The Spark R&D Blog

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Postcard from Kyrgyzstan

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Mike Handford, Nine Springs snow cave, Kyrgyzstan
Photo by Jock Gunn

British splitboarder Mike Handford and a group of freeride skiers from New Zealand and Australia are currently traveling through Kyrgyzstan riding and skiing the remote mountains that blanket the country. With little information about this former Soviet country, they set out aiming to explore as much of the terrain as possible, while educating local guides in avalanche awareness.

“The terrain, while perfect for freeriding, makes life difficult in this part of the world,” Mike wrote from Kyrgyzstan.  “Lacking the oil or infrastructure of its neighbors, and a huge portion of its landmass buried under permanent ice, there are few sources of income for the traditionally nomadic people.  A painful succession from the Soviet Union and two further revolutions further weakened the economy, the third poorest in Central Asia. While the country is home to a handful of ski resorts, relics of Soviet control prior to 1991, even greater opportunity for tourism lies in Kyrgyzstan’s endless backcountry. Mountain roads and alpine villages provide spectacular and easy access into freeride terrain that ranks among the best on earth. While a huge amount of effort has been put into training local guides for summer hiking, lack of training and avalanche awareness leaves many afraid to venture into the mountains in the winter.”

 

By Mike Handford

We first started discussing the possibility of a backcountry trip into Kyrgyzstan as the 2013 winter season in New Zealand drew to a close. Twenty-four hours and some hasty Googling later, we had agreed the trip was on.  Fast forward six months and we were arriving in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, with little to no idea of what to really expect — but an awful lot of enthusiasm to make up for it!

We spent the first week in Karakol, which had been marketed to us as Kyrgyzstan’s “Outdoor Adventure Capital.”  Unfortunately, after a little exploration, the snow down low was rotten and the ridge lines up high wind scoured, which was a bit disheartening.  It was, however, a great place to spend some time and come to grips with what we had to expect in the coming two months.  We were all very surprised at how much technology has engulfed the culture in the past couple of years.  Everyone has a mobile phone that seems to ring 20 times an hour (although we still have no idea what they possibly have to talk about) and WIFI was easily accessible.  If you pick up a guide book, however, be wary of when it was written:  Kyrgyzstan is a rapidly changing culture right now and it would be very easy to find yourself caught out.

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Mike Handford, Arslanbob pillow line
Tyrone Lowe

Luckily we heard through the grapevine that Arslanbob, a small traditional, mainly Uzbek-populated town in the south west — a mere 18 hour drive away — was having a record snow year.  That was our signal to pack up and head that way. As we wound our way through the many mountain passes on the Bishkek-to-Osh road, the climate and snow level were ever changing, and when we eventually arrived in Arslanbob, it was a winter wonderland.  It was one of the most scenic drives we have ever done!  Topping out at 3586 meters, the Too Ashuu pass is certainly spectacular — if you can find time to enjoy it between one of the near death experiences with the speeding taxi drivers and the negligible road laws.

Hayat, the head of Arslanbob’s community-based tourism, greeted us on arrival and set us up with a host family for our stay. The community-based tourism system all over Kyrgyzstan is great and a really effective way to both immerse yourself in the local culture and help out the local families with some passing winter trade. Arslanbob is situated in a valley, surrounded by 4000 meter peaks and the largest walnut forest on earth, which gives great possibilities for both high alpine mountaineering and stormy day tree skiing.

Mike Handford, Arslanbob Walnut forest, PC TYRONE LOWE

Mike Handford, Arslanbob walnut forest pow
Photo by Tyrone Lowe

Our first trip was to a zone called Jaz Jarum.  We left first thing in the morning and toured four hours into base camp. On arrival, the options were overwhelming!  We decided to have a look at the snowpack and ride a single line before dinner.  After a quick skin up, we were standing atop our line with a combination of both excitement, and a little apprehension.  Alex dropped first and after a huge woomph, the whole face started to slide.  After 200 meters of tumbling over rocks with both skis off and both poles gone, we were relieved to see him giving the OK from the bottom.  He had somehow managed to claw his way out of the main path of the slide and over the ridge into something a little smaller that had only buried him waist deep.  We returned to camp, where the atmosphere was somber.  We needed to decompress and reassess our options.

