This article first appeared in print the December 2018 issue of Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine.
It’s early July and I’m back from biking. I check Facebook and it’s the usual: Donald Trump, memes, baby pictures, something about El Nino … I put my phone away and head to a barbecue.
Fast forward two months. The days are shorter and a dusting of snow has fallen up high. I daydream of epic powder days and wonder what kind of winter it might be. Something about El Nino flashes through my mind. I get online, then check with Environment Canada to confirm.
“We’re projecting a 75 per cent probability for a weak El Nino to materialize,” meteorologist Armel Castellan tells me. “You end up seeing warmer temperatures across the board. Often it means more winter weather, which means more precipitation.”
So potentially more snow, but higher freezing levels. At least it won’t be a “Godzilla El Nino,” as the media dubbed the event in 2016, adds Castellan. “It’s not going to be record-breaking.”
He warns of “The Blob,” a mass of warm water in the Alaskan Gulf that caused warm temperatures in the west in 2015 and is back. “Both phenomenon lend itself to a warmer than normal season,” he says.
The first real snow falls in early October and it’s followed by a dry spell. I’m a little nervous because that snow stuck around and I’m worried there will be a weak layer that will linger all season.
Grant Helgeson, a friend and, crucially, a forecaster with Avalanche Canada, reassures me. He thinks it’s been warm enough that early snow is unlikely to turn into a permanent weak layer, but I better check when I go out. “It’s really important to dig down and investigate and see what the new snow is sitting on,” he advises. “We might be see a reasonable base emerge, but things will need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
October turns into November and I ponder my first tour. It’s raining in town and I check the webcams obsessively to see how much snow is falling up high. Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Glacier National Park and DriveBC have cameras pointing at the mountains, and I also download the data from nearby River Forecast Centre snow stations.
My friends and I head up to McCrae and there’s more snow than expected. Reports from Rogers Pass pop up on the Revelstoke Ski Tourers Facebook group and the ACMG Mountain Condition Reports mailing list, two great resources for trip reports. Things are looking good.
As winter sets in, I get into my routine. Every evening, whether I’m going skiing or not, I check several weather reports: Environment Canada, RMR , Avalanche Canada’s bulletins, and SpotWX.com, a website that lets me see several models for a specific location. In the morning, I check RMR’s snow report and the Glacier National Park weather stations for the latest snowfall totals.
Grant recommends Avalanche Canada’s weather page, which provides detailed forecasts for up to a week. They get more complex as they go out, but there’s a handy tutorial to help. “The weather product we have now is better than it ever has been,” he says. “You can really nerd out there.”
He also checks the Minstry of Transportation weather stations, which are handily linked to on Avalanche Canada’s main page, and NAV Canada. The latter is for aviation, features 6-, 12-, and 18-hour forecasts; and there’s a tutorial to make sense of it. “That’s the best product for figuring out what’s going to happen today,” he says.
The spot forecast is the last thing he looks at. “It’s way more valuable to look at the synopsis, and then you can start to look at some point forecasts,” he says. “If you just look at point forecasts, it can be difficult to understand the big picture, which is what you need for planning a day in the backcountry.”
With a few early days under my belt, I get a feel for the snowpack. It’s December and weather dictates my life. I leave a party early because of skiing. On Sunday, I look at the forecast and schedule my week accordingly – I don’t want to risk booking an appointment on a powder morning.
It’s been snowing pretty steadily – about 10 centimetres daily – and freezing levels drop. The skiing is fantastic and the snowpack feels solid, but it doesn’t take much to change, Grant warns. “I can think of many instances over the last few years when we start getting that threshold depth at treeline and in the alpine and there’s a slight cold spell that produces surface hoar and faceting,” he says. Surface hoar forms on cold clear nights. When it’s buried, it often forms a persistent weak layer in the snowpack that can linger for weeks.
“As we’re tuning up our skis, it’s important we switch over from summer hiking [and] mountain biking mindset to really coming back to being those keen observers of the natural world,” Grant says.
The other factor is the wind. It’s a wild card, transporting snow and leaving it in a thick (and stiff) slab in places. “Wind is the architect of avalanches,” Grant tells me. “You might have 20 centimetres of new snow, but that can easily form a 50- to 75-centimetre wind slab in a lee area.”
A few days after New Year a high pressure system crosses the Rockies and sends Revelstoke into a deep freeze. It’s sunny, but really, really, really cold. I’m happy staying inside, but the avalanche danger is lowering and I look at hitting those big lines on my bucket list. Forever Young? Grizzly Couloir? Avalanche Mountain? The mountains are calling and I must go.
“That can be a great time to go and get after it,” Grant tells me. “The problem is when it starts snowing again, all that faceted “loud powder”– that becomes our next weak layer in the snowpack.”
The high pressure breaks up and the next storm hits with a vengeance. The avalanche danger skyrockets and I join everyone in line for the gondola. Massive avalanches come down everywhere, the highway closes, and when I get home I have to shovel the roof. I’m tired and sore but I get up to do it all again the next morning because it’s still dumping. Actually, this storm qualifies as “nuking.”
When it ends, I gaze out of bounds. Grant advises me to stick to simple terrain while things settle. Long-term, the storm could be a good thing for the snowpack, but I’m cautioned not to expect that. “On the coast, as a general rule you can have a huge storm, give it a couple days, and then big terrain is good to go,” he says. “In the Interior, we end up dealing with longer-term persistent weak layers. I can’t say what something would look like based on a given scenario, but here you have to give it more time.”
February comes and the impacts of El Nino are felt. It’s stopped snowing in town and a dreaded Pineapple Express is incoming from the tropics. The freezing levels rises from 1,500 metres (below the bottom of the Stoke Chair) to 3,000 metres (way up there). I enjoy a few decent runs before the snow turns to rain and I question my policy of “Death before download.” I spend the next few days catching up on the chores I neglected before venturing out again. All I can do is hope the damage isn’t too bad, but at least I don’t have to shovel my roof again.
The storm ends, it cools a bit and some lighter snow makes the skiing enjoyable again. The days get longer and I maximize my skiing: powder mornings when they come, groomers when they don’t, and touring when I have a day off. I feel my obsession with the weather has paid off and I’ve got a handle on the snowpack, but I still check the avalanche bulletins daily because they’re based on field observations and I’m often stuck inside. It helps to have Grant on speed dial.
“I encourage people to be curious about their snowpack,” Grant reminds me. “If you’re following along and know what’s happening, you’ll be in tune with the conditions.”