Make Maelstroms Fun Again
The unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service is “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” It’s a noble thought that most backcountry skiers can relate to, except it leaves out one important natural element: wind. I don’t know about delivering mail in a hurricane, but with skiing, it can be a show stopper. If it is hot, you can strip and slow down. If it’s cold you can always bundle up and keep moving. If it is snowing you can batten down your Gore-Tex and carry on. If it’s raining you can go to Fishermen’s Terminal and get and get a full rubber suit and suck it up like they do in the Pacific Northwest. But with really strong winds, not only does it jack the skiing, elevate the avalanche danger and make it hard to navigate; it can also be super dangerous. I’ve had two friends disappear off of a wind blasted summit- and with nowhere to hide, it is easy to see how that could happen.
According to the Beaufort storm scale, wind speed only has to reach a breezy 73mph to be classified as a hurricane, but it goes way up from there. The current wind record holder for the U.S. is Mount Washington, New Hampshire (home of Tuckerman’s Ravine) which has clocked in at over 220mph. According to the internet, it takes a full-frontal gust of roughly 120mph to lift an adult momentarily off the ground and sticking your head out of the window at 1,000mph would result in instant decapitation (unproven). In any case, it follows that it doesn’t take that much wind to knock a person off of balance when they are standing on a steep, icy slope.
Still, skiing in a howling maelstrom can be fun in a twisted kind of way. The trick is to be ready for it, lower your expectations and enjoy Mother Nature’s full fury. You won’t be setting any speed records, but it will be memorable. Unlike ski areas, heli operations and Zodiac boat shuttles which all get shut down with high winds, if you are a determined backcountry skier, there is nothing but common sense to stop you from getting out in a gale.
Let It Flow
Even though wind is invisible, imagine it flowing like water through a river rapid. There is a main flow, but even in the midst of all of the spray and confusion, there are almost always little side pocket eddies which aren’t as bad, and wind in the mountains is the same. On a grand scale, cols and passes are magnifying glasses for wind as it gets funneled in from both sides and the bottom. Summits are also generally windy, but on rare occasions when the wind is very laminar you can climb above it and the peak isn’t so bad. This happens a lot in the Pacific Northwest where dense, heavy maritime clouds come in from the ocean and slam into the flanks of the mountains, pouring over the lower cols like rivers of water but leaving the higher summits clear and sunny.
One of my worst wind experiences was in a similar scenario heading up the Rio Electrico from El Chalten towards the Southern Patagonia Ice Cap. After setting up a 4 season expedition tent a few hundred feet below a massive col, the wind started cranking to the point that we had the tent secured to the rock with 21 anchors and we were sure it was going to explode. This lasted for a solid 48 hours of terror before we decided to make a break for it, only to find the ice cap plateau was almost completely calm after only a 30 minute hike. The wind was still there, but it was diffused on the plateau and concentrated in the valley where we had camped. It was also a good lesson in the importance of orienting your tent door away from the wind, otherwise it will fill and pop like a balloon.
This phenomenon, known as katabatic winds, results when upper elevation, high-density air literally flows down a mountainside. Katabatic winds are common all around the world, but especially pronounced in places like Greenland, Patagonia and Antarctica where they can easily reach hurricane speeds. In Antarctica, katabatic winds scour areas down to blue ice which is so hard that commercial jet airliners can land on it. From a skiing perspective, these winds can generally be avoided by sticking to high, parallel ridgelines.
As with skiing during heavy snowfall, mid elevation tree skiing will most likely be the safest and best skiing. Trees help break up the wind and the fact that trees are there at all hints that it is probably a semi-sheltered area; otherwise they may not grow in the first place.
In “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,” Bruce Tremper writes, “weather is the architect of all avalanches.” Building on this analogy, high winds could then be considered the ruinous real estate developer. Wind can transport ten times the amount of newly fallen snow, so two inches of new fluff can turn into a 20” windloaded slab under a huge cornice overnight. These big, pregnant pillows of snow at the head of couloirs are my most feared avalanche condition and I wince every time I see people hucking into them. A treacherous aspect of windloading is that a skier can unwittingly go from skinning up a rock hard, wind scoured ridgeline with no avalanche danger to deep, hair trigger instabilities in the first turn on the windward side. The difference between low and high danger can be a matter of inches.
