The last weekend of winter provided one of the most spectacular 3 days of higher summits weather I have ever seen in March! Blue skis and almost non-existent wind led to some really enjoyable ski touring on Mount Washington during our second-to-last American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) course.
We kicked off the course on Friday with some lively classroom sessions and small group exercises.
We met early to learn some advanced trip planning skills using CalTopo.com and the Avenza App. The Higher Summits Forecast called for southeast winds around 10-15 mph so we planned a tour on the west side of Mount Washington.
We concluded our tour with a debrief at the trail-head before calling it a day.
Avalanche danger was LOW and we had plenty of time to spare so we booted up Lobster Claw and traversed over to the top of Right Gully.
Some video of our descent:
We wrapped up the course back in the pack room with discussions about continuing to learn about traveling in the back-country. It was a real pleasure having each of you in this course. Thank you all for staying engaged and contributing through out our three days!
Tomorrow, and beyond!
Only one more avalanche course next weekend after a Mountain Skills Course tomorrow and Washington Climb on Thursday. It might seem like the winter season is winding down a little but we are set up for a fantastic Spring ski season! The warm rock climbing can wait this year… I still have a lot of skiing goals to accomplish including reviewing some new ski mountaineering gear from CAMP/Cassin, Ortovox, Petzl, and DPS. Expect a lot of gear reviews to be landing April/May after I get back from Iceland.
Yup, Iceland! Been awhile since I’ve been out of country so I am SUPER amp’d about this upcoming trip.
Want to try backcountry skiing?
Maybe you just bought a setup or still need to rent a touring package (a few places in town rent touring gear). Maybe you’d like to avoid the maddening crowds in Tuckerman Ravine and check out some new to you terrain ? Consider learning about the joys of back-country skiing with me. The snow-pack we have in the alpine right now combined with more stable Spring weather is a GREAT time to book a back-country ski day!
You can read a bit about the program here but reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to check on available dates before trying to book!
Did you get out this weekend? Whatcha do? Let me know in the comments below!
What a week it has been! This time last Wednesday I was just topping out the classic hard line Repentance on Cathedral Ledge with my old friend Tom and new friend and fellow Northeast Mountaineering guide Jordan. The route was in excellent shape and felt a few degrees easier than when I first climbed it a few years ago with Bob & Ryan.
Thursday I got to guide NEM regular guest Nick up an equally fantastic Black Dike on Cannon Cliff. It had been years since I’d climbed this route and it was in great shape. We did have to wait for a party ahead of us but completed the climb in 6 hours car to car with some of the best glissading I have ever seen on the descent trail!
Friday we started our 4th avalanche course of the season and students and instructors alike partook in evening social hours upstairs at International Mountain Equipment and watched presentations at the Theatre in the Woods.
On Monday I started a 2 Day Ice Climbing Course and had the pleasure of introducing father & son team Andy and Peter to ice climbing at Cathedral Ledge and in Crawford Notch. The snow was fantastic and I geeked out a bit over some of the snappy wind slabs we found along our route.
Later that night I heard of a climbing accident on the Black Dike. A climber had fallen during the final moves and severely broke his ankle in the 50-60 foot fall. I spoke briefly with Nick last night and he is in good spirits and incredibly grateful for all of those who assisted him off the cliff.
That brings us to today, a chance for me to do some laundry, get to the dump, and attend to other household errands that have been put off for a bit too long. Another round of snow inbound for tonight so I’ll probably find myself skiing tomorrow before our next avalanche course starts on Friday.
What an absolutely fantastic winter we are having! Hope you are getting out there and enjoying it!
What a winter this is shaping up to be! Finding time to blog about any of it is starting to get tricky as I balance 5-6 days a week of guiding with getting my kiddo out on the slopes, driveway cleared, lunches made, dinner cooked, laundry done, say hello and good night to my wife, and wake up and do it all again.
I’m not complaining! This is absolutely my favorite time of the year and for good reason. Skiing and ice climbing conditions have been quite far above par. The transition to a new guide service has been almost seamless and the stoke level is at an all time high!
I’m keeping this post quite short as I have a little more prep to do for tomorrow’s 3rd avalanche class with Northeast Mountaineering but I want to share a couple of my favorite moments this season so far!
Ortovox, DPS Skis, and Revo Ambassadorship
Definitely the coolest thing that has happened to me since fatherhood is having these companies support me. A huge shout out to Matt Murphy of Life Style Sales for connecting me with DPS skis, the makers of some seriously legit back-country sliding pro-tech, and Revo Sunglasses, high-end goggles and sunglasses I’ve been sporting for everything from whiteout flat light Tuckerman turns to blue-bird sunny day ice climbing. And finally I somehow ended up on Ortovox’s Athlete Team. I’ve been using their avalanche gear for years and now I have the opportunity to test and promote their incredible clothing and pack line. I am humbled and motivated by this opportunity. Expect to hear a lot more about what they are doing with high-end technical clothing when the dust (snow) settles.