We woke the following morning to another amazing bluebird day and, after talking things over the previous night, we decided to ski some really mellow terrain and get a more concise understanding of the snow pack before we went back to any steep faces.

NOORUZ HUT SHASHLIK KEBABS PC TYRONE LOWE

Nooruz Hut Shashlik Kebabs
Photo by Tyrone Lowe

On our return, we were greeted by the arrival of a few more of the crew.  Blake, Chris and Jock had all just arrived from Bishkek and brought in a great boost of energy after the previous few days happenings.  We immediately started planning to head out for five days, staying at the base of a peak to the west of town called Nooruz.  After talking to Hayat, we were informed we could stay at a shepherd’s hut close by, complete with a wood burning stove, insulation and, as we later found out, mice that steal your eggs. This was great news and it turned out to be an amazing place to eat, rest, and dry out our gear.

We managed a summit on our second day in camp, topping out at 2876 meters. We woke at 4am one morning to catch the sunrise from a nearby ridge and rode some amazing lines. Definitely a zone we would recommend and, to top it off, the snowpack was becoming more stable, which gave us confidence in what we were riding.  Hayat and his CBT guides came and joined us for the last evening, cooking us amazing food and sharing stories. The following morning we arranged to take all the guides out for some avalanche education.  We spent the day talking them through digging a pit, identifying snow layers, testing the snowpack along with terrain and approach selection. This was something we had talked about doing while organizing the trip and it was great to pass on knowledge that will keep the guides and their clients safer. It was a great way to end the trip into Nooruz.

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Hayat avalanche class for local guides

On our return, we heard that the 21st of March was New Year’s Eve on the Persian calendar.  This coincided with Chris heading back to Australia, so we decided to head back towards Bishkek.  In the three weeks we had been away in Arslanbob the city had completely changed. All the snow had melted and the atmosphere was much more vibrant. We spent the day around the Ala Too Square, which although the centre of many political clashes had been transformed into a huge street party filled with music, entertainment and a lot of balloons. The crowning glory of our day was definitely starting a street party with a group of kids from a local dance group. Growing a crowd of ten to hundreds within minutes will certainly live long in my memory.

As I sit writing this, we are currently preparing to leave for the last two weeks of our trip. First on to Bokonbaev where Hayat has arranged for us to meet up with the CBT there and then on to Narin before finishing up in the high alpine of the Ala Bel Pass.

Keep up to date with our travels on Instagram: @renegades_ob

or Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Renegades-OB/1423971274519585

Baker Splitfest: A Journey To Cascade Country

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Destination Baker

We weren’t the only ones who made the journey to this years’ Mt. Baker Splitfest. Between the variety of Splitboards on hand from a number of board builders, and the trailer of Spark gear we towed along for demo, there were no shortage of pow grins out on the mountain. Following local’s advice, we made it out early morning to get the snow at its coldest. Headed in the direction of a zone we had been up in the past, we found ourselves standing at treeline where everything above us was lost in an endless gray void. We retreated back to protected trees at lower elevations and had no trouble finding deep pow glades to session for the rest of the trip.

Demo Day / Pow Day

Sparks to the People!

Looking at our trip’s worth of routes on the topo map within the context of what’s out there beyond the range of visibility we had, only proves we had just begun to get our feet wet — at least in the figurative sense. In the literal sense, it was not only our feet getting wet, it was our hands, arms, legs, and everything in between. That’s not to say we had anything short of awesome riding, it’s just to say, be prepared, there is no amount of waterproofing that can possibly be done to keep dry under a Spring storm in the North Cascades. With the Baker Area being one of the snowiest spots on earth, it’s a place where deep is what you can expect. And that’s what we got.

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Baker Splitfest HQ @Chair9

After tons of fun, on and off our boards, and truckloads of gear raffled off to benefit the Northwest Avalanche Center, it was time we get back to the shop. Our first sighting of Mt. Baker towering under blue skies at dusk didn’t make it any easier to head for home, but we rode the storm, and shared great times, and we will be back for more.

