Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Spring Snow Safety in Western Newfoundland

By Keith and Heather Nicol
      When ski touring in the spring we need to be aware of snow safety if we travel in avalanche terrain. If you are not sure if your planned  route is traveling in areas where avalanches might occur you can check out the on line maps which show potential avalanche start zones in Western Newfoundland. This map ( highlights areas that are between 30-45 degrees which are the typical slopes needed to get avalanches moving. Simply click on the start zone symbol and if you want to see where avalanches have occurred in the past you can click on the avalanche symbol. You can zoom in and out on the map and you can also move around to different areas in Western Newfoundland. As you can see there is lots of areas where avalanches can start but there is also great low angle ski touring that can be done in this area if you want to avoid avalanche terrain altogether.
     However, many backcountry skiers and snowboarders want to ski steep areas in the Tablelands or Blow Me Down Mountains and if you do you need to think about how to manage the various snow safety hazards. In a typical Newfoundland spring  there are 4 different types of hazard ranging from cornice fall to loose wet snow avalanches as well as wet slab and wind slab avalanches to consider. Cornices may fail at any time but in the spring the risk goes up as the temperature rises above 0 C. Cornices not only are dangerous in themselves but they might also trigger avalanches on the slopes below as shown in the photo below from the Tablelands. So give cornices a wide berth when skiing above and below them especially on warm days.
A large chunk of cornice that also triggered an avalanche (note debris up slope)
      Wet loose snow avalanches are common in the spring in Western Newfoundland and the adjacent photo shows several in Blow Me Down Bowl. These avalanches are generally not too hazardous on an open slope but they do pack more punch than you might think. They can often knock a skier or rider down and if there are rocks or trees downslope they can possibly be injured. To manage this risk avoid start zones when the snow is wet from the sun, warm temperatures, rain or does not freeze overnight. 

Large loose snow avalanches in Blow Me Down Bowl
      Wet slab avalanches are more of a hazard than loose snow avalanches since they involve more snow and will likely travel faster. They occur when water percolates into the snow layers and triggers an avalanche. The photo below shows one that occurred in the Tablelands Bowl. Although this slide was only 30 cm deep in most places it did pile up to 1.5 meters in others and was an estimated 80-100 meters long. To manage this risk avoid start zones when the snow is wet from sun and warm temperatures, rain or does not freeze overnight. 

Wet slab avalanche in Tablelands Bowl
Wind slab avalanche

      Wind slabs tend to occur where fresh snow has been deposited on lee slopes. Since we likely will not get much new snow through the rest of this spring this hazard is not that likely but if we do get a spring snow storm then be aware of where the wind may have piled this snow up. Also since it likely will fall on an icy crust this creates a good layer for this snow to slide on.  Since we get most of wind from the west this hazard can be managed by avoiding steep east slopes where wind slabs are most likely to have been created. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Skiing in the Tablelands Bowl in Gros Morne National Park

The largest of the recent avalanches in the bowl
by Keith and Heather Nicol
   On Saturday, April 12 we headed to the Tablelands Bowl in Gros Morne National Park to check out the snow and avalanche situation. It was our first trip to the bowl this winter and our group consisted of Jamie Ryan and Scott Ledrew but we met several other people in the bowl while we were skiing and riding. Overall all we saw 9 others beside our group and they were on a mix of equipment including AT (alpine touring), telemark and snowboards. We saw 3 avalanches in the bowl but the largest was on climbers left and it was 80-100 meters long and roughly 20-25 meters wide. The debris was generally only 30 cm deep but in places it was piled up 1 to 1.5 meters deep.  Had you been  hit by this avalanche you would have definitely been knocked off your feet and likely injured since debris was pretty solid. It is uncertain when it came down but was likely several days old and may have been associated with some snow that fell on Sunday, April 6. The cornices that rim the bowl are huge and generally have not collapsed so give the main part of the bowl a wide berth. We stuck to the slopes on climbers right where the grade allows for a skin track to be set and we stayed well away from any areas under the cornice. The day turned out to be perfect skiing since there was no wind (even at the top)
and the snow softened nicely through the day. There is tons of snow in this area, and we had to park on the road since the normal parking lot was still snow covered. We measured snow depths along the way into the bowl and although there some wind swept areas we also found depths approaching 2 meters in places. This area should be good skiing for some quite awhile this spring but use caution in some steeper areas especially on very warm days or when there has been a fresh snowfall.
Scott Ledrew with Jamie Ryan in the background
Jamie Ryan skis over some older loose snow avalanche debris

