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Olympics

Issued: 6:19 PM PST Wednesday, February 20, 2019
by Robert Hahn

An estimated 3-6” of new snow fell in the Hurricane Ridge area. Light winds may have formed isolated wind slabs. Recent weak snow has been identified in the snowpack and this low-probability, the high-consequence problem is likely to be the primary influence on your terrain selection.

Danger Scalei
  • No Rating (Info Avail)
  • Low (1)
  • Moderate (2)
  • Considerable (3)
  • High (4)
  • Extreme (5)

Hurricane ridge did not receive enough snow and wind to impact avalanche hazard significantly on Wednesday and there are few weather inputs on Thursday. If the sun comes out, expect small loose wet avalanches on steep slopes and small loose dry avalanches should be managed on steep northerly aspects.

The new storm snow may have buried the reported widespread 3-4 mm surface hoar reported on all aspects Monday.

A mix of weak faceted snow and buried surface hoar are preserved about 2-3 ft below the surface as of Monday, Feb. 18th. This interface was identified in snow pits on a north aspect by NPS rangers as recently as President’s Day.

Of note, however, there were no human triggered avalanches reported to this depth over the weekend in the Hurricane Ridge area. The structure remains for persistent slab avalanches but are becoming harder to find and less likely to trigger over time.

February 20th, 2019

Recap

We’re now over a week out from a major winter storm and avalanche cycle 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.

In the days after the natural cycle, it was obvious that you could trigger an avalanche. Large crowns were visible and you could feel and hear collapses in many zones. Managing your risk was easy. Avoid avalanche terrain. 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.

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, Complexity, and Manag

As the time moves on and the snowpack structure changes, we’re seeing the potential for triggering avalanches change as well. The February 8th layer is rounding (strengthening) and the likelihood of triggering an avalanche on it is decreasing. so much so that the problem is trending to unlikely in some regions. Unfortunately, the consequences (size and destructive potential) remain the same if you do trigger an avalanche on this layer.

These conditions are commonly described as "low probability - high consequence" scenarios. Under these circumstances, common clues may paint a conflicting picture and snowpack tests become even more difficult to interpret (snowpack tests often don’t give us a clear “go or no-go” answer, if such a thing exists).

Q: How do we manage our risk when observations are contradictory and difficult to interpret?

A: When avalanche conditions are complicated, defer to less consequential and simpler terrain to manage your risk. Prioritize obvious clues, like recent avalanches, shooting cracks, or collapses. Focus on other observations that indicate a potential to trigger avalanches. Snowpack tests are just one piece of the decision-making puzzle. Lean on them as reasons to reduce your group's exposure to avalanche terrain. Don’t use them to justify traveling in more consequential terrain.

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

Case Study

On the 17th I dug a profile, east of Stevens Pass on a north-northeast aspect at 4,127ft. I found the February 8th facets (0.5-1.5mm) rounding and buried 59cm from the surface. After much investigation, I found the following results at the February 8th interface: CTH (SP), ECTN28, 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 I made indicated that triggering an avalanche was likely, but some did not. Depending on your interpretation, some results could be argued either way. Confusing, right?

With all of this data in my filed book, it was the collapse that stuck out. It was enough evidence for me to avoid slopes steeper than 35 degrees. That was a more obvious answer than all the other 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.

No Corresponding Mountain Weather Forecast Available