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West Slopes South - South of I-90 to Columbia River

Issued: 6:00 PM PST Sunday, March 26, 2017
by Kenny Kramer

NWAC avalanche forecasts apply to backcountry avalanche terrain in the Olympics, Washington Cascades and Mt Hood area. These forecasts do not apply to developed ski areas, avalanche terrain affecting highways and higher terrain on the volcanic peaks above the Cascade crest level.

Fresh wind slabs and cornices will be the main problem Monday. Loose-wet avalanches will become likely on steeper sun exposed slopes during extended sun breaks Monday. Keep terrain selection simple and conservative. Cornices have recently proven dangerous and unpredictable and capable of triggering very large avalanches. 

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Avalanche Problems for Monday

Wind Slabi

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.

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Cornicesi

Cornices are easy to identify and are confined to lee and cross-loaded ridges, sub-ridges, and sharp convexities. They are easiest to trigger during periods of rapid growth (new snow and wind), rapid warming, and during rain-on-snow events. Cornices often catch people by surprise when they break farther back onto flatter areas than expected.

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Loose Weti

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.

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Snowpack Analysis:

Special Note: For more information on the massive natural cornice triggered avalanche on the north side of Ruby Mountain on Sunday 3/19 and general thoughts about low-likelihood/high consequence avalanches, please see NWAC's blog post issued, Sunday, March 26. 

Weather and Snowpack

The first week or so of March was very cool and snowy. NWAC stations along the west slopes of the Cascades piled up about 3 to 8 ft of snow with the most at Mt Baker.

The 2nd week of March was equally active with non-stop Pacific frontal systems pummeling the PNW. Unfortunately, these systems delivered far more rain than snow. At least two regional avalanche cycles occurred during the stretch. Significant snowpack consolidation occurred over this period due to rainfall and warmer temperatures. 

A strong low pressure system brought several inches of rain to the west slopes of the Cascades outside the Cascade Passes on Friday, 3/17 and caused another wet snow avalanche cycle in the Mt. Baker area Friday night into early Saturday morning. 

This past week has also been active weather-wise, but water amounts/snowfall totals have been slightly lower relative to the extreme wetness of the past few weeks. In the last 4 days ending Sunday evening, Mt. Baker and Paradise have picked up 2-3 feet of snow, Crystal 20" with 10-15" or less in the Passes.

Daily early spring warming temperatures have allowed surface snow melt and consolidation, helping to settle storm layers quickly.  

Recent Observations

North

NWAC pro-observer Lee Lazzara was in the Mt. Baker backcountry on Thursday. Lee found the newest 10" (25 cm) of snow bonding well with the underlying moist snow. He observed evidence of two natural wind slab releases on east aspects of Mt. Herman near treeline. Storm slabs were possible in isolated areas of steep terrain, but not widespread. Mt. The Baker pro - patrol had minimal results during control work Thursday morning with a few pockets of stubborn wind slab noted. The Baker pro-patrol reported a skier triggered, loose wet avalanche on the Shuskan Arm Thursday. The slide caught and carried the skier 150 yards and into trees, resulting in serious but not life-threatening injuries. 

The Mt Baker patrol reported sensitive, but more isolated, controlled storm slab avalanches Saturday, involving the 6-8" of overnight storm snow.

Lee was in the Mt Baker backcountry again Saturday. Storm snow remained quite good on shaded terrain with low density surface snow gaining density with depth. Near and above treeline (above about 4500 feet) on shaded terrain there was about 20 inches of lovely early spring powder. In open terrain, older wind slabs were noted buried under the most recent storm snow, but gained strength through the day with gradual daytime warming and settling. No triggered slides of consequence were observed. Below 4500 feet, moist, heavier surface snow was making shallow, loose-wet slides possible.  

Central

The Alpental patrol on Wednesday reported about 2 additional inches of new moist or wet snow on the thick crust with triggered small loose wet avalanches remaining possible.

NWAC's Matt Schonwald was in the Alpental Valley Saturday and identified about 14-18 inches of storm snow over the past few days had a favorable density profile. There was evidence of shallow storm slabs being triggered earlier in the day, but gained significant strength through the day. On solar aspects daytime warming caused shallow, loose-wet slides, mostly D1, up to D1.5.  

South

NWAC pro-observer Jeremy Allyn was out in the Paradise area on Thursday and found wind distributed snow variably spread across the compass near treeline. Wind slab was not particularly sensitive but up to 80 cm deep in places. Some windward aspects were scoured to the most recent rain crust. Sunshine on Thursday did not cause loose wet avalanches. Also of note but above our forecast area, serac fall had triggered a larger slab avalanche in the vicinity of the Furher Finger/Wilson Headwall, likely within the last 24-48 hours.    

On Friday, as the snow-line crept up during the day natural loose wet avalanches occurred along the Paradise Road above 5000'.  NPS rangers estimated the loose wet slides entraining about 8-10" of the recent storm snow. 

The Crystal pro - patrol reported sensitive and widespread 8-12" storm slabs Friday, particularly on lee slopes during morning control work. Similar to Paradise, as temperatures warmed Friday skier triggered, loose wet avalanches became the biggest hazard below about 5500 feet on steeper slopes. Frequent NWAC contributor Shane Robinson reported widespread natural activity in the Crystal backcountry seen during a brief clearing in the afternoon, consisting of natural loose wet and storm slab activity on steep slopes. 

Jeremy Allyn was in the Crystal BC Saturday, in Lakes Basin and near Norse Peak. Recent storm snow varied widely based upon elevation and aspect with up to 20 inches of storm snow or more near and above treeline on non-solar terrain, over the hard rain crust from last weekend. Many steep north aspects within the terrain had been skied both earlier and on Saturday with no triggered avalanches noted. Test profiles and snowpack tests at 6400 feet on a NW aspect below ridgeline, identified weak faceted snow,both above and below the rain crust buried about 20 inches in that location.  

The main takeaway in this area is that cornices are very large and storm snow amounts are highly variable. Pay attention to your local snowpack conditions as there is a lot of snow available to be involved in a slide in some areas, such as a small triggered slide releasing a deeper pocket making large avalanches possible. A cornice failure could also trigger a large and dangerous avalanche. 

Detailed Forecast for Monday:

Rain and snow late Sunday should change to showers with cooling overnight. Showers and moderate ridgetop winds should persist early Monday before tapering late Monday. This should maintain unstable wind slabs on lee slopes below ridges, in exposed terrain near and especially above treeline. 

Recent winds have been mostly SW-S-SE, so firmer wind slab should be found mainly on W-N-E slopes near and above treeline. However, due to terrain effects, wind slabs may have formed on a variety of aspects 

Recent cornices are very large. Make sure to avoid areas on ridges where there may be an overhanging cornice as well as travel on steep slopes below cornices! Natural cornice releases and resulting slab avalanches are unpredictable. See a blog post regarding cornices here.