 

 

SIA: The Snowshow, The Superbowl & Riding In The Colorado Rockies

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SIA SnowShow, Denver, CO

It nearly took a map and compass to navigate the bustling grid of overflowing rows and aisles to find the spot where our crate was awaiting setup. Upping our floor space to twice what we had last year gave us the opportunity to design a new booth from the ground up. Our work was cut out for us to get it built in place, but our time paid off, and after a rush to the finish line, the doors opened and it was show time.

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SIA OnSnow Demo, Copper Mountain, CO

We were amped to be back with another exciting year of innovation in the world of splitboarding. We’ve been working hard to design, build, test, and debut our newest addition to the Spark Binding family: the Dyno DH hardboot Binding System with D Rex Crampons. Also new for Fall ‘14/15: the Heel Locker accessory for Tesla System bindings, and fresh colorways across the line.

Huge thanks to all our awesome Dealers and the many friendly faces who dropped by to share the stoke! Also, big thanks to our friend and Bozeman neighbor, Eric Newman, founder of Seneca Boards (Seneca on Facebook.), for the time and use of his cnc mill—a big help on the construction end of our new Spark booth. Thanks!

ISPO: A whirlwind of outdoor gear, good friends, and beer

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Production manager Kory Graham putting the final touches on our ISPO booth.

The craziness that is Trade Shows has come and gone.  The weeks leading up the shows are a time of great stress and anxiety as we have a thousand things to do to get ready:  build prototype gear, create and print a catalog, design and build trade show booths… the list goes on and on.  The first real break, actually, is the 13 hour flight to Munich for ISPO!

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This guys was REALLY excited about our new Dyno DH hard boot bindings!

If you haven’t been, ISPO is truly a sight to behold. This year, 2,565 exhibitors from 51 countries filled over 1 million square feet of exhibition hall space that seemed to go on forever.  It’s absolutely overwhelming and, for a gear junkie, heaven on earth.  Over the 4 days, more than 80,000 visitors wandered the endless displays of outdoor gear bliss.  At one point, it seemed all 80,000 were standing in our booth!

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Team rider Luca Pandolfi stopped by to hang out and talk splitboarding.

To the many great dealers, friends, and fans of Spark we meet during the show, thanks for stopping by!  It is your energy, enthusiasm, and kind words that make all the hard work worth it.  Very special thanks to Markus Reichard, owner of Wildschnee, for all his help constructing our booth, helping out with the crowds, and (most importantly) bringing us beer.   We couldn’t have done it without you — see you next year!

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Markus Reichard and Spark owner Will Ritter enjoying the local flavor at the St. Augustiner beer hall in Munich.

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 7 – Loose Wet

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

 loose wet

For splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy. In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided. In today’s final installment, we will cover Loose Wet Avalanches.

Loose wet in a nutshell

loose-wetLate in the season is often the time to go big, as the snowpack is generally more stable and predictable. But when the temperature rises during the day, the upper layer of the snowpack turns to slush and peels away from the mountain, much like a wet sluff.  Get an early start, retreat when it gets hot or the slush becomes deeper than ankle height, and be weary when nighttime temps do not dip below freezing.

What exactly is a loose wet avalanche?

• Above freezing temperatures and/or rain cause the surface to lose cohesion, and give way in a loose snow avalanche. Because of the water in the snowpack, these carry more mass, and have the potential to pack quite the punch.
• This is caused by either new spring snow, which is peeling off the underlying surface, or from frozen corn snow has thawed and turned to slush.
• This is often a springtime problem, as temperatures generally stay cold enough mid-winter.
• When temperatures cool off enough for the snowpack to re-freeze, than the problem will subside. When temperatures warm back up, the problem could come back.

