Recently I came back home to the Canadian Rockies and spent a day of ski touring in Peter Lougheed Park (Kananaskis Country) with a guest named Richard Rice from the UK through the Mountain Skills Academy based in Whistler. Richard was in town on business and is a strong skier and had some experience ski touring on the coast around the Whistler area. He has a successful company that he runs called www.skisafari.com. I was home at the beginning of the March when the avalanche cycle in the Rockies really started ramping up - roughly the 3rd of the month. The public safety specialists/avalanche forecasters in Banff/Jasper/K-Country were reporting widespread, massive avalanches up to size 4 on all aspects and elevations throughout the mountain parks. This high hazard cycle due to continued warming and about 60cm of precipitation continued for approximately 3 weeks straight until shortly after I got back which was March 29th from my job up in the Northwest Coastal mountains north of Stewart, B.C. where I work as an avalanche forecaster and blaster for a mine.
Richard and I met for coffee and introductions in Banff and drove back to Canmore and south on the Spray Lakes Highway 742. The weather was clear and provided us with good visibility while driving to see that many of the larger avalanches that had cycled earlier in the month had reloaded with new snow and wind. Fracture lines were no longer visible and many others still were still clearly visible with monstrous large frozen debris piles that had ran an exceptionally long distance to historical run outs and logged lots of timber.
The K-Country Public avalanche bulletin was rating it 3/2/2 or Con/Mod/Mod with a windslab issue as well as the low probability/high consequence deeply buried facets from December near the base of the snowpack which was the culprit of this astonishing 30 year return period cycle.
We got to the parking lot and it felt balmy at -1.5. There had been clear skies in the morning in Canmore making for a relatively decent freeze but it was quite warm already in the parking lot with no wind and the sun was packing a real punch already with snow sticking to our skins right out of the gates. Loose wet avalanches were already rumbling off the big, steep, east facing alpine walls from the recent 5-10cms of new and the direct solar radiation creating an upper instability. We pressed on knowing that the forecast was calling for cloud cover as the day developed. Shortly after we did our companion rescue training in a meadow before we got into avalanche terrain, boiling up with the humidity in the lower atmosphere and day time heating produced convective clouds, which soon after produced snow showers as we skinned up carefully keeping our exposure minimized.
I discussed my thought process with Richard and we agreed that skinning up toward our objective still made sense and we skinned up until I lost site of the upper headwalls. Although there had been massive previous activity, there still remained some measurable residual that although I was confident would not reach us - I decided to call it at 2100 meters elevation, we took off our skins in the forest and skied down. To quote a well respected avalanche forecaster Bruce Kay: "Its better to be mostly right than 100% wrong". The sun had come back out and the warming inputs made me feel small and apprehensive about any additional exposure.
The past few weeks I think it is safe to say people have been granting mother nature her due course and avoiding avalanche terrain completely given the ferocious size and magnitude of this March's eye-popping cycle. What I think needs to be re-iterated is that from what I saw and how I felt out there I would say with decent confidence that the December layer is still an issue in specific areas, mostly up in Alpine and that it would only take some kind of additional stressor to the snowpack like pronounced heat in the form of high ambient air temps above freezing, extended high freezing levels for over 24 hrs, rain or snow to add additional load to the snowpack or large cornice releases to wake this layer back up. Basically, High hazard is over for now but the problem lingers and when it does heat up - expect very large avalanches again. Play safe out there.