Spring In The Mountains Can Be More Dangerous Than Ever

Lurking hazards. Photo: Avalanche Canada

words:: Ben Osborne

Winter is coming to an end, and the powder hound within you is likely yearning to push deeper into the backcountry, get away from the crowds, soak up some sun, and summit some mountains. With longer, warmer days, pushing deep into the mountains is much more feasible, but also presents an entirely new set of dangers that have not been present for the past few months. Here are five reminders for when you’re out exploring this spring. Play safe and have fun, kids. -ML

Disclaimer: this is not a comprehensive guide to spring travel in the mountains, but a refresher of a few of the dangers that arise with changing conditions. Please consult your local avalanche bulletin to get educated and always, always, bring avalanche safety gear, inform someone of your plans before travelling in the backcountry, and check the conditions with your local avalanche bulletin.

New Diurnal Patterns

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With the longer days, and generally warmer weather comes an increasing daily temperature range meaning that although it can be cold in the morning temperatures can rapidly increase throughout the day, which can awaken deep instabilities in the snowpack.

Just as temperatures can rapidly increase throughout the day, as the sun dives behind the mountains the temperatures will just as quickly drop, meaning you need to be prepared to stay out in the mountains with warm clothes just as you would all winter. While you may have driven to the parking lot in flip flops, most nights in the high alpine will dive below freezing—be prepared.

Warming Snowpack

A warming snowpack can result in a generally weaker snowpack. As skiers, snowboarders, and mountaineers, this means the layers that have been sleeping deeply all winter are beginning to wake up, and the potential of a person to be able to trigger them is much greater. Pay attention to temperatures, aspect, and recent snowfall as the snowpacks sensitivity can be greatly heightened with warming temperatures.

Wet slides are one of the many renewed dangers in the backcountry in the spring, coming to a mountain near you. Photo: Frozen Pirates Snow Service

New Triggers

Along with deeper instabilities beginning to wake up, there are a number of other new triggers to pay attention to, one of them being point-release avalanches. As rocks soak up solar radiation, they can act as triggers for snow holding on to them, releasing the snow and potentially setting off a larger slide. Other triggers include cornice drops, and loose, wet avalanches triggering deeper instabilities in the snowpack.

Overhead Hazard

Avalanches aren’t the only danger with warming temperatures. In the spring, the mountains naturally shed many of their snow and rock features due to melt/freeze processes. As the snowpack warms, cornices weaken and can be extremely dangerous to travel below, or on top of. Additionally, rocks which were previously frozen in place can become ticking time bombs—always wear a helmet when boot packing a couloir, navigating a ridge, or any time you might be exposed to rockfall.

The Human Factor

As always, the human factor is the most important when mitigating avalanche danger. Route selection, terrain choice, and where to drink your Hazy IPA change drastically in the spring. It is important to choose a safe lunch spot, plan your route to avoid the newfound hazards, and choose your terrain so you get the best (and safest) possible skiing/riding.

For current conditions throughout Canada, check https://www.avalanche.ca/map.-ML