and https://cnfaic.org. Even better, take an avalanche class or attend a workshop.
Trust me, you’ll learn something no matter what you do or how experienced you think you are. This year it doesn’t take a snow geek hat to tell me that we are building an interesting lasagna of layers that could prove to be challenging at best and potentially fatal at its worst.
So right or wrong, I feel compelled to share stories in an effort to do all I can to warn people about the importance of paying attention to what’s happening with the weather and our growing snowpack.
We ended 2019 and started 2020 with wild temperature swings and lots of snow. The thermometer jumped from minus ten to 40 above zero. This created puddles of water on layers of ice that froze when the temperature suddenly dropped back to 20 degrees and then turned to a smooth icy polish when it got blasted by 25 to 50 mph arctic winds. Add on another layer of six to 12 inches of light sugary powder snow. After this it stayed cold a few days and preserved the snow until it once again warmed up to 45 degrees and started the layers all over. I tried to walk up my driveway on New Year’s eve and could get zero traction with the falling rain and melting snow on the base of ice.
By morning, New Year’s day, the temperature dropped back down to 10 degrees turning the rain back to cold dry powder piling on another four to six inches. When I walked on the lake I discovered a one-inch layer of crusted slush on top of the ice buried and insulated by the last snow fall. When my sister tried to get out of her car later that day she nearly fell on her butt from the ice under the snow.
Today the skies are clear and it’s a brisk minus 20. Nothing is moving. Only hoar frost is growing on the snow surface, waiting to get buried and become another weak layer in the snowpack.
I have an avalanche slope on my house that so far is holding all those layers in place. But I know from my six plus decades of experience in Alaska, as soon as the temperature starts to warm up and that top layer begins to morph and liquefy, it will get heavy and the slightest trigger will set it off to slide right off that polished first layer of my metal roof; Or as my snow geek friends would describe it, a persistent weak layer. This is often an icy wind blasted layer buried under snow on the mountain slopes. The snow will be different no matter where you are so you need to check before you commit.
There have been far too many fatal avalanches in Hatcher Pass and around Alaska for anyone that is not a fool to think it can’t happen to them. Believe me, It can. It’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t.
When you do decide to head for the slopes, you are wise to check the cookbook of websites to see what has gone into the snow lasagna recipe to date. Visit the national weather service, avalanche.org and the Alaska websites mentioned above for local area information.
Support your local avalanche center and take the time to attend a lecture, workshop, or class. Join a snowriders club or group to meet likeminded snow lovers. There is also the option of spending some time on websites that help you know how to prepare and learn what to watch for when traveling in the mountains. You’ll find a host of great educational videos from backcountry access at https://backcountryaccess.com/bca-avalanche-rescue/
Honestly, I love skiing on snow as much as eating lasagna. I want to bind on my skis, dig out my fork, and chow down. But I also want to know exactly what is in those layers of tempting goodness so I don’t end up with any nasty surprises like chunky ricotta cheese or a sliding avalanche of snow.
Here’s to a great season of snow riding and delicious lasagna.
Debra McGhan is the executive director of the Alaska Avalanche Information Center.