Plan a Ski Tour
There's a lot that goes into planning a great day in the mountains. From weather and avalanche conditions to partners and route selection, each factor plays an important role in planning a ski tour. More often than not, we glorify the the result of the day, rather than the prep work that got us there. In this post, we'll look at the following variables and decisions that are key to safety and fun, so that you can plan a radical ski tour of your own:
Weather dictates everything. From objectives and avalanche conditions, to partners and vibes. I am ALWAYS monitoring the weather. In short, what has it been doing/what will it do? But rather than look one forecast and call it good, I like to monitor at a variety of weather forecasts to develop a better understanding of the approaching systems. In other words, I want to see similarities between models. If you look at four different forecasts and only one calls for sun, chances are slim that the sun is going to play a factor in your day.
Here are four of my go-to websites for looking at the weather:
Ski resort based, this model excels at visuals. I find myself paying attention to the following variables: Wind speed and direction, freezing levels, and general precip (light vs heavy). Wind speed and direction let me think about snow transport and the development of wind slabs. Generally, wind speeds above 15-20mph can pickup and transport snow. Knowing these allows me to avoid leeward or cross loaded slopes. Next, I find that freezing levels are more helpful to look at when compared to specific temperatures. In other words, if the freezing level is hovering around mid mountain and there is precip in the forecast, I would expect the precip to be wet (rain or snow). General precip forecasts will give you an idea of when the storm will be heaviest, in addition to what kind of visibility you can expect. The precipitation amounts aren't always the most accurate, but they can still be helpful for planning.
Example: The above forecast for the Mt Baker Ski Area (and backcountry) shows light winds and light precip over the next four days (Friday to Monday). Since it hasn't snowed in a while, there is currently a crust on most aspects in this zone. Looking at the temperatures and freezing levels forecasted, I can see that the next four days will be generally wet. In other words, the snow forecasted should bond reasonably well to the current crust, versus a storm that comes in with freezing levels at 0ft. That said, if I'm looking at a ski tour above the forecasted freezing levels, I may find that the new snow isn't bonded quite as well (due to colder temperatures).
Windy is one of the most powerful forecasting tools I have found. While there are many variables that can be turned on + off, I find myself looking most often at these: Radar, point specific forecasts, and comparable forecasts. The radar imagery on Windy is beautiful and gives the viewer a general idea of big systems. This is specifically useful in the Northwest as we look to see if the next storm is coming from Northern Pacific or further south. The radar is great at showing warming and cooling, wind speed and direction, and precipitation loads . Next, I tend to use the point forecast (elevation and location specific) for destinations that I cannot find on Snow-Forecast. After all, most backcountry skiing isn't attached to a ski resort. The point forecast generates 6 comparable forecasts, all with their own unique capabilities. This 6-in-1 forecast is a great tool for developing a better understanding of the weather trend.
Example: Looking at the above forecast for Saturday, we can see that the winds vary by model. GFS 22km, ECMWF 9km, and ICON 13km, forecast southerly winds from 1-5kt. METEOBLUE, NAM 5km, and HRRR CONUS 3km, forecast southerly winds from 8-17kt. The southerly winds are consistent across all forecasts (as well as Snow-Forecast), however the speeds are different. If I were to plan a tour on Saturday, I would probably expect to see the winds be somewhere in the middle (around 8-9kt), with a possibility of afternoon gusts. For reference, 1 knot = 1.15 mph.
This government run weather forecast is the gold standard in some ways, but outdated in others. I look at this forecast for another comparison variable, but prefer Windy and Snow-Forecast for visuals and specifics. NOAA is great at giving a general weather discussion, as well as a range for precipitation levels.
NWAC / Your local avalanche forecast
The Northwest Avalanche Center has an incredible wealth of information that allow backcountry users to make informed decisions based on real data. They have a number of weather stations throughout Washington and Oregon that collect and upload real time information, so that we can quantify what's happening in the mountains without the use of a webcam. This telemetry is extremely useful for understanding what the HAS BEEN doing, rather than what it WILL DO. When planning a ski tour, it is arguably more important to understand the past, rather than try to predict the future. When lookin at the telemetry on NWAC, I tend to focus on [actual] snow accumulation and the corresponding temperatures, Snow Water Equivalent (SWE), and wind speed/direction. This data helps me understand the actual weather vs what was forecasted. By keeping tabs on the telemetry and comparing the numbers to different forecasts, you should be able to learn which forecasts are more reliable for your region.
In addition to the above telemetry, NWAC has data available in 7-day graph form. I find this extremely useful for understanding the latest storm cycles and it's affect on the snowpack.
Weather in SUMMARY:
Always be taking data points. Whether you're looking at the weather on a daily or weekly basis, skiing every day or once a month, having knowledge of what the weather has been doing will allow you to make better decisions, and plan bigger adventures in complex terrain. BONUS - if you're planning a trip to a new region or zone, monitor the weather for the weeks or month prior to develop a historical map of the snowpack, persistent layers, and crusts. If you know what to expect, you'll be less likely to be caught off guard by surprises.
Now that you have a tight grip on the weather history and forecast, you'll need to use that knowledge to assess the avalanche conditions for your desired tour.
Things to consider:
- What are the problem layers? Slab, crust, buried surface hoar, etc.
- Where can I ski based on what I know? Aspect, elevation, zones, etc. OPENING and CLOSING slopes before the day begins.
