Avalanches In New England
2014-02-28 19:36:26.000 – Mike Dorfman, Weather Observer
Around two weeks ago, I participated in an AIARE level II course in Baxter State Park. For those of you who don’t know where Baxter State Park is, this is an incredible piece of land in northern Maine. At just over 320 square miles in area, it contains something for every type of outdoor enthusiast, including avalanche terrain on Mount Katahdin.
After taking this course, I understood, amongst other things, how incredibly intertwined weather and avalanche forecasting are. As it falls, the atmosphere directly affects snow’s shape, size and water content. Crystal type and size directly affect snowpack stability. Interfaces with vastly different crystal size adhere poorly to one another, and different crystal types adhere to each other more firmly than others. In addition, heavy, wet snow layered on top of lighter snow is often a red flag for avalanche danger. Once it falls, snow is constantly affected by temperature, humidity and sunlight. Reviewing all of the ways a snowpack can change due to the near-surface atmosphere would take up more space than I have here.
Like meteorology, skill and experience are required to put out an accurate forecast. Hard data, like digging a snow pit and performing tests to see how the snow behaves, is important for an avalanche forecaster, however this does not always tell the whole story. An inexperienced forecaster can run tests, but it requires experience to interpret those tests and to really understand the potential risk that a slope has to slide.
In most cases, knowledge from a course decreases with time as facts get fuzzy in your memory, however this course defied those rules. It provided me the tools and methods used in avalanche forecasting, which only experience can refine further. A four-day course exposes me to only a narrow sliver of what types of snowpack I may encounter, so I must apply the observational skills I learned in my course to whatever I might run into in the backcountry.
If you love playing in steep snow outside, or you just love to understand how the world around you works, I would highly recommend taking an avalanche course through one of our local guiding schools, including Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. If that’s a little too formal for you, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center provides daily forecasts and occasionally offers workshops on avalanche safety. Never venture into the backcountry without the proper training and the proper knowledge to keep yourself safe!
Mike Dorfman, Weather Observer