The San Juan Outdoor School is currently providing a comprehensive level one avalanche course led by owner John Butson. After day two of three we have learned quite a bit. The group definitely feels more comfortable analyzing the San Juan snowpack and with beacon searches. A lot of the course has been a refresher but is much needed for me and many others. For instance, after hearing of Avalung buckles failing and packs flying off in slides, I checked mine and sure enough it was cracked. Then, after my first beacon search I realized my probe is not functioning correctly- the sheath between two sections is jammed in the middle. This is a great reminder to check you gear. Anyone using lithium batteries in their beacon? Don’t. Use alkaline instead. These gear checks are a necessity, sometimes we get complacent but it can be a life or death issue. Enough with the housekeeping and onto the snow science.
We have been carefully analyzing the factors that cause avalanches, weather, terrain and snowpack and have come to the consensus that the San Juans are ideal for creating avalanche conditions. We have a relatively shallow snowpack, lots of sunshine creating rapid warming and very cold nights, creating surface hoar. We also tend to have a lot of wind after our storms and light snow which is easily deposited onto leeward aspects. All this was explained hilariously by Jon Miller, a guide with the outdoor school and a real character. Today we dug pits and examined the snowpack more extensively and had a realistic rescue scenario with 5 burials as well. We found some very interesting observations.
Studying Depth Hoar at Ground Level
First of all, a realistic rescue scenario is much different than finding beacons in the yard or at home. Get on some real terrain to practice and try to find a victim without a beacon, just by probing. It is tough! With a group mentality, everyone is running around unorganized and panicking, even in a fake scenario. When there are multiple burials, it pulls people in different directions. Beacon and probe lines are recommended with five or more rescuers. Have a group leader to command orders.
Examining the Layers From Our Winter’s Weather
Digging the snowpits and doing the rutchblock test was the most interesting part of the course for me so far and I could see myself being a snow geek at some point down the road. We found a scary depth hoar at ground level that contained large square crystals and had the consistency of sugar. This finally failed after two full shoulder compressions and is not something to worry about now, but will be with some significant snowfall.
Depth Hoar Crystals
We did see a soft slab failure after just a few hand compressions which also could be an issue down the road as well. The next storm cycle will be interesting- they are calling for 1-2 feet and things are going to start moving on this layer. There is a sketchy facet about 6-8″ down.
CT3 Failure, our predominant sketchy layer after we get more snow
All in all, the class has been a great experience so far. My classmates are all cool backcountry enthusiasts and the instructors are hilarious and knowledgeable. The beacon practice and ‘real’ feel scenarios have been very helpful and the snowpit sure looked a lot different than the ones in AK! Here we need to become comfortable with the facets and trust our judgment, monitoring weather and hoar layers closely and trusting the ‘sugar’ underneath. We will always be skiing in moderate or considerable conditions here until spring, so snow science is very important in the San Juans. Thanks to Josh, Jon, Karl and all the other instructors for helping us to understand this crazy snowpack better!
By: Brian Horton