Skiers find unstable snowpack in High Peaks

Backcountry skiers are finding that some open slopes in the High Peaks are holding unstable snowpacks that are prone to avalanching.

Jay resident Drew Haas said he was planning to ski Angel Slides on Wright Peak with a friend on Monday, Feb. 10, but decided against it after he noticed several red flags. Haas said he noticed shooting cracks in the snow, a collapsing snowpack and he heard a whoomphing noise.

He also dug a snow pit toward the bottom of the slide in about 30 inches of snow and found an unstable layer just above the ground.

“There’s times when you know there’s instabilities but you can work around them or manage them; but this was something that potentially could go really big and it wasn’t something that you felt like you could manage,” Haas said.

Wright Peak is a popular slide among backcountry skiers because it is relatively easy to access by bushwhacking from Marcy Dam, just a 2.3-mile ski from the High Peaks Information Center’s parking lot.

Over the years, several avalanches have been triggered by skiers on Wright Peak, including one in February 2000 when a skier died.

After Haas and his friend decided it was unsafe to ski the slide, he wrote about it on Adirondack Backcountry Skiing, a website he manages.

“Yesterday was a first for me ,” Haas wrote. “The first time in 15 winters touring in the Adirondacks that I backed off from skiing a slide due to the unstable snowpack.”

Saranac Lake resident Jim Sausville, a very experienced backcountry skier, also has noticed instability in the snowpack recently and witnessed an avalanche Saturday on the north side of Phelps Mountain.

“The snowpack was as unstable as I’ve ever seen it here in the Adirondacks – totally, at least in this spot,” Sausville said. “It was unbelievable. Everywhere you went was accompanied by (snow) settling.”

Like Haas, Sausville said he noticed signs that it wasn’t safe to ski on the slide. Sausville said he was slightly ahead of his group of three other skiers when he approached the top corner of the slide on Phelps. He said when he did a hop while standing in place in the upper corner, he created a fracture line across the top of the slide. The snow avalanched down from the middle of it, he said.

“The snow depth was about 20 inches, which all fell into blocks and slid down the rock face slowly,” Sausville said. “I mean, it wasn’t a dangerous, ‘Oh, my god, the earth is shattering.’ It was just fracture lines radiated from me all the way through the open face and the middle of it broke into blocks and slid 50 or 75 feet to the bottom of this landslide.”

Sausville agreed with Haas that there is a weak layer at the base of this snowpack.

“This is a long-term thing unfortunately because we’ve got that underlying weak layer, which needs a warming in temperature to get the crystalline growth to continue on its way,” Sausville said. “When it’s cold the way it is now, the crystalline growth is kind of stagnated at this point.”

The forecast called for warmer temperatures and rain in the near future, but Sausville said that’s not necessarily going to solve the problem.

“Any added weight on top of the snowpack (from the rain) is bad for it, especially when you’ve got an underlying weak layer,” Sausville said. “Then actually water percolating through the snowpack tends to break down a lot of the bonds, so that’s potentially not good either. So what it really needs is not moisture but warmth.”

As a results of their experiences, both Haas and Sausville have been skiing on trails or trees. Glade skiing is a good way to go right now because the trees generally act as anchors for the snow. Trails also aren’t known to be prone to avalanching.

“Some people have found similar instabilities in like the Colden area and the Saddleback area, but also people have been finding really good skiing,” Haas said. “A lot of it is choosing slopes that are a little bit less steep and less wide. It seem like the north aspect is the bad aspect.”

Sausville skied on the Mount Marcy Ski Trail on Monday and found conditions good above the 50-Meter Bridge on the Van Hoevenberg Trail. He said he didn’t have enough time to get to the summit of Marcy but he thought even what people refer to as the “bowl” on Marcy might potentially be unsafe.

“I didn’t get up to the bowl (Monday), but I would be a little hesitant before I plunged off the top of that,” Sausville said. “It’s been known to slide before. It’s a big deposition zone. The summit is blown clear so that snow had to go somewhere and the bowl is where it goes, so that’s filled with wind-deposited snow, which is potentially a danger.”