Where might you find loose wet conditions, and how to avoid it

• When wet slides occur, they tend to be fairly widespread.
• The timing can vary throughout the day. Slopes facing easterly (NE, E, SE) get first sun. loose-wet-iconSoutherly slopes are late morning and mid day (SE, S, SW), and westerly slopes get the afternoon heat (S, SW, W, NW, N).  Try to follow the pattern of the sun.
• Once the snow becomes too soft, stay off of steep terrain and avoid travelling below known avalanche paths.
• Similar to “loose dry” avalanches, think not only about being buried, but also about the consequences of being carried into terrain features, like cliffs, rocks, and trees.
• Rocks can intensify the heat, so be extra cautions as wet slides can initiate around them.  In warm weather, be watchful for rock fall, too.
• If working with corn snow (frozen surface late in spring), the best riding can be had when just the top couple inches have thawed. This means the probability of wet avalanches is less likely, and the snow is not too heavy, deep and cumbersome for riding.
• Think not only of triggering slides, but naturals too. It’s very common to have natural activity with wet avalanches, so watch above on big slopes.

How to look and test for loose wet conditions

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Photos courtesy of Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center (mtavalanche.com).

• Wet surface conditions can be observed without any kind of snowpack test or formal pit.
• Warning signs can start to appear:  Intense sun; above freezing temperatures; roller balls peeling away and running down slope; gloppy, wet or mushy surface conditions; and natural avalanches.
• Paying attention to the weather history and the current weather conditions provide valuable clues.  Many warm days with a very light freeze (just below 32) or no freeze at night means the snowpack is not getting time to re-strengthen, and can be especially tender when the sun comes out.
• Cold and clear nights will yield the best freeze and will give you the most time to work with during the day.

Tips: In the springtime, don’t be afraid to get pre-dawn starts to beat the heat. If you’re too early and the conditions are dangerously firm, than you can always wait for the surface to soften. Remember the conditions can change very quickly, with low hazard in the morning, and high hazard once the heat turns on.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Thanks for joining us for our 7-part web series discussing the most common avalanche problems used by forecasters.  By learning about each problem, we can become familiar with the duration, terrain management and how to look for these problems.

Before heading out the door in the AM, we recommend checking the avalanche bulletin, weather forecast, and thinking about any relevant field observations. Think about where the problem may reside, and spend a little time considering what terrain might be no-go and what terrain would be attainable.

A big shout-out to the Gallatin (Bozeman), Sawtooth (Ketchum) and Colorado Avalanche centers for their collaboration and use of images! 

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 6 – Wet Slab

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

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For splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy. In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided. In today’s installment, we will cover Wet Slab Avalanches.

Wet Slabs in a nutshell

wet-slabIn the springtime, the deep winter cold begins to lose its grip and the temperatures begin to rise. On a warm spring day (or during a rain event), the snow pack can become unglued and if a slab exists, there’s a good chance it will release. If there are known slabs, there is new spring snow, or persistent weak layers are lurking in the snow pack, the best strategy is to get out early and retreat when temperatures begin to rise.  Be especially cautious if the temperatures don’t dip below freezing overnight.

What exactly is a wet slab avalanche?

• Above freezing temperatures and/or rain cause a slab of snow to become unglued to the underlying surface.  Wet slabs can be very destructive as the water in the snow pack means these slides are heavier and carry more mass.
• This is often a springtime problem, as temperatures generally stay cold enough mid-winter.
• The lifespan of wet slab avalanches completely depends on the weather. When temperatures cool off enough for the snow pack to re-freeze, than the problem will subside.
• When temperatures warm back up, the problem could come back.
• During long warm spells, the slab may entirely turn to mush and become a wet loose problem.

Where might you find wet slabs, and how to avoid them

• When wet slides occur, they tend to be fairly widespread.
wet-slab-icon• The timing can vary throughout the day.  Slopes facing easterly (NE, E, SE) get first sun; southerly slopes are late morning and mid day (SE, S, SW); and westerly slopes get the afternoon heat (SW, W, NW).
• Once the temperatures become too warm, stay off of steep terrain and avoid being caught underneath known slide paths.
• Rocks can intensify the heat, so be extra cautions as wet slides can initiate around them.
• Following the pattern of the sun works well, but once the air temperatures become too warm, it’s best to retreat all together.

How to look for and test for a wet slab

• Warning signs will start appear: Intense sun or above freezing temperatures, roller balls peeling away and running down slope, gloppy and mushy surface conditions, and natural avalanches.
wet-slab3• Often times, this can be tied to warm sunny days preceding a spring storm (especially the day after).
• Pay attention to the weather history and the current weather conditions. Many warm days with a very light freeze or no freeze at night means the snow pack is not getting time to re-strengthen, and can be especially tender when the sun comes out.

