Photos by Josh Kato and Rob Mullins
Stevens Pass received over 13 inches of rainfall on January 6th and 7th. A Youtube video showed some guys at Alpental on Snoqualmie Pass riding tubes in flowing water on the Alpental Road, between the snowbanks. Across I-90 an avalanche and landslide of the entire snowpack on a ski run at Hyak removed lift towers and a home.
All of the east-west Washington Cascade passes Highways were closed, as was the north-south pass over the Wenatchee Mountains, Blewett Pass Highway 97. The closures were related to avalanches, landslides, falling rocks, flood water and damage or destruction and removal of the entire roadbed in places.
After all this, a few days ago I checked the Stevens Pass weather telemetry and finally noticed a perfect trend for stability. The data showed a one-day trend of rain to snow gradually with significant cooling and low winds. This was in my view the ultimate scenario for snowpack stability, along with the previous 13 inches of rain that flushed away the deep instability.
In two days the north central Cascades weather and snowpack had changed from wet and rainy to cold and partly sunny with well-bonded new snow over a now homogeneous and hazard-reduced old base. Thus, January 9th was the day. We had some sunshine for a while on our ski tour, and deep new snow — what we call powder here in the land of ten percent water content “fluff.” Wet and crappy to partly sunny and powder skiing. Cascades redemption.
We climbed from Hwy 2 at 2800 ft. elevation to the 6030 ft. summit of Arrowhead Mountain. Arrowhead is located a few miles east of Stevens Pass and directly above the 7 mile railroad tunnel. To the north is the ridge which includes Rock Mountain and to the south the spectacular Chiwaukums Mountains and Snowgrass Mountain.
We walked the different aspects of the upper open areas and found no evidence of instability. The refrozen granular was under about seven inches of new snow at 5000 ft., and I was able to penetrate the granular 6 to 8 inches with my ski pole basket which demonstrated adequate refreeze in my view. Higher up the snow had drifted in to perhaps 18 inches deep in places. No slab formation was seen by us, nothing went from a ski cut on the steepest faces, uptrack switch backs did not fail with a kick.
Climbing Arrowhead on skis is full-on exposure to avalanches while climbing and I avoid it most of the time, especially with hazard. Last year my second turn set off a six inch slab that propagated the path that we skied today for 2/3 of the length of the path. Today we saw no evidence of such instability, and we enjoyed turns in Cascade powder.
So, today was a good start — finally.
Luckily, in the maritime-climate affected Cascades snowpack rain and warmups change the nature of the snowpack on a regular basis. When one is skiing powder one must remember that it always rains, always warms, and crusts form. But then, conversely, at some point, it always snows.
(Guest blogger Rob Mullins lives in the Washington Cascades with his wife, daughter, and a black lab avalanche dog in training named Blackie.)