Friday, 11 April 2014

Ski Touring into Blow Me Down Bowl

by Keith and Heather Nicol
   On Friday, April 11 we did a ski tour into Blow Me Down Bowl with telemarker Mark Coady to check out the snow situation in this part of the Blow Me Down Mountains. It was our first trip in here this year and with all of the snow we thought there might be more snow at the start. But is a windy spot and and although we could easily ski into the bowl area, we could see that some bogs were bare in spots. We measured snow depths in a few places and the snow was anywhere from 20 cm- 50 cm in those areas along the trail. This route can be done on a variety of ski gear or even snowshoes but you will want AT or Telemark gear if you decide to ski some of the steeper slopes. We started at the Blow Me Down Brook Nature Trail (21 0410052 E 5484278 N) parking lot on the South Shore Highway and followed the valley in for about 3 km to the stream that drains the bowl. The route is through open forest and so it is easy to pick your own trail. There are also old signs and some flagging tape in places to mark the route.Although we had nice sunny weather for the start of our trip the wind was very strong and at times we had trouble skiing into the wind. They call it Blow Me Down for a reason. Once we skied up into the bowl we could see evidence of 7 small natural avalanches which likely involved the new snow that fell on Sunday April 6. These were all on either east or north facing slopes which were likely the main areas of wind deposited snow. We also found avalanche debris well down in the bottom of the bowl from some larger older avalanches. The bowl is ringed with large cornices so use care if you are here on warm days since they may collapse with little warning. We had planned on skiing some of the steeper slopes but the strong gusty wind and the start of some steady rain forced us to ski quickly back to the car. This area will have good skiing for the next while but don't leave it too long since the lower areas will start to melt out. But be aware of steep slopes especially if they have new snow on them.
Mark Coady looks up at the centre of the bowl with older avalanche debris in front of him

Mark telemarking down the valley

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Ski Touring at Big Hill in Gros Morne National Park

by Keith and Heather Nicol
      On Saturday, April 5 we headed to Big Hill in Gros Morne National Park to check out the snow pack and possibly investigate an avalanche chute that we noted when scouting the area on Google Earth. I was joined by telemarker Rick Lichtenauer and his dog Molly and we fully recommend this trip for its stunning views and easy to access trailhead at 21 0441495 E 5484284 N. We followed the ridge through the open birch forest and fortunately a group of snowshoers had done the trip recently and their tracks made the route easy to follow. We never did get down to the avalanche chute - we thought we would save that for a trip when there was a bit more snow but we did circumnavigate the Big Hill summit at 639 meters. We measured the snowpack in several areas and found anywhere from 20 cm to 1 meter of snow along the ridge. Since this area faces southwest the snow won't last here like it will in other places so we recommend heading up there soon.

Rick and Molly heading up through the open forest
The views of ice covered Bonne Bay and the surrounding mountains were superb

Monday, 31 March 2014

Level 1 Cross Country Ski Instructor Course held in Stephenville and Corner Brook

Level 1 participants practicing diagonal stride
by Keith and Heather Nicol

  A CANSI (Canadian Association of Nordic Ski Instructors) Level 1 course was held in Stephenville (Saturday) and Corner Brook (Sunday) over the weekend of March 29 -30, 2014. CANSI is headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario and has a mandate to promote a cross country ski instructor training system across the country. CANSI has members in all provinces and territories and has 4 Levels of cross country ski instructors. A CANSI Level 1 course is designed to be an intro to cross country ski instruction and it shows potential instructors how to teach basic classic, skate and hill technique. The course looks at the CANSI progression in how to teach techniques like diagonal stride, double pole, 1 skate and snowplow turns as well as how to detect and correct common skiing errors. For instance, if a new skier comes to a ski club in Newfoundland and wants to learn how to safety descend a hill or learn how to skate or classic ski, a CANSI certified instructor is trained to demonstrate the correct technique. CANSI instructors also learn a variety of exercises and drills to help skiers to be able to ski more efficiently and hence enjoy the sport more. Here are some comments from this most recent course:
Thanks, Keith.  Enjoyed the course and learned a lot - especially learned
how much I have to learn!  Doug

Had a great time and learned lots - not only about sking but also about teaching physical education. Thank you for putting on the course - it is great to learn from the best. Mark

A really great experience. Want to thank Keith for all his patience and commitment to making us better instructors (and better skiers). Shawn

If you like cross country skiing and would like to help others enjoy the sport then you should consider taking a CANSI Level 1 course. Contact Keith Nicol for more information about CANSI or to book at course at
Kate Edwards practice teaching during the Level 1 course