Tips: Start early! In the springtime, don’t be afraid to get pre-dawn starts to beat the heat. The avalanche hazard can change very quickly, with safe conditions in the morning, and dangerous conditions once the heat turns on.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

 

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 5 – Loose Dry

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy. In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided. In today’s installment, we will cover Loose Dry Avalanches.

Loose dry avalanches in a nutshell

loose-drySoft and unconsolidated surface snow means there’s potential for loose snow avalanches, otherwise known as “sluffs”. Although outrunning monster sluffs in Alaska looks doable in the movies, the reality is that not everyone has the ability and experience, nor is it the right tactic for every situation.

What exactly is a loose dry avalanche?

• Often called “sluff” slides, this is when an upper layer of cohesion-less snow starts as a small, localized slide, gains momentum, and amasses more snow as it travels down slope.
• Natural releases often have a fan like shape, originating from a single point, and gain more width as they travel down slope (also known as a point release).
• These slides tend to be on the smaller side and are less dangerous than slab avalanches. But on large, steep slopes, like in Alaska, sluffs can become quite large and lethal.
• If there is a secondary slab problem, a sluff slide could be enough weight to trigger it.
• In the event that the storm snow is forming a slab, this would be referred to as “storm slab.”
• Loose dry conditions tend to be short lived if formed by new snow (hours to days), but can stick around for longer in periods of light wind and consistent, cool temperatures.

Where you might find loose dry conditions, and how to avoid it

• Loose avalanches tend to occur in steeper terrain, particularly approaching 40 degrees or steeper.
loose-dry-icon• Avoid steep slopes! This problem can be entirely managed by staying off of steep terrain until the new snow has settled.
• For big mountain riders, consider the consequences of being caught and what you could be pushed over (cliff bands, rocks, etc.). Avoid slopes that have these features.
• Also consider potential terrain traps, as even a small loose avalanche can pile up deep in the deposition zone.
• Plan your decent wisely, and think about areas out of the fall line to escape a sluff.
• Although an advanced technique, ski cuts can work well, as you can push off the top layer of snow and let it run out front, which may mitigate the problem.

How to look and test for loose dry conditions

• Observations about natural avalanche activity and recent weather are all useful.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA• Fan shaped natural releases on steep slopes during or after a storm event are good indicators that a skier could trigger these slides.
• Recent new snow and loose surface conditions (from new or faceting) are signs that are easily observed, and don’t require a formal pit.
• Ski cutting short test slopes can tell us if the surface is wanting to run or not.

Tips: Although new snow is likely the cause of sluffs, long periods of cold and clear weather can facet the surface and create loose snow conditions as well.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 4 – Storm Slab

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

storm-snow

For splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy.  In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided.  In today’s installment, we will cover Storm Slab Avalanches.

Storm slabs in a nutshell

storm-snowLet’s face it:  The best riding is often experienced during or right after a big storm. But in the backcountry, this can mean the new snow has formed a soft slab.  The new snow may not be adhered to the underlying surface, or it may have an “upside down” structure.   The best practice is to stay off of steep terrain (35 degrees and steeper) until the new snow has had time to adjust, which could take several days.

What exactly is a storm slab?

• A storm slab is new snow, which is cohesive enough to act like, or form a slab.
• Sometimes the slab is not bonding to the underlying surface. In other cases, it may form upside-down, meaning colder lighter snow on the bottom (weak layer) and heaver or wetter snow on top (slab). These tend to be smaller in size.
• If the storm snow is not a slab, than this is referred to as “loose dry” (next post). If a persistent weak layer is involved, than see the “persistent slab” problem.
• These are often short lived, and are experienced during or post storm event. The problem can last for several days, but can last longer if the temperatures remain very cold.

Where you might find a storm slab, and how to avoid them

storm-slab-icon• Storm slabs are typically widespread, but think about where the storm totals are greatest. Upper elevations, or the wet side of the range, are likely to have more of a problem.
• Higher elevations and shaded slopes are colder, which can preserve the problem for longer.
• Avalanches are more likely to occur in terrain 35 degrees or steeper.  However, play it safe and stick to terrain under 35 degrees during or after the storm.
• Always be careful around natural avalanche paths during a storm, as start zones are becoming loaded and natural slides can occur.

