We were planning on heading up to Stevens today to tour around the area prior to opening and get some fresh turns. But when the weather conditions at the Summit this morning were listed as "Blizzard", well, who can pass that up? A few pre-opening turns at Alpental would be just what the doctor ordered to start up the season right.
Expecting a massive blockade at the mandatory chain-up checkpoint at mile 34, we were pleasantly surprised to squeek through with minimal delay. So far so good. By the time we approached the Summit, it was SNOWING LIKE CRAZY. I mean, serious blower all over the place. And the temp was holding at 23 degrees. Ok, great, looking good. We took a quick left at the I-90 exit and bee lined it for Alpy.
The road was plowed for about 15 feet and then gave way to maddness. The snow on the road was at least a foot deep and getting deeper fast. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) our Subaru is used to the deep stuff and we powered up to the lower lot. Then it dawned on us as we noticed other cars bogged down in the fluffy goodness that if we skiied Alpental, with no plow in sight, we may be sleeping at Alpental.
So we flipped it and powered back down the road only to run smack into a crowd of folks in lesser cars who had the same great idea to ski at Alpental we had 10 minutes ago. Only they were stuck. And blocking the road. After 20 minutes of pushing, swearing, and a few handshakes, we got back to the main road and headed to Summit Central where, although the terrain was tamer, we knew that at least our car wouldn't be buried while we were skiing.
One note on the mellow terrain: the avalanche conditions today were unstable to say the least. Checking the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center
website this morning revealed that the instabilities inherent in our snowpack already this season would be exacerbated by the 13 plus inches expected in all the Washington passes on Sunday. Bottom line from NWAC was "Back country travel near avalanche terrain is not recommended on Sunday."
So we weren't exactly looking for the gnarliest, steepest lines when we pulled into Summit Central. We were just looking to break in the gear and get a few turns. Skinning up, the snow was deep, really deep. But strange. There was a crust near the ground and then about 15-20 inches of unconsolidated fluff on top of that. I had heard reports earlier in the week of foot to two foot fractures and this looked like exactly the kind of thing to do it. So the key was to stay off the steep stuff (i.e. anything 38 degrees or higher).
Easier said than done. Although the snow was wonderfully deep and light, it was also, well, too deep. You literally could not ski downhill. Most folks, after a few frustrating turns, would flop like landed salmon back to the skin track and ski down that. This made skinning up exciting.
So here's the predicament. There is tons of snow. The avalanche conditions require staying on "green light", i.e. mellow, terrain. And you cannot move if the terrain isn't sufficiently steep. The smart thing to do is call it a good recon day and ski down the skin track to the car. Which is what we did. Until I saw a short steep section that just looked "too good to pass up" (those scare quotes are there so you are sure to see where I started to act stupid). I hit the slope, it cracked across the top, sluffed around me, and almost buried me and
my dog. Because the snow was so unconsolidated, we were both able to get out unscathed but if the slab had had any time to set up, I am not sure I would be so lucky. So this is a "do as I say, not as I do" post this week. Don't do stupid stuff like the above and I won't either.
It's pounding out there right now. Barring any damage done by this Pineapple Express forecasted for Monday, things could be looking great for next weekend. But don't forget to check in with yourself, your partners and the avalanche forecast if you are heading into the backcountry. Make every trip a round trip.