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Climbing Ranger Notes on Skiing 6.7.22

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Climbing Ranger Blog from here:  https://mountrainierclimbing.blogspot.com/2022/06/upper-mountain-skiing-and-snowboarding.html?fbclid=IwAR0oypputNf8ec71zX-XZTzJnz-3NImMlJJvIGXT2eXatgfSddz9IFwlsw4

 

While it's not in the forecast yet, there will be an end to the persistent series of 'wet season-like' storms that have been pasting the mountain with snow. When the weather does stabilize we expect to see an influx of skiers looking to take advantage of what could be very good conditions. Please keep the following things in mind, though, before rushing to the mountain.

1) Give the snowpack time to stabilize

This has been an unusually wet Spring. In fact, May was the wettest it has been since 1948 and June is starting in much the same vein. That means the upper mountain has not had time for the winter snowpack to settle. Many of the climbing rangers think that the upper elevations look more like April than June. 

With the sun nearing the solstice that means when the switch to summer-like temps does come it will have a more rapid and pronounced effect than it would in April. The mid elevations have gone through a few very large avalanche cycles but above 10,000' this has not happened yet. Expect a period of highly unstable snow once the storms stop and the weather heats up. Give the snowpack some time to adjust to summer.

2) Just because you're on skis it doesn't make you safer.

It has become part of skiing culture that it is 'safer' to be on a glacier with skis/snowboard due to the increased surface area. While this may be true for a flat glacier with soft snow bridges it is not true for the upper mountain on Mt. Rainier. The surface near the summit of Rainier is typically very firm with lots of surface roughness and ice. The majority of the skiing/snowboarding accidents and fatalities are the result of falls while skiing. Poor surface conditions and a lack of skiing/snowboarding skill are often contributory factors to skiing accidents.

When talking to aspirational skiers/snowboarders at the high camps rangers are often surprised at the lack of experience people have before attempting a summit ski or snowboard descent. If you are not an expert level skier or snowboarder then it is considerably more dangerous for you to descend on skis/snowboard than on foot. Expect firm snow or ice about 12,000' where a fall while skiing can easily result in an out-of-control slide and a life threatening situation.

3) Climbing with ski/snowboard gear takes more effort and is slower.

The added weight and loss of efficiency when booting up Mt Rainier with skis/snowboard on your pack and boots on your feet should not be overlooked. AT boots are cumbersome to climb in and soft snowboard boots do not inspire confidence when crampon-ing. This should be factored in to your time plan and accounted for when evaluating conditions before beginning a descent on tired legs. Wind is another factor that will tire out a skier/snowboarder (when the skis/board is attached to the pack) faster than a traditional mountaineer.

4) Timing is everything.

Poor surface conditions can make a basic slope extremely dangerous and great conditions can make a steep run seem easy. Getting the timing right for a descent is one of the most important things a ski/snowboard team can do to maximize their margin of safety. Learning the patterns of when the sun, temperatures and wind all combine to make the surface good for a descent must be learned through experience. Relying on fixed time windows such as 'you always start a descent at XX:XX time' is a tell-tale sign of inexperience. The daily fluctuations in cloud cover, wind and temperature requires that a ski mountaineer be able to read the day and react accordingly.

Many would-be skiers/snowboarders will leave for their summit bid much later than the traditional mountaineers. This may be warranted when trying to give the snow time to soften during the day. But many teams underestimate the amount of time it will take them to reach the summit and thus put themselves in more danger by ascending during the hottest time of day. It's definitely preferable to wait for snow to soften from the top vs climbing through unstable snow and crevasse bridges. 

A ski/snowboard descent of Mt Rainier can be a wonderful and exhilarating experience. It can also be terrifying and extremely dangerous. It should never be taken lightly and for mountaineers with very little climbing and skiing/snowboarding experience it may not be at all appropriate in many conditions. 

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