How to look for and test a storm slab

• Hand pits and skin track cuts are nice tests if storm totals are under 1.5 feet (about 40cm), as they are very quick, can be done many times throughout the day, and give information on how well the snow is bonding. They allow you to look for patterns throughout the day.
• Ski cuts or stomps on steep slopes are great indicators for these surface conditions.
• Compression Tests (CT) are good for testing the bonding (lower scores or sudden planer sheers), and Extended Column Tests work if the new snow isn’t too soft.

Tips: If you get out for a few days in a row, watch for settlement cones around trees and bushes. Also, look for trends in your test scores:  Higher scores, or more resistant hand sheers, mean the snow is starting to stick.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

 

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 3 – Deep Slab

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

deep-slab
For splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy.  In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided.  In today’s installment, we will cover Deep Slab Avalanches.

Deep slab avalanches in a nutshell

deep-slabWhen deep slab conditions exist, it’s time to ratchet back the terrain and play it safe. Once persistent weak layers are buried deep in the snowpack, it becomes hard to test and evaluate them, and the consequences can be dire as the slide is going to be large. Read into the advisory on where these conditions might exist.  Until the layer has healed, either stick to lower angle terrain, or gravitate towards slopes where this structure isn’t present.  Be cautious of runouts when the weak layer has been recently loaded.

What exactly is a deep persistent slab?

• A deep slab is essentially a persistent slab, but thicker (see previous post). The slab is going to be approaching 3 feet or more. Sometimes it can even involve the season’s entire snowpack. This strong slab is resting on a softer, persistent weak layer beneath.
• For review, persistent weak layers include facets, depth hoar and surface hoar. These weak layers form under cold and clear conditions, and when buried under a slab, become very problematic.
• Deep slab conditions are very tricky. Because of the slab thickness and nature of persistent weak layers, they can produce very large, and often times un-survivable avalanches.
• Given the fact this involves a persistent weak layer, deep slabs can stick around. These can be problematic for weeks to months.
• Like the persistent slabs, after periods of warm weather and little additional stress, they can slowly being to heal.  After periods of being dormant, however, they can be reawakened if large loads are applied or drastic warm-ups occur.

Where you might find a deep slab, and how to avoid them 

• Deep slab problems are as widespread as the persistent weak layer. This means the layer can exist on many slopes and elevations (although this depends on how exactly they were formed), or it could be localized.
deep-slab-icon• Read your local advisory carefully for information on the distribution of this layer and think about where it existed before it got buried.
• When sensitive, very conservative decision-making is crucial. Stick to lower angle terrain (under 30 degrees) and be mindful of what’s above.
• Often times, before the layer fully heals, we enter a period of “low probability, high consequence”, meaning there’s a smaller chance you’d trigger it, but if you do, there’s a big price to pay.
• With this in mind, even when the layer is beginning to stabilize, try to avoid steep slopes with this structure. Your best bet is to read into the advisory to get an idea of where this layer exists (aspect and elevation) and avoid steep terrain in these areas.
• Stay away from rocky slopes or areas of shallower snow, as the weak layer is closer to the surface, and can be easier to trigger.
• Remote triggers are possible with this layer, so be aware of what’s above and be careful of runouts (especially if cracking/collapsing is experienced).
• Keep in mind that large avalanches mean safe zones must be selected carefully. These are the kind of slides that can run full path and are very destructive.

How to look and test a deep slab

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Example of deep slab pit analysis. Photos courtesy of Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center (sawtoothavalanche.com).

• Field observations become difficult, even for experienced professionals.
• Snowpack tests become less useful.  When a layer is that deep, tapping on a shovel is not always going to produce results. Instead, you can focus on structure, so dig just to look for the layer and check for hardness.
• Signs of natural avalanches as well as cracking or collapsing while touring certainly are indicators, although these signs won’t always be present.

