Granite Geek: Avalanches and other winter hiking dangers are getting harder to predict

  • USFS snow rangers and Mount Washington Volunteer Ski patrol training in old avalanche debris below Hillman’s Highway near Tuckerman Ravine pictured March 8, 2020. Courtesy Joe Klementovich

  • A relatively small avalanche below “The Lip” in Tuckerman Ravine pictured on Jan. 23, 2014. Courtesy of Joe Klementovich

Monitor staff
Published: 11/28/2022 4:17:23 PM

If there’s one thing you want when heading into the backcountry in winter, it’s predictability. But that one thing is becoming harder to get.

“We’re finding in the last five years that (it is) much harder to get accurate longer-range forecasts due to the weather models being 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 upending historical patterns of temperature, precipitation and winds throughout the White Mountains, which is bad news for those trying to help hikers stay safe by avoiding avalanches.

I talked to Klementovich because two nonprofits long based in the White Mountain Valley – Friends of Tuckerman Ravine and White Mountain Avalanche Education Foundation – have just merged to form the Mount Washington Avalanche Center Foundation. I wondered if the changing climate was a driver in the decision but he said it was largely to avoid duplication.

“The two organizations were talking to each other and figuring out that we’re very similar. It’s crazy to be having two separate organizations doing very similar things,” he said.

The new foundation’s goal will be the same as before: Providing information and providing trained personnel to keep people like me safe in the mountains or rescue us when we aren’t, offering outreach, historical events and educational opportunities, and raising money to make it all possible.

But you can’t talk about winter in the mountains for very long without climate change entering the picture. Consider something that is obvious to any lover of snow sports: The increasingly erratic arrival of heavy rainfall in the middle of New Hampshire’s winter.

In the valleys these storms are depressing as they melt away blizzards, leaving snowshoers and skiers staring mournfully at the bare, frozen ground. In the mountains, however, they’re dangerous.

When rain creates a frozen crust atop deep snow and then gets covered by more snow, those newer layers can slide unexpectedly. Heavier rains can also destabilize the snow beneath.

“It percolates through the snowpack and it’s really hard to tell what it’s going to do,” said Klementovich. This is worsened by the increase in extreme rain events – 2 or 3 inches in a relatively short time – that can penetrate deeply, loosening the snowpack in hard-to-detect ways.

Klementovich pointed out that this creates dangerous mountain situations even when you’re not heading into an avalanche-prone area like 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 really hard snowpack, an ice layer or rock-hard snow. That puts inexperienced hikers at risk of long, sliding falls,” he said.

Sliding on ice is much more dangerous than falling on snow or bare ground. I speak from experience (happily, not too bad of an experience) that you pick up speed at an incredible rate when you fall on an icy trail and start heading downhill.

Also in peril are the increasing number of backcountry skiers who hike uphill rather than taking chairlifts. As the snowpack becomes harder for their boots to penetrate as they head up, the chance of a sliding fall increases.

All this means you want to have a good idea of when and where these rain events will happen – but that’s exactly what is getting harder to know.

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

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

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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