Active Outdoors: ‘Snow sense’ comes in handy for New England winters

  • Having “snow sense” can help you find a powder morning, even when it isn’t snowing at most ski areas. Tim Jones / photo

  • Upslope snow and snowguns blasting made for stellar snow conditions at Bretton Woods on December 12. (Tim Jones/ photo) Tim Jones / photo

  • Do you know where avalanches happen, how to avoid them, and what to do it someone gets buried? If not, build your avalanche awareness by taking a course. It’s fun! Tim Jones / photo

For the Monitor
Published: 12/25/2018 7:02:42 PM

How much “snow sense” do you possess?

I define snow sense as a general awareness of how snow comes into play in your world and how it might affect your planned activities. Living in New England, snow sense is a good skill set to cultivate. The more aware you are of snow and all its infinite variations, and the more you know about it, the more fun you can have either with it, or despite it.

The other day, for example, right after a big coastal storm had mostly missed us to the south, my sweetheart Em and I left our home in the Mount Washington Valley of New Hampshire and headed northwest on Route 302 toward Crawford Notch and Bretton Woods ski area. At our house we had clear, blue skies, but, as we drove through North Conway, we could see clouds hanging low over the mountains. Those clouds were the reason we were headed to Bretton Woods, which often gets snow on the northwest winds that follow when a big storm moves out.

By the time we reached Attitash ski in Bartlett, the sky was completely overcast, and a few snowflakes drifted down. At Notchland Inn, the snow picked up enough to cover the roads and slow our driving. In Crawford Notch we found a full on snowstorm that lasted all morning as we skied several inches of fresh powder at Bretton Woods. Perfect conditions and a memorable day of skiing. Nearby Cannon Mountain on the northwest side of Franconia Notch also got the snow that day, as did Wildcat Mountain in Pinkham Notch.

We found that powder morning by paying attention to the weather and, more specifically, to local conditions that deviate from the norm. It wasn’t snowing over most of New England. It wasn’t even snowing over most of northern New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine but it was snowing at Bretton Woods. Another day, it might have been Jimminy Peak in Massachusetts, Jay Peak in Vermont getting the snow, or Sugarloaf in Maine. Different conditions affect places differently. Part of “snow sense” is learning to watch for the right conditions where you want to go.

Of course the skiing at Bretton Woods that day was great in large part because they’d made a lot of snow and had groomed it to perfection. The few inches of powder had fallen on top of an already stellar snow surface, icing on the cake, as it were.

Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Snow is out there

We are going into the Christmas-New Year holiday week with heavy rain in the forecast. Warm rain just didn’t seem right on the first day of winter, and a lot of folks in central and southern New England didn’t have a snow-covered Christmas.

But there’s good news if you are a snow lover. Even if there’s no snow in your yard, you can be pretty certain that there’s good snow at the lift-service ski hills thanks to the snowmaking and grooming. It’s how they stay in business. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in today’s world, lift-serviced ski conditions are almost always better than you think they are going to be.

The other thing that’s true in today’s world is that snow reports are now generally hyper accurate. There are just too many “snow reporters” on the slopes with social media outlets providing accurate and up-to-the-minute reports to try to spin things even a little.

So don’t let the apparent lack of snow get you down. There’s plenty to ski on.

Avalanche awareness

There’s another aspect of snow sense you need to consider, and that’s avalanche awareness. The increasing popularity of backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing is putting more people in harm’s way.

A lot of New England snowsports lovers think avalanches only happen out west or in Tuckerman Ravine, but that’s just not true. If you think about it, you’ve probably seen snow sliding off the metal roof of a house. Yup, that’s an avalanche. This year, for the first time, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center ( is forecasting more general conditions for the entire Presidential Range rather than specifically for the gullies in Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines. Unfortunately, the slide areas on the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains and the western mountains of Maine up to Mount Katahdin don’t have forecast centers.

An avalanche can happen anywhere there’s snow piled up on a moderately steep slope (most avalanches happen on slopes slanted between 30 and 45 degrees). All you need is a surface for the excess snow to slide on and some kind of trigger (natural or human) to get the avalanche started. The most common natural trigger is simply snow building up to the point that inertia and friction can no longer hold it in place. A skier or snowshoer can also be a trigger.

If you travel on snow outside the boundaries of ski areas, I’d strongly recommend taking an avalanche course sanctioned by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). They are offered by most of the guide services/climbing schools in Lake Placid and North Conway. Just Google New England (or New York) Avalanche Courses.

Start with the one-day Avalanche Rescue course (which is a whole lot of fun) and follow it up with AIARE 1, a three-day course which teaches you how to recognize avalanche hazards and travel more safely in avalanche terrain. Again, it’s a whole lot of fun. If you want, you can follow up with another three-day course, move on to AIARE 2. Again, it’s a whole lot of fun and can keep you safe.

(Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email him at

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