Tips: Deep slabs can often produce “false stable” snowpack test results (ECT or CT), meaning the lack of failure in your tests make the conditions look more favorable than they actually are. Instead, if the structure is present (slab over weak layer), one could assume it’s possible to trigger in the right spot. Until the weak layer actually becomes stronger and firmer, it should not be trusted.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator

Avalanche Problem Web Series:
Part 2 – Persistent Slab

How to Apply the Avalanche Forecast to Your Riding

persistent-slab6For splitboarders venturing into the backcountry, information can be the difference between an epic day and tragedy.  In an effort to increase education and avalanche awareness, Spark R&D is presenting a 7-part web series called Avalanche Problems, which will explain the nationally standardized types of slides most commonly described in advisories by avalanche forecasters.  

Understanding the characteristics of each type will help to determine where avalanches are likely to occur and what kind of terrain should be avoided.  In today’s installment, we will cover Persistent Slab Avalanches.

Persistent slabs in a nutshell

persistent-slabWhen facets, depth hoar or surface hoar become buried, we are faced with an avalanche problem that can last for a long time and be widespread. The best strategy may be to seek out lower angle terrain until the layer has had time to heal. Be especially careful around trigger points, such as rocks, shallow spots and roll-overs. These slides are know for their ability to produce large avalanches.

What exactly is a persistent slab?

• A slab of cohesive snow (layer that is sticking together) that is sitting on top of a persistent weak layer.
• Examples of persistent weak layers include facets, depth hoar (developed facets) or surface hoar (frozen dew).
• These layers are all formed during periods of clear, calm and cold weather, and can be enhanced by shallow, early season snow, which is subsequently buried by following storms.
• Persistent slab conditions can produce large avalanches.
• Persistent weak layers are given this name for a reason:  When these layers form and get buried, they tend to last for weeks, or even months.
• Warm weather and time may eventually compact persistent weak layer, making them stronger.
• Be careful though, because more loading (new snow or wind), or drastic warm ups, can reactivate these weak layers.

Where you might find a persistent slab, and how to avoid them 

• Unfortunately, persistent weak layers can be widespread, meaning the layer exists on many slopes and elevations (although this depends on how exactly they were formed).
persistent-slab-icon• Assume the layer is everywhere unless the forecast mentions otherwise. Read your local advisory carefully for information on the distribution of this layer.
• Areas of concern can include shallower snow, rocky slopes, or colder, protected slopes, like mid-elevation, shaded terrain.
• The only option is to seek out lower angle terrain (30 degrees or less) and be conservative.
• As the weak layer begins to heal and the forecast hazard starts to go down, gradually progress into terrain above 30 degrees. Pick slopes with clean runouts, no convexities or trigger points, and lower consequence. Pick safe zones wisely and make sure to use good travel technique.
• Remote triggers are possible with this layer, so be aware of what’s above and be careful of runouts (especially if cracking/collapsing is experienced).

How to look for and test persistent slabs

persistent-slab3

Photos courtesy of Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center (sawtoothavalanche.com).

• Relevant observations include watching for natural avalanches as well as cracking or collapsing while touring. This means the persistent weak layer is giving way under the weight of the slab and yourself, so just imagine if this happened on a steeper slope!
• By checking the forecast, you may have an idea of how deep the layer should be, so try digging several pits and observe where the layer exists. Facets often have a “sugary” or “granular” appearance, and do not pack into snowballs well.
• Performing snowpack tests, such as an Extended Column Test, can give us more information. It is important, however, to have the training and experience necessary to properly interpret the test results. (If you haven’t done so already, take an avalanche safety course!)
• Pushing your pole into the snow and feeling for a sudden decrease in resistance means you’ve punched through the slab into the weak layer. This can be a quick way of tracking the layer’s distribution throughout the day.

Tips: Don’t make any assumptions about persistent weak layers. They can be tricky to deal with, catch you off guard, and often produce large avalanches.

Disclaimer: Although characteristic, these descriptions are general, so make sure to read into any specifics mentioned on your local advisory. Also, this is just one piece of the puzzle, so remember to factor in the hazard rating and any field observations.

Find your local avalanche center: www.avalanche.org

Presented by Clark Corey
Splitboard Guide/Avalanche Educator