Friday, 18 April 2014

Avalanche season not over yet in the Tablelands

by Keith and Heather Nicol
Recent avalanche debris and cornice chunks
    What a difference a few days make. Six days ago we headed to the Tablelands Bowl and were blown away by all the snow in many places in the Tablelands in Gros Morne National Park. But after 2 days of 15 C weather on Tuesday and Wednesday the snow took a real hit and also brought down some big cornices which in turn triggered some large avalanches. Some chunks of cornice were the size of a couple of pick up trucks and they slid 100's of meters. The avalanche debris was spread over 100's of square meters and it is lucky no one was up here at the time.  There is still lots of cornice still to come down so be careful when the temperatures ramp up especially if there is no over night freeze. Our latest trip was on Friday, April 18 and it seemed like the sunny but cool weather really brought out the crowds to the bowl. We counted close to 20 people on snowboards, skis and snowshoes and there were likely 10 dogs getting some exercise at the same time.
View looking back toward Bonne Bay with avalanche debris in the foreground
      Due to the heavy freeze overnight with temperatures down to -9 C we knew the bowl would likely not thaw despite the forecast of sunny skies with light winds and + 4 C temperatures. So our plan was to ski the Lunchbox Chutes into Winterhouse Brook Gorge which have a southerly orientation. But once we reached the top of the chute we realized that recent warm temperatures had wiped out the snow in the gully and it was down to bare rock in places. So we headed back to western side of the bowl that had had abit better sun exposure and there we found some snow that was starting to turn to corn where we made a few runs. Be aware that since the Tablelands Bowl faces northeast it doesn't get much direct sun and so you need temperatures to reach the 8-10 C (at sea level) before you can count on the snow here really softening. One bonus of the cool temperatures was that it created a low avalanche hazard. There is still lots of snow in this part of the Tablelands and we could still easily ski back to the parking lot so this area will be good for awhile yet.
Jamie Ryan skiing the eastern side of the bowl

Scott Ledrew with dog T-loup take a rest by a large chunk of cornice
The western side of the bowl had softer snow

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