I haven’t kept hard numbers the last few years since fatherhood but I can say without a doubt I’ve climbed more ice in the last two months than I remember climbing the last few years, including the first Grade 5 in probably 5 years. I feel strong and look forward to ticking off some routes that have long been on my wish list this season.
I love being in the classroom as much as the field when it comes to avalanche education. It’s hard to describe how stoked I can get the minutes before another 3 day avalanche course starts. The excitement of getting ready to engage another group of back-country adventurers and start them on their journey of life-long snow-study and critical decision making produces a natural high to me. Or it could be the triple shot Americano. Either way I love teaching these courses.
Speaking of which I have case studies and agendas to print out for tomorrows course so that’s it for today. Stay tuned for a ton of gear reviews from Outdoor Research, Black Diamond, CAMP/Cassin, Patagonia, Ortovox, DPS, G3, and more.
Oh, and if you book an avalanche course, or any course with us at Northeast Mountaineering, use promo code “DavidNEM” for a chance to win a free guided day.
Here we go! While some providers have run a couple courses already we just completed our very first one of the season yesterday and it was epic! A new venue, classroom tech, on-site lodging, awesome students, and great snow all led to a fantastic 3 days!
Our classroom sessions were held in “The Bunkhouse” living area in Bartlett, NH. This was extremely convenient for the students as 2 nights of lodging are included in the course tuition. All seven participants stayed in the bunkhouse which led to a pretty immersive course and some new friendships and touring partners.
Another big classroom change is the use of iPads pre-loaded with the AIARE Student Manual. The “Notability” app allows custom note-taking and the ability to email yourself the manual with notes throughout the course. I’ll be adding some CalTopo style mapping options on them to help with our trip planning sessions. For those who prefer a paper copy of the manual we do have them for sale with a portion of the proceeds going to non-profit conservation groups! Hats off to NEM co-owner Brett Fitzgerald for spearheading this unique initiative!
After two days of mixing up classroom and field exercises we headed up into Tuckerman Ravine for a ski tour designed to re-enforce the knowledge and skills we had gained the days prior.
A bit of GoPro footage from the day
A huge thank you to the first seven students of my 2017 avalanche course season! Each one of you brought something to the course with your engaging questions, camaraderie, early morning shenanigans, and cold weather endurance.
Our next course starts Friday but is sold out. We have a few more spots left in our Jan 20th course. We are also working hard at bringing on another course instructor so we may be able to open more seats soon. If you want to get into a course this season with me check the dates here:
This past Friday I had Syed and Thomas for the last day of a 3 Day Mountaineering course with Northeast Mountaineering. On the first day they had learned some of the basics with me at the North End of Cathedral Ledge. On the second day they had a great day on Mount Washington getting less than a quarter mile from the summit (sometimes the weather gods just say “not today”). For their last day we took on a multi-pitch alpine climb, the classic “Hitchcock Gully” on Mt. Willard in Crawford Notch State Park.
Almost a foot of snow had fallen the day before so I was grateful to see a party had broken trail from the parking lot and we made our way to the start of the climb. After roping up we short-roped and short-pitched our way up to the more technical climbing.
The first 5th class pitch was quite standard with a smidge of funky ice at the choke. I had been following fresh boot-prints until this point but right above the choke they disappeared into a small avalanche debris pile. After setting up an anchor in the first bomber ice on route I took a look at the small crown and guessed it was probably triggered by the climbers who had just proceeded us. While this was a very small slab avalanche on the “Destructive Size” scale it was big enough to sweep a climber off their feet.
This is something ice climbers who solo our local alpine gullies should keep in mind especially after a foot of fresh snow has just dropped. While the danger had passed probably less than an hour earlier now that the small slab had released, two climbers who caught up to us decided to solo the first pitch despite having a rope and a party of three directly ahead of them. While they climbed efficiently they still had to wait 20 minutes for us to finish the rock pitch…so… why not pitch out the first pitch when we have a NWS avalanche warning in effect? You got nothing to lose and might as well bust out that rope you are hauling especially if you’re going to have to wait a few minutes for the party ahead of you.
After finishing Lower Hitchcock we made our way up to the start of Upper Hitchcock. There were some climbers on East Face Slabs Right but we didn’t make contact so I could not confirm if they were the party that triggered the small slab. Upper Hitchcock looked great!