Another avalanche axiom is that strange weather produces strange avalanches, and high winds definitely qualify as strange weather. Not only that, but the effects of high winds can be long lasting in the form of deep wind pockets, or polished bed surfaces. The wind may have stopped, but the avalanche danger hasn’t. One of the more visible dangers associated with high winds are large cornices, but after they have gone through a series of freeze/thaw cycles, they tend to get stronger and more rounded. High wind cornices on the other hand tend to be more angular and very brittle, plus they can break way back from the ridgeline. Beware.
Cross loading is another tricky wind scenario that can happen well off the ridgelines and in some odd-ball areas. Little Cottonwood Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains is a classic place for cross loading as the wind roars directly up the canyon, stripping snow from the down-canyon, windward sides of gullies such as Tanners, Maybird or Little Pine, and forming essentially a long, vertical pillow on the lee sides. In high winds this can be dangerous, but sometimes with lower winds, it can create a strip of fluffy powder in the middle of a sun baked south face.
Gotta Get Gear
You know it’s going to be a memorable day when you open the car door and it almost gets ripped off its hinges, you have to scream to be heard, your face is getting snowblasted, the tent is straining at its anchors or you are having trouble just staying upright. But, with the right equipment and mindset, skiing in a blasting wind storm can be really fun. There’s something about being warm, cozy and calm on the inside while it’s raging on the outside that is very satisfying. Part of this is just a mental trick to stay calm while you are getting buffeted around, but it also helps to have the right gear.
Soft shells are all the rage, but for wind, nothing beats a good coat of hard-shell armor. My preferred laying method starts with a base layer, then a thinnish puffy jacket covered by a hardshell for the top, then thick long underwear and hardshell pants for the bottom. Hoods are essential for keeping spindrift out and I like the ones with foldable brims that keep the hood out of your eyes.
For eye protection, nothing beats the award winning Julbo Aerospace goggles for windy touring. With an innovative lens that pops out about half an inch, they are the only goggle you can tour uphill with as they vent so well. For windy conditions, one side or the other of the lens can be closed to keep side winds out, which is especially nice on a ridgeline with a cross wind. Paired with a neoprene half face mask, warm hat and tight fitting hood, you are ready for the big blow. On the face masks, I like trimming out the mouth and lower nose area both for better breathing and so they don’t get all wet and slimy with condensation.
Owning the right gear is one thing, but during transitions, holding onto it is another. Skis can get tumbled, skins blown away, packs tossed and loose gloves are gone with the wind. The only thing worse than skiing in high wind is doing it on one ski with a bare hand. The key to windy transitions is to be as calm and methodical as possible. Do one ski at a time, keep your pack on if possible, tuck gloves/mittens into your jacket and don’t get flustered. Folding skins can be an exercise in futility, so I prefer to wad them into a messy heap, stuff them in my jacket and deal with them later. For those with fastidious DNA, I’ve seen people clamp the ends between their knees and get a fairly good fold that way as well as folding them around your knee. Mesh skin savers are discouraged in general, but especially in high winds. Carefully folding skins and keeping the glue clean is a good habit to get into, but in the rare high wind events, wadding them up won’t ruin them.
Ski crampons are required equipment in many windy parts of the world where snow gets stripped from ridgelines. They can be a bit chunky & clunky to tour with, but the added security provided by metal spikes in the snow is irrefutable. Ski ‘poons tend to be binding specific and my preference is for the lower profile tech binding models which attach to the toe piece and pivot. Known as harscheisen in Europe, some models are close to six inches tall, which works for steep climbing but is like wearing stiletto high heels on the flats.
For the true wind aficionados who venture to places like Baffin Island or enjoy long treks across barren landscapes like Antarctica, sewing a fur ruff around your hood is mandatory. The Intuits have known this for generations and explorers like Doug Stoup who have endless Antarctic crossings under their skis swear by ruffs as they keep your face warm, break the wind and don’t freeze solid with condensation. Another windy trick is to use the fingerless gloves with the attached mitten cap. These are nice as you can pull back the cap for some quick dexterity, and then put the cap back without risking losing a glove being snatched by the wind.
Of all types and places of skiing, it’s rare to ever hear someone come back from spending a day in a raging windstorm and gush about the great skiing. Wind has a way thickening, stripping or just generally jacking the snowpack in unpleasant ways, and as an added bonus…. it’s dangerous. Safety experts warn against it, children fear it and even Conan quivers in his loincloth in the face of high winds. Still, the handful of howling, nuking days I’ve had in the mountains are some of the strongest outdoor experiences I can remember. Cornices are popping, trees are being snapped and birds are flying like rockets. It’s nature at its finest and not to be missed. Make sure and take lots of photos, even if there is almost nothing to actually see but moving air.