Mid-Winter Update: Avalanche courses, and finally the snow returns

After an epic December filled with powder, above average snowfall, and relatively stable conditions, January was a little disappointing. Still we managed to find some decent skiing here and there, although rain into the upper elevations, extended high pressure, and very warm temperatures made it challenging to say the least. Yet even as January came to a close with nary a storm on the horizon, it was hard to complain. Our snowpack was still hovering around average and lacked the worrisome persistent weak layers that plague us on a normal year.

Fortunately, January is the month when we focus on avalanche education, and it’s easier to learn when you’re not missing out on valuable powder skiing. Since Christmas, we taught seven AIARE Level 1s and a Level 1 Refresher. We have a couple more Level 1s coming up, followed by our AIARE Level 2 (which still has a couple spots open!).

Each year we’re teaching more and more courses, in part due to the growing nature sport, but also due to increasing awareness of the potential avalanche hazards in the backcountry. As an instructor, it’s been fascinating to watch how avalanche education has evolved. Despite many of us at SMG being snow geeks, we’re all excited to see avalanche education become less about “snow science” and more about what to do with this information in order to stay safe. Organizations such at the Avalanche Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) are bringing together some of the brightest minds in the avalanche profession to develop a cutting edge curriculum focused on decision making. This doesn’t mean you don’t dig a snow pit or stay tuned in to the nuances of avalanches, snowpack, and weather. But it does mean a greater emphasis on using these tools to make better decisions – because that’s what it all boils down to…where should I go to find good snow and safe skiing?

And after long last, snow has returned to the mountains. Since the first of February upper elevations have picked up 2, and in some places, nearly 3 feet of new snow. Surprising as it may be from the valley, our mountains are currently sitting at 100-130% of average snowpack. So despite the lack of snow down low – don’t despair! There is great skiing to be found up high.