The climbing was great with good ice and comfy temps. Soon after leading the first long pitch we were all at the anchor and ready to climb the last bit of fun ice at the top.
As I topped out I noticed the trail was not broken so we would be doing a little bit of “wallowing”. The pow was so fresh that it was one of the easier bushwhacks to the summit I can recall when breaking trail.
We enjoyed the summit for a few minutes before quickly booting it down the nicely packed out Mt. Willard Trail (thank you snowshoes for packing that thing out minutes after a Nor’Easter’!)
My first day on Willard this year and a great reminder of what an awesome place it is to climb!
Before I wrap up this quick trip report a quick PSA. This is shaping up to be a banner winter recreation season. If your hobbies take you into steep snow covered terrain, you need to be thinking about avalanches. They don’t just happen on Mount Washington. They don’t have to be big enough to bury you to cause injury. Anywhere you go on snow that is over 35 degrees could be avalanche terrain. Even being on flat terrain under this steeper terrain can be a risk.
Know Before You Go!
There is more avalanche education available this season than there ever has been! Take advantage of that and take a course, or a refresher, THIS YEAR!
A couple weeks ago I attended the sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop and wrote a brief summary of the event with a few photos. Here, with permission, is a special sneak preview of the more detailed report my friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz has written for The Avalanche Review before it goes to print! Enjoy!
The sixth annual Eastern Snow & Avalanche Workshop (“ESAW”) on November 5 attracted approximately 150 attendees at Fryeburg Academy, just across the state border from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington in the White Mountains’ Presidential Range.
This year’s ESAW was as always a collaborative effort. The organizing partners included the Snow Rangers of the USFS Mount Washington Avalanche Center (“MWAC”) and the Mount Washington Volunteer Ski Patrol (“MWVSP”). ESAW once again relied on a grant from our lead sponsor the American Avalanche Association (“AAA”), to be led here soon by Eastern Representative-elect Mark Renson, with your faithful correspondent as AAA Member Representative. Additional support came from our headline industry sponsor Outdoor Research. Registration fee proceeds over and above hosting costs benefitted the White Mountain Avalanche Education Fund, which provides avalanche education to youth of the Northeast.
ESAW kicked off the prior Friday evening with a social event hosted by the Friends of MWAC and fueled by Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing at the International Mountain Equipment shop and guide service. Then Saturday morning the avalanche presentations started up at Fryeburg Academy.
Chris Joosen, MWAC former Lead Snow Ranger (only the third since its 1951 formation) and outgoing AAA Eastern Representative, flew back East from his new Oregon home to serve yet again as our MC. Also flying out East was our first presenter, Simon Trautman of the National Avalanche Center (“NAC”), who introduced us to “Avalanche Danger Scales and How Forecasters Use Them” including data to compare/contrast ratings distributions across the forecast centers of different nations.
We then retreated well below treeline as Tyler Ray of the newly formed Granite Backcountry Alliance (i.e., for the “Granite State” of New Hampshire) joined MWAC Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer for “Backcountry Skiing on Public Lands: The Creation of Legitimate and Sustainable Glades.” Although New England backcountry skiing guidebooks reference only official ski trails (many cut by the famed Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression) plus the avalanche terrain at and above treeline, much of the backcountry skiing here actually takes place on the “down low”: glades illicitly cut on public lands for “forest fire prevention” and other in-the-know euphemisms. This was brought into the open in 2007 when two would-be Vermont backcountry skiers were criminally charged with felony-level violations for chainsawing a prominent line (aka “Jailhouse Chute”). But recent collaboration in Vermont with the USFS between non-profit groups has created glades that are both nicely skiable and legitimately accessible. The increasing availability of such terrain can offer a safe alternative to skiing at and above treeline when avalanche danger is elevated. And fortuitously for the Granite Backcountry Alliance, the off-season position for Snow Ranger Hoffer is the USFS Trails Manager for much of the Presidentials Range.
Next, AAA’s Executive Director Jaime Musnicki returned to her native New England to make good on her plan to attend as many regional SAWs as possible, and also to present on “Personal Reflections: Making Sense of Our Own Close Calls in Avalanche Terrain.” As if the incident she described in detail weren’t already harrowing enough, her partner had been her new boyfriend at the time, out on their first ski tour together. And not only did Jaime come out on top of the debris, four years later the two of them are still together.
