West Slopes North - Canadian Border to Skagit River

Issued: 6:00 PM PST Wednesday, February 20, 2019
by Andrew Kiefer

Northerly winds on Wednesday night may be strong enough to transport the recent snow and create fresh wind slabs. Leeward slopes 35 degrees and steeper will be the most dangerous. Continue to evaluate snow and terrain carefully as a buried persistent weak layer still lingers.

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Snow and Avalanche Discussion

The recent storm brought 8in (.35in SWE) of very low-density snow to the Mt. Baker area on Tuesday night. Observers in the Bagley Lakes area on Wednesday reported the new snow to be cohesionless in wind sheltered areas. A few shallow slab avalanches (D1) released naturally within new snow in very steep terrain. Fresh wind slabs and blowing snow were visible at the highest elevations. With clearing and sunshine in the morning, small loose avalanches were reported in steep rocky terrain. Loose wet activity may continue on steep solar aspects. Strong northerly winds should blow overnight on Wednesday, and a clear, cool, calm day is expected Thursday.

The new snow buried a weak old snow surface comprised of facets, crusts, and surface hoar. On Wednesday, not enough of a slab was sitting on this layer for it to be a significant concern. But, with winds in the forecast Wednesday night, and more snow expected by the weekend, a cohesive slab may build incrementally. Track this layer closely - it may become a lasting problem.

Feathery surface hoar (6-8mm) found in the Twin Lakes/Hwy 542 area. 02/17/19 Anjin Herndon Photo

Avalanche Problems for Thursday

Wind Slabi

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Photo for Wind Slab

Natural Wind Slab (2/17/2019)

Plenty of low-density snow is available for transport. So far, very little wind has accompanied the new snow, except at the highest elevations. Winds may blow the strongest overnight on Wednesday and form fresh slabs in leeward terrain near and above treeline - be careful, these fresh slabs could form on weak old snow surfaces. Old wind slabs still exist under the new snow, but are becoming stubborn to trigger. Look for signs of wind transported snow such as textured snow surfaces, drifting, or fresh cornices. If you see these features, expect wind slabs on nearby slopes. The new snow may remain unconsolidated in wind sheltered and lower elevation areas - watch for loose dry avalanches.


Persistent Slabi

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Observations over the past week targeting the buried persistent weak layer have been highly variable. It appears our persistent slab problem is isolated and is becoming stubborn to trigger. Continue to dig down to investigate this layer buried 2-3 feet below the snow surface. On colder shaded slopes, the culprit seems to be buried surface hoar. On sunnier aspects, we are finding small facets over a crust. Obvious signs of instability such as collapses or shooting cracks have been uncommon. Digging in the snow is the best way to define where this layer may be problematic.


February 19th, 2019


We’re now over a week out from a major winter storm and avalanche cycle, February 9-13th, that left a string of school cancellations and avalanche near misses in its wake. As with snowfall amounts, the avalanche cycles have been similar, but not identical in all regions. The further we’re getting from the peak of the cycle, the more variation in avalanche conditions we’re seeing between regions and even within individual zones. Variable snow totals from storms this week are further adding to the range of conditions you will encounter. In some places, these storms may add stress to existing weak layers.

Since the natural avalanche cycle of the 11-12th quieted down, the main concern for avalanches has focussed on the February 8th facets in regions where the weak layer is problematic. In the days after the natural cycle all observations, including rumbling collapses, remote triggering, and snowpack tests screamed, “avalanche!”

A natural persistent slab (D2) on a north aspect at 4200ft low in Glacier Creek drainage (Hwy 542). 02/13/19 Lee Lazzara Photo

Variability and Mixed Messages

As the facets and surrounding snowpack structure changes, we’re seeing the potential for triggering avalanches change, as well. Now, the likelihood of triggering persistent slab avalanches is decreasing. In some regions, the problem is trending to unlikely. Meanwhile, the consequences (size and destructive potential) remain significant, if not the same.

Time has helped round the February 8th facets. No longer will every clue give a resounding answer as to whether or not you can trigger an avalanche. To complicate things, observations like snowpack tests can be notoriously difficult to interpret, requiring a lot of time practicing good snow-craft. Snowpack tests often don’t give us a clear “go or no-go” answer, if such a thing exists.

Q: How do we interpret observations that are contradictory, when some point at the potential to trigger avalanches and others indicate better stability?

A: Focus on the observations that show the potential to trigger avalanches. Look for obvious clues, like recent avalanches, shooting cracks, or collapses. Prioritize observations that indicate triggering (initiation) and propagation.

A natural persistent slab avalanche (D2), likely occured on 2/12 on southwest through southeast aspects of Windy Mountain at 5,400ft in the Tye River drainage. Photo: Dan Veenhuizen.

Case Study

In a recent profile, east of Stevens Pass, I found the February 8th facets (0.5-1.5mm) rounding and buried 59cm from the surface. The results of the profile were:



PST 45/100 (END)

5 yellow flags (structural indicators)

Later that day, about 2000 linear feet away from the profile site at the same elevation and slightly different aspect, we experienced a massive rumbling collapse.

All this crypto snow-speak means that some of the observations pointed towards triggering an avalanche was likely, but some did not. Confusing, right? 

With all of this data in my head, it was the collapse that stuck out. That was enough evidence for me to avoid slopes steeper than 35 degrees. That was a more obvious answer than all the other pieces of data I gathered and it’s the easiest to interpret. Without the collapse, I would have prioritized the test results that indicated I could have triggered a slide. If only snowpack tests would give you the sinking feeling of almost triggering an avalanche that you get from a rumbling collapse...

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