Avalanches and other winter hiking hazards are increasingly difficult to predict

If there’s one thing you want when hitting the backcountry in winter, it’s predictability. But that is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.

“We’re finding over the last five years that (it’s) much harder to get accurate long-term forecasts because of weather models built on historical data. And that data is less and less indicative of what we’re experiencing now,” said Joe Klementovich, one of the founding members of the new Mount Washington Avalanche Center Foundation.

The problem, of course, is the climate emergency. Increasing amounts of energy trapped in the atmosphere are changing historic temperature, precipitation and wind patterns in the White Mountains, which is bad news for those trying to help hikers stay safe by avoiding avalanches.

I spoke with Klementovich because two longtime White Mountain Valley nonprofits—Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and the White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation—just merged to form the Mount Washington Avalanche Center Foundation. I wondered if the changing climate was a factor in the decision, but he said it was largely to avoid duplication.

“The two organizations were talking to each other and realizing that we are very similar. It’s crazy to have two separate organizations doing very similar things,” he said.

The purpose of the new foundation will be the same as before: providing information and providing qualified personnel to keep people like me safe in the mountains or to rescue us when we are not, providing outreach, historical events and educational opportunities and raising money to do so. all possible

But you can’t talk about winter in the mountains for very long without climate change coming into the picture. Consider something that’s obvious to any snow sports fan: the increasingly erratic arrival of heavy rains in New Hampshire’s midwinter.

In the valleys, these storms are depressing as they melt the blizzards, leaving snowshoes and skiers to gaze mournfully at the bare, frozen ground. In the mountains, however, they are dangerous.

When rain creates an icy crust on top of deep snow and is then covered by more snow, those newer layers can slide off unexpectedly. Heavier rains can also destabilize the underlying snow.

“It’s percolating through the snowpack and it’s very hard to tell what it’s going to do,” Klementovich said. This is compounded by an increase in extreme rainfall — 2 or 3 inches in a relatively short time — that can penetrate deep, loosening the snowpack in ways that are hard to detect.

Klementovich pointed out that this creates dangerous mountain situations even when you’re not heading into an avalanche-prone area, such as a ravine.

“A lot of people focus on skiers when we talk about avalanches, but with the increase in extreme swings in weather … then we have the classic very hard snowpack, a layer of rock-hard ice or snow. This puts inexperienced hikers at risk of long, slippery falls,” he said.

Slipping on ice is much more dangerous than falling on snow or bare ground. I speak from experience (thankfully not too bad experience) that you pick up speed at an incredible rate when you hit an icy trail and start going downhill.

Also at risk is the growing number of cross-country skiers who hike up instead of taking the lifts. As the snowpack becomes harder for their boots to penetrate as they head uphill, the chance of a slippery fall increases.

All of this means you want to have a good idea of ​​when and where these rain events will occur – but exactly that is becoming increasingly difficult to know.

The main message for those of us who love the New Hampshire winter wilderness?

“The important thing for the general public to know is: It’s a very difficult thing to predict,” Klementovich said. “We definitely have a lot more people in the backcountry. They have to be ready.”

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