On a similar note, Jon Miller, of Dogy Down Films, although unable to attend in person, presented to us on “Risk, Rewards, and the Balancing of Mountain Experiences and Goals” via a tailored video introduction and debriefing for us to sandwich his film “Season on the Brink.” His life-threatening fall this past spring in a Mount Washington couloir was extensively written up at the time, but the video footage he showed us — from both a partner and his own helmet cam — was especially terrifying. Just as memorable were the assessments from the party members of “What really sticks with me is that we just shouldn’t have been there” and “A series of little details and little errors that added up.” After a helicopter airlift, Jon spent a month in hospital care before regaining the ability to talk and walk normally.
Dallas Glass, our fourth Western presenter of the morning, here to lead the avalanche instructor training the following day for the American Avalanche Institute for Research and Education (“AIARE”), presented on “Blue Skies, Powder Days, and Las Vegas: Minimizing the Role of Luck in Avalanche Terrain.” For ESAW regulars over the years, Dallas’s presentation was the perfect follow-up to the 2012 presentation to us by Blase Reardon (then of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center, and now of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center). Back then, Blase had emphasized that the backcountry snowpack does not provide a consistent environment with regular feedback, but rather its feedback is inconsistent and often fatal. (Remember Bruce Tremper’s analogy of playing soccer in a mine field.) “Experts” are often just those who have gotten lucky over time, like many stock pickers who have beaten the market over a selected time period. This year, Dallas explained how debriefing your day is the feedback loop that completes the risk management process. Professional guides always hold a debriefing as part of their standard operating procedures. To help recreationalists aspire toward this goal, Dallas quoted an incentivizing line from his fellow Pacific Northwest guide Larry Goldie: “Why having a beer at the end of the day could save your life.” It (the debriefing, not necessarily the alcoholic content!) allows us to identify when we got lucky and thereby recalibrate, so that on future trips we aren’t relying on “luck” to stay safe. We have all gotten lucky in the mountains, but we need to recognize when that occurs so that we don’t need an incident to provide us feedback, and instead we can use “no event” days to learn from and grow as backcounty travelers.
After lunch, Jaime Musnicki explained the upcoming split between recreational versus professional tracks in U.S. avalanche training. Fortunately the details need not be reiterated here, since you the dear reader have of course already carefully read every single prior TAR article on this subject. (Right?) This fed into a panel discussion on avalanche education with Jaime Musnicki, Jeff Lane (previously a MWAC Snow Ranger for ten years), Simon Trautman, and Dallas Glass, moderated by MWAC Snow Ranger Frank Carus.
Thus far we had been getting off lightly on the technical side. To ratchet everything up several notches, as always we could rely on Dr. Sam Colbeck, retired from the U.S. Army’s Cold Region Research and Engineering Laboratory (in Hanover, NH) after three decades of groundbreaking cold lab and field research in snow crystal bonding and wet grain relationships. In his fifth year of ESAW presentations, this time Sam explained “Why Skis Slide on Snow.” The answer is not simply “because it’s fun” since that’s why we use skis to slide on snow, as opposed to why they are actually able to slide so well.
And those skis slide especially well on very steep terrain with lots of blown-in snow, which was the focus of the presentation by Frank Carus on “Forecasting Avalanche Danger in Inherently Dangerous Terrain” regarding the couloirs in the at-treeline glacial cirques on our Mount Washingon. Next, Simon Trautman presented on “What are we doing now?” at the NAC, following up on the presentation at the 2014 ESAW by the NAC’s Director Karl Birkeland.
And finally, Chris Joosen wrapped up with “Reflecting on a Life with Avalanches” incorporating his 26 years working on Mount Washington. His conclusion was followed by a standing ovation from all attendees. And from all us who have depended for so many years on Chris’s work and his direction of the MWAC Snow Rangers, thank you!
We concluded with our annual expo, including rep displays for AAA, AIARE, Backcountry Access, Black Diamond / Pieps, Catamount Trail Association, Bryce & Ronnie Athlete Safety & Security (“BRASS”) Foundation, DPS Skis, Friends of MWAC, Granite Backcountry Alliance, La Sportiva, Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, Mammut / Barryvox, MWVSP, Mount Washington Weather Observatory, Petzl & Adventure Medical, Salomon, Northeast Mountaineering guides, Ortovox / Deuter, and Outdoor Research. Throughout the day we had raffled off and auctioned donations from these sponsors plus ARVA, Dynafit, Hagan, MSR, Pomoca, Ski the East, and Toko.
Jonathan Shefftz patrols at Northfield Mountain and Mount Greylock in Western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife and daughter (who notched her first-ever October ski outing this season). He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and AAA governing board member. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or “coaching” his daughter’s skiing (i.e., picking her up off the snow), he works as a financial economics consultant and has been qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts. He can be reached at JShefftz@post.harvard.edu or just look for the lycra-clad skinner training for his NE Rando Race Series.