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Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sampling the final day of the Haywood Cross Country Ski Nationals in Corner Brook

by Keith and Heather Nicol
      We took in part of the last day at the Haywood Ski Nationals at the Blow Me Down Ski Park in Corner Brook and it was exciting to see the mass starts for the final classic race. The weather was varied with snow, gusty winds and even sunny breaks in the afternoon. Again it was Canada's Olympians who dominated the podium in the 30 km Open Women and 50 Km Open Men. It has been good to have Canada's best cross country skiers in Corner Brook and they put on a great show. As well it has been impressive to have so many ski teams from across Canada representing the various age groups that competed. The younger age categories skied anywhere from 7.5 km to 30 km on the final day on a course which had some steep climbs and descents. Patrick McIlroy of Avalon produced Newfoundland's best finish of the day with a 9th in the Juvenile Boys. For all the results of the final day see:
Open Men making their way out of the Stadium

59 skiers were in the Open Men Category
Sochi Olympian Ivan Babikov won the Open Men
All races started with a mass start
The courses were demanding with many  hills
Patrick McIlroy of Newfoundland came in 9th in the Juvenile Boys Race

Thursday, 20 March 2014

More Exciting Cross Country Ski Racing at the Haywood Cross Country Ski Nationals in Corner Brook

by Keith and Heather Nicol
     Thursday, March 20 it was more sprint racing at the Haywood Cross Country Ski Nationals in Corner
Brook. Again the weather was perfect for skiing with highs around 0C with light winds and the Junior Men and Women, Open Men and Women and University students took to the trails. The format was similar to the previous day with interval starts to determine which skiers would go on the heats where only the fastest 2 skiers would continue to advance to the finals.The women skied 1.4 km while the men skied over a 1.6 km course. The trail had significant climbs and difficult corners which made for challenging racing. It was exciting to watch some of Canada's Olympic Cross Country Skiers take on this course and the men's open final was particularly close with the three top finishers doing the splits for the medals. The next race is a classic race on Saturday, March 22 which is the last day of the Nationals Cross Country Ski Races. Again spectators are encouraged to come out and cheer on the racers which have come from across the country to ski in Corner Brook.  For more information see:
The action out of the start was fast and furious

The Men's Open Final was very close !
The corner caused several falls as skiers had to quickly step turn on the hard packed snow
Many of the women's races were very close
Into the finish chute
There were several steep climbs through the course

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Newfoundland on the podium in the National Cross Country Skiing Sprints

by Keith and Heather Nicol
     The National Cross Country Juvenile and Junior Boys and Girls sprints were held under sunny skies with light winds - perfect skating conditions. The race took the form of interval starts to determine the fastest skiers that would ski in the final heats of 6 skiers.  The slowest skiers were eliminated as the heats progressed making for some exciting racing around the 1.2 km course. The course had lots of ups and downs with some sharp corners that caused several skiers to fall. And a highlight for all of the Newfoundlanders in attendance was the podium finish for Patrick McIlroy. He finished 3rd in the Juvenile Boys and hails from Avalon Nordic on the East Coast of the province. More great racing tomorrow when the older men and women hit the trails in more sprint action. This is a great chance to see some top notch cross country skiers perform and visitors are encouraged to attend. See   for more information.
The weather was perfect for racing

Patrick McIlroy of Newfoundland picked up a bronze in the sprints
Heading for the stadium 
6 skiers headed out on the course in the sprints
This corner saw lots of spills
Many races were very close

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Olympic Cross Country Skiers shine in Corner Brook

 by Keith and Heather Nicol
     We are at the midway point of the National Cross Country Ski Championships and today was the free   for the upcoming races which continue until Saturday, March 22.
technique interval start. Temperatures were - 6 C and the wind was gusty but the hard pack snow made for fast skiing conditions. Racers of different categories skied distances ranging from 5 km to 15 km. Over 400 racers competed including several members of Canada's National Ski Team who recently competed at the Olympics in Sochi. It was impressive to see these skiers turn in some very fast times as they skated the race trails at the Blow Me Down Ski Park in Corner Brook. This is the biggest cross country ski event ever held in Newfoundland and the caliber of skiers here this week is impressive. This is a great chance to come out and see some of Canada's best cross country skiers compete and spectators are encouraged to come up to the ski park to see all the action. For more information see :
Rounding a corner in the stadium
Open Women skating through the stadium

Olympian Daria Gaiazova skating toward the finish
The Open Men Category skied 15 km
Skating past the flags in the stadium
Olympian Ivan Babikov won the Open Men's 15 km race