Bane of the Backcountry
Illustration by Scott DuBar
“Damn it,” I thought to myself. “Guess I won’t be skiing the Birthday Chutes on my birthday.” My buddy Sean texted me a photo of the Wasatch Mountains he took that morning, and it didn’t look good. Half the upper elevation slopes were covered in white, which meant half of my Wasatch backcountry-ski map was covered in red. It wasn’t a real map, but a mental one, and the red was proverbial ink. But all that red represented mountain zones where I couldn’t ski. Gazing at the upper peaks from the valley, I lamented at the north-facing slopes covered in snow. That snow had been there since late September, and that was not good. Backcountry skiers in the Intermountain West have a big problem. The main issue facing us this time of year is not rock sharks lurking beneath the snow surface. It’s not summer legs honed to skinny, flabby drumsticks from too much beer. And it’s definitely not the crux of figuring out a perfect Christmas gift for the wife (though that’s a close second). No, this problem is so widespread, so nefarious, and so spooky, that I stop praying to the snow gods in October and instead offer my newborn skis to the fire goddess in hope of 100-degree temperatures in the alpine to melt the snow. The bane of the backcountry is early-season facets. The first big autumn storm is usually a time for snow sliders of every persuasion to celebrate. I tend to go overboard with the first-snow dance. It usually ends when my wife throws a robe on my body and hustles me back into the house before the neighbors can see. But that initial stoke jolt at the first sign of white flakes falling from the sky turns naked joy to shivering apprehension. I ask myself, how will that first blanket of white in the mountains affect snowpack stability for the rest of the season? In a good year, the storms keep rolling through and we have an epic and stable winter. But as happens too often, high pressure returns. The snow stops falling and that initial layer that got us all excited sits there and rots like an uneaten egg-salad sandwich left in the sun. This is depth hoar. According to the National Avalanche Center, depth hoar is large-grained, faceted crystals that are located near the ground. These facets form because of temperature gradients within the snowpack. Basically, this means an early-season rotting snow layer becomes a field of dry, unconsolidated sugar. With no cohesion, this layer is a poor support base for any new snow slab that sits on top of it. As a result, massive, full-depth avalanches are pretty much assured, and can stick around for an entire ski season. What makes these facets even more of a bummer is that they tend to form on the best ski terrain, namely high-elevation, north-facing slopes.
In conditions such as these, meticulous care must be taken. Fun-hog skiers have to transform themselves into scientists. We trade ski jackets for lab coats (so to speak) to perform stability tests, display an understanding of spatial variability, and monitor temperature gradient. But worst of all, we must avoid steep slopes altogether. There must be a better way. So here is what I propose: a massive, all-hands-on-deck, facet-fighting effort. I’m talking a seasonal assault on depth hoar at the same level as wildfire suppression in the American West. By presidential decree, facet lookout cabins shall be built on mountaintops. Staffed with trained, eagle-eyed skiers, they can raise the alarm at the first spit of early-season snow. After a late summer storm that drops powder measuring in double digits, millions, no, billions of taxpayer dollars shall be allocated to an emergency facet-relief fund. This money will aid in the destruction of hoar frost before it can begin. The funds may also be used to subsidize bummed-out skiers who stay home because of the facet danger (read: beer money welfare). But how can we fight such a widespread threat across every mountain range in the Mountain West? My idea is the formation of a unit with a catchy acronym that’s easy to say. Something like the American Depth Hoar Facet Suppression Team, also known as ADHFST. This crack squad of elite, trunk-legged skiers will have the unenvious task of side-stepping up every inch of each faceted slope in the nation. This skier compaction will create a stable bed layer for future snow to fall on. It will also give the ski-manufacturing industry a financial boost when ADHFST professionals make turns back down those same early-season, rock-laden slopes. But in especially remote locations, or during times of rapid facet formation, extreme measures must be deployed. Heli-ski operations can outfit their birds with road salt and drop it on known avalanche starting points. Better yet, fire-fighting super-tanker planes could replace their pressurized suppressant drop-systems with giant boxes of kitty litter. Entire headwalls could be covered with snow-melting cat sand that will leave behind a fresh scent. All this man power, time and money shall be spent to eliminate facets just so we backcountry skiers can shred any high-elevation slope without worrying about depth hoar-caused avalanches. I mean, lives are at stake. That, and facets reduce fun. My birthday is mid-December, smack-dab in the center of prime facet season. Looking again at Sean’s photo, I feel something tug at my skier’s heart. The Birthday Chutes are filled in and look good to go. But unless a heatwave miracle melts the slate clean, I’ll look to the proverbial green ink zones on my mental map. The snow won’t be as cold, and the terrain won’t be as fun. But at least I’ll live long enough to see my next birthday.