Last week I attended two annual events that always get me stoked on the upcoming winter season. The first was the sixth annual Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop. I haven’t missed one yet and although this one wasn’t held at the grand Omni Mount Washington Resort like last year the venue was quite nice (and a lot closer to home, just over the Maine border in Fryeburg).
I did “Instagram Story” the whole event but forgot to actually save any of the pics from the day… so picture a bunch of people having a good time while checking our vendor booths from DPS Skis, LaSportiva, Petzl, Friends of Tuckerman Ravine, and Black Diamond and you get the idea.
Saturday started early at the beautiful Leura Hill Eastman Center for Performing Arts at Fryeburg Academy. I set up my AIARE booth again directly across from Ortovox, a company whose products I have been using for over a decade and also just became an ambassador for!
A couple years ago I reviewed the Ortovox Kodiak shovel here! Expect to hear a lot more about Ortovox products from me this winter!
Right at 8:15 the main event kicked off.
There were a lot of great topics & presenters this year. My friend and colleague Jonathan Shefftz is finishing edits of a write-up for the American Avalanche Associations publication “The Avalanche Review“, and when he is finished I’ll share his work (by permission) here. For now I’ll just mention my highlights:
USFS Snow Ranger Helon Hoffer got us excited about work being done to create sustainable (and legal) glades to increase our amount of available back-country ski terrain. Something near and dear to the recently formed Granite Backcountry Alliance. <– a great place to go if you are interested in what you can do to contribute!
After a quick break and some contacts at the AIARE booth I was back in my seat for Jaime Musnicki, the Executive Director of AAA, enlightening personal story of being caught in an avalanche and what she learned from this experience. This was followed by Jon Miller’s story via pre-recorded video of his life threatening fall down Hillman’s Highway late last winter and the impacts it has had on him and his friends and family.
Next up Dallas Glass, a climbing guide and former avalanche forecaster who is also in the AIARE Instructor Pool gave a very engaging talk on the role of luck in the mountains. Perhaps my favorite quote of the day, which he attributed to IMFGA guide Larry Goldie, was;
“Debrief the day… or Why Having A Beer At The End Of The Day Could Save Your Life”
We broke for lunch and had an afternoon filled with more great talks. Jaime (from AAA) once again took the stage and talked a bit about the upcoming split between the “Recreational and Professional Education Tracks”, more commonly referred to as the “Pro/Rec” split. This was a subject I was eager to learn more about and the following day I would have that chance during our AIARE Instructor Refresher Course.
Another round-table occurred, and Sam Colbeck, a true master of snow science, gave a highly technical talk with the simple name of “Why Skis Slide on Snow”… most importantly he answered the age old question are black ski bases faster than white ski bases? The definitive answer after breaking out a few technical terms that broke Google was… “maybe”. I hope Sam attends the next 10 ESAW’s… his talks are always the right mix of “wow I should try to be smarter” and “I hope I’m funny like that sometimes”.
Another break and then Frank Carus from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center gave us some insight of the difficulty of forecasting in terrain as dangerous as Mount Washington.
Following out going Lead Snow Ranger Christpher Joosen’s talk about his lifes work on the mountain (over 25 years!) we retired to our post-ESAW social hour and vendor booths.
I will link to Jonathan’s full report on the ESAW once it is finalized.
The next day a dozen avalanche educators from around the Northeast gathered at the Mount Washington Observatory’s conference room for an Instructor Refresher Course led by Dallas Glass.
This forum answered many of our questions about the upcoming Pro/Rec track splits and was a great opportunity to catch up with other educators. Towards the end we got a sneak peak of some of the bigger curriculum changes and were offered time to provide feedback and suggestions.
Well the annual ESAW/IRC weekend always makes me desperate for some snow and ice so today I ran up to Hermit Lake to see how things were looking. Trail work on the Tuckerman Ravine trail currently creates about a mile detour via the Huntington Ravine Trail and Raymond path so plan accordingly. I will update this post once I hear the main trail is open again. There are pics on my Instagram from today if you are interested.
Finally if you are thinking about taking an avalanche course this winter might I suggest you think about booking your dates now? Most providers in the area fill up soon after Thanksgiving so if you want to have the best selection of dates now is a good time to nail it down. In addition if you book with Northeast Mountaineering before December 1st you can save 10% on the tuition. You also get 2 nights of lodging included. Oh and you get entered into a contest to win a free day of guiding for two people! So why wait? Use coupon code “davidNEM” at checkout to get both the 10% discount and be entered into the contest!