I know it's just barely December, but I'm about one weak storm system away from stripping down and throwing a half-gallon of gasoline and a match on the pile of old straight skis and broken snowboards that has been building up in the garage for the last few seasons. All I want is one big storm. Then another. And another. Piled up on the horizon, loaded and heavy with precipitation for months to come. Nothing like a sacrificial fire and ceremonial booty-shaking dance to get that fickle bitch La Nina and all her snow-god pals on board.
If I really wanted I could dodge lava and ride corduroy off one of the three lifts Mt. Bachelor is running during the week. But the learning curve for early season cat operators coupled with the freeze-thaw cycle that's been oscillating between 33 degrees and 27 degrees for more than five days now puts that option at about a one on my zero-to-five fun scale - way better than going to the gym, but not nearly as good as running trails or sneaking in a few more bike rides. My best option for an early season fix, probably a three on the scale, is going out on classic Nordic gear to scout backcountry line potential.
While the vertical skiing may still be sketchy at this time of year due to low tide conditions that include downed trees, exposed rocks and bare patches, cross-country touring on lightweight skis can be a viable option to suss out future descents. However, according to the Central Oregon Avalanche Association (COAA), everyone traveling in the mountains, regardless of the time of year, should be aware that avalanche danger begins as soon as snow starts accumulating on slopes greater than 30 degrees.
The COAA offers the following reminders to winter enthusiasts entering the backcountry at any time of the season:
Grass and brush sticking out of the snow surface is not an indication of safety. Avalanches can occur any time snow accumulates on a steep slope, regardless of overall snow depth. All that is necessary for a slide to occur is a slab resting on a weak bed surface, including the ground.
Old snow, including summer snowfields, can also act as a weak layer upon which slides can occur, particularly in early-season avalanches.
During the season, rocks, stumps and trees may anchor the snow pack. However, in the early season these obstacles can result in increased danger during a slide.
Wind is an important component in the creation of snow slabs. Strong winds can take a three-inch snowstorm and quickly build an 18-inch wind slab. Areas with shallow snow may be very close to deep-drifted areas. It may be quite easy to move rapidly from a very safe area to a very dangerous area without traveling very far.
Last night, I read through the NOAA Climate Prediction Center's December Outlook for the Pacific Northwest. According to all the models based on 30 years of climate data, we should see widespread cold temperatures and precipitation well above normal. Skiing from Upper Three Creeks this morning toward Tam McArthur Rim I wasn't buying it. The Manzanita and muddy ground remain prevalent, and in especially thin zones my ski track left a line of red cinder in its wake. Climate models and weather forecasts, like high-pressure systems, are proving to be a source of frustration.
I'm not excited about lighting old gear on fire and watching as P-Tex curls, blackens and releases noxious fumes, but I'm willing to take one for the team if it means the skies will open to deliver inches upon inches of blower and the opportunity for throat-choking rooster tails. I'll sacrifice my modesty and my green ethic for a few good turns. Maybe it will work, and I'll be able to earn those "green credits" back by spending a season forgoing sleds and chairlifts because I put my early season scouting to work on mid-winter's promised lines.
For more information, or to increase your backcountry knowledge and safety practices consider taking an avalanche awareness class. Central Oregon Community College, Three Sisters Backcountry, and Timberline Mountain Guides all offer avalanche education courses in the Central Oregon area.