Ben Pritchard and Tess Carney making the most of a good spring day in the Aoraki, Mt. Cook area by rappelling onto the west face of Mt Acland. PHOTO: SHANE ORCHARD
O u t e r R e a l m By Shane Orchard
in the new zealand back country SPRING IS A MAD TIME OF YEAR to be a snowboarder. With all the variety we get and longer days there’s always something good to be done, which could mean going for a tour to new ground. If there’s one main point about finding good snow and keeping safe in springtime it might be that ‘timing is everything’. Luckily there are some fairly consistent patterns to go by which helps matters quite a bit. Here are a few brief tips to get you thinking. A crucial concept to pick up on is the difference in the angle of the sun on the slopes compared to earlier in winter. With the sun higher in the sky, less sunlight glances off the snow surface and much more can be absorbed by the snowpack during the day. In particular, periods of melting lead to rapidly changing snow, and a number of common scenarios. If there’s any powder around, a rapid warm up increases the snow density quickly. This can result in gorilla snot conditions in surprisingly short time, and can cause avalanching in the surface layers or worse. You may see snowballing on powder slopes as an indication that this process is underway. Another nasty problem happens when the snowpack is also warm at the base – the pack could be rotten nearly the whole way through, leaving scarcely any frozen layers to support 26 NZSNOWBOARDER
a rider. You need to check for a solid base, by scratching around in safe places and working out just how much slush has formed, how deep it is, and what’s holding it up. Be especially wary as you exit bowls at lower elevations, come around corners onto a really sunny slopes, or at any time cut across or under slushy slopes on obviously warm terrain. Rock and icefall can also be a big problem in spring. If in doubt, get off a warm slope, especially if it’s getting warmer! An option for good spring riding is finding quality corn and a solid base. Good corn quality happens once the snow has had a few cycles of thawing and freezing, hasn’t been compacted too much, and has released to a nice depth on the day you visit. However, wet spring snow is very heavy, so you don’t want the slush to go too deep or it’ll want to fall off the hill. Often spring has the max snowpack depth for the season. Up in the bigger mountains this means the crevasses and other difficulties can fill in and make access reasonable or at least possible. The longer daylight also helps, so spring can be a good time to look at some of the big steep lines, if you don’t mind an alternative to powder! Just when to hit a big line can be tricky though, as you need to gauge when the ice up high is soft enough, without the lower
slopes getting too soft, or your route out getting threatened by avalanches. This usually means juggling quite a few hazards throughout the day. Although these are some general trends, the degree to which these happen can be hard to forecast and sometimes even hard to see happening right in front of your eyes. So remember, timing is everything! Both your timing on the day and the weather on the day you choose to go will be important. Pay extra attention to the forecast weather pattern including range of temps and likely pattern of sun and cloud. Consider the options for finding the best snow, which means the elevation, aspect and slope angle will all be important. Continue reevaluating the snow quality and comparing what you’re seeing to where you’re planning to go. Keep a close eye on both the temperature and the sun, so a watch and a thermometer are good to have. Consider the range of hazards around and always keep your safe travel practices going; one person at a time, escape options in mind and always with spotters at the ready. Even in the worst year’s spring touring gives you the chance to really extend your season. So as spring sets in it’s a good time to refresh the avalanche reading and training, adjust your snow strategy and consider the possibilities. Happy touring!
Published on May 6, 2013