- Will conditions change throughout the day/trip, and how will this affect avalanche conditions?
One of the most helpful things I've learned in the last year has been OPENING and CLOSING slopes based on avalanche conditions. By saying that slopes above 30 degrees are off limits tomorrow, I can eliminate the human factor of getting into the backcountry and seeing a steep, untracked slope, and wanting to ski it. This also helps my group stick to a plan, rather than going out to "See what we see."
While obvious, always read your local avalanche forecast before planning a tour. And when I say read, I mean read the avalanche discussion, and look at recent observations. Too many people simply look at the rating and problems and make a decision based off that.
Example: The forecast rating for tomorrow is moderate at all elevations. That said, upon reading the avalanche discussion, you learn that there are isolated pockets of wind slabs above 6000ft (where the previous storm layer isn't as well bonded). The possibility of triggering this layer is unlikely, but it has the potential to be large. So, if I was considering a tour above 6000ft, I would probably avoid exposed slopes of consequence, or consider spacing on such slopes to limit my group's exposure. While there are a number of factors that go into planning a ski tour, the one of upmost importance is to do it safely. Nothing else matters if you don't make it home alive.
Takeaway: Continually further your avalanche education. Don't just take one avalanche course and call it good. Read, discuss, and stay up on what's happening in your neck of the woods. Look at observations and compare them with your knowledge of the weather to plan a tour that keeps you safe, while having fun.
Since most of us don't travel alone in the backcountry, choosing a ski partner is critical to staying safe and having fun. Recently, there have been a lot of discussions about the "Human Factor" in the backcountry, and how that contributes to decision making. In short, a big part of staying safe in the backcountry is attributed to who we choose as partners. Let's look at a handful of variables that will help you plan a successful ski tour.
- Ability? If skiing ability is different from yours, set realistic expectations.
- Risk tolerance? THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. Choosing a partner with a similar risk tolerance will help limit awkward moments, peer pressure, and help to keep your group safe.
- Experience in the backcountry? Think about transition times and skinning techniques. While automatic for some, these aspects can take up to a lot more time than planned. If you're learning or teaching, be patient.
- Fitness? Downhill muscles are quite different from uphill muscles. If you're going with someone new to touring, you might want to choose a shorter route, with low commitment.
- New or old partner? New partners can fall into a trap of wanting to impress and/or keeping to themselves. Be aware of the "Human Factor" when touring with someone new. The ideal partner should feel comfortable having open conversations, move through the mountains at a similar pace, and bringing extra snacks (ha!).
The equipment you take or have at your disposal can dictate where you travel in the backcountry. The equipment you'll need is dependent on the length of the tour, weather, and difficulty. Take something as basic as skis. If you're planning a tour that covers 12 miles in a day, you're going to be able to travel faster (and potentially safer) with a light pair of skis, rather than your go-to powder boards. Obvious, I know. However, consider a 2 mile day, with a foot of cold, freshly fallen snow, on a hard crust. It's tempting to bring the powder boards, but you may want to bring the light skis because of ski crampon compatibility on the uphill. The wrong tools can make an otherwise fun day, extremely challenging. Other equipment considerations include:
- Glacier gear (Rope, ice axe, crampons, etc.). Roping up takes time and can drastically change the pace of the day.
- Ski crampons. Essential for early morning starts and anything in the alpine.
- Verts or ways to boot pack up deep snowpacks.
- Backpack. Is it large enough to carry all the equipment you need for a big day out?
- Water and food. Do you have enough for the planned tour? I find that 1.5L of water gets me through most day tours. In addition, I like to bring more food on cold days, due to the fact that my body burns more calories trying to stay warm.
- Group gear. Ski repair kit, first aid, rescue sled, bivy, etc. Discuss with your group prior to getting to the trailhead.
- Communications. Cell phone, radio, satellite messenger. Read more about Backcountry Electronics in one of our previous snacks.
There's A LOT that goes into planning a ski tour, and specifically the route. The route only comes together if everything else has aligned. So, let's say you've been studying the weather and avalanche conditions for the past week, and tomorrow is looking prime for a ski tour. You've lined up a good partner and have all the necessary equipment for a day tour in the Narnia backcountry. It is now time to plan your route.
- Is it safe? Does my tour travel through terrain which is unsafe given the avalanche conditions for the day?
- How long is the tour? Determine the start and end time based on partners and conditions. Trail breaking and route finding can add hours to an otherwise easy tour.
- Turnaround points? Time or location based, to get back safely.
- Plan B? What if you get out there and conditions aren't what you expected?
Based on where you decide to go, you may want to create a route on a map. There are a number of websites and apps that are great at allowing you to do this, just make sure you download the maps for offline use. Mapping out a route can help you determine mileage, turnaround times, and elevation statistics (among others).
I often have routes and tours in mind that require certain conditions to align, so I'm always looking for windows that allow for these tours to take place. Keeping an eye on conditions will allow you to dream bigger and go further.
Let someone know your plan
A plan isn't complete without dotting the I's and crossing the T's. Now that you've planned a ski tour, let someone know. Every time I go ski touring, I email my wife the following information:
Where am I going.
Where am I parking.
Who am I going with.
When will I be home.
With this knowledge, if anything happens and I need to be rescued, she'll know where to begin. After all, a plan isn't complete with a backup plan.
Remember: Expect the unexpected and plan for fun!