Take warning of avalanche danger on the PCT

Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart, thru-hiker and Mazama trail angel, shares this important warning about avalanche danger and late season travel. PCTA Trail Information Specialist Jack Haskel contributed to the essay. We will be publishing an article by Mike Zaweski, author of SNOW TRAVEL: Skills For Climbing, Hiking, And Moving Over Snow, in the next PCT Communicator magazine. Our page about snow is also relevant.

Hiking the PCT northbound can quickly become winter trekking late in the season. The risks for injury and death increase at this time of year. There is extensive knowledge, experience and gear needed to safely finish the PCT after snow has fallen. Having knowledge of avalanche terrain, alternate routes, strategies for keeping warm, dry, found and hydrated are key to safe backcountry travel.

Cold temperatures, freezing rain and early winter snowfall compete with many hikers’ desire to complete the Pacific Crest Trail in one season. We’ve seen the results, when “summit fever” outweighs rational thought. Your decisions may not only put you at risk of serious injury or death, they can put the lives of rescuers in peril as well.

Avalanche risk can be assessed from multiple variables. Which direction is the slope facing? How steep is the slope? How much fresh snow or windblown snow is there? What is the base layer? Current temperature, wind speed and direction? What is the difference in temperature on the ground and at the top of the snow? How is the human element (you and your group) increasing the danger?

PCT hikers crossing a slope that's steep enough to avalanche. Fall 2013. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart

PCT hikers crossing a slope in the North Cascades that’s steep enough to avalanche. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart

Traveling the PCT when it’s covered in snow means exposing yourself to potential avalanche risk. The PCT was not designed for travel when snow is on the ground. In many places, it’s unwise to travel the trail during these conditions. Areas along the trail are well known for their avalanche danger. That’s why specific winter travel and avalanche preparedness skills are critical. It’s highly unwise to unknowingly expose yourself to this hidden danger.

Avoid unnecessary hazards. Learn from friends, take an avalanche course and read books such as The Avalanche Handbook. And practice safe snow traveling skills.

The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center publishes current snow conditions starting in November. Its website states: “As this cold northern air is mixed progressively southward by fall storms, pronounced changes in the air temperatures over the Northwest are a normal result. These large temperature variations can result in rapid decreases in the snowpack stability in areas with sufficient snow to slide. Wet cool weather depositing substantial snowfall at the higher elevations followed by rapid warming still common in the fall can quickly produce significant avalanche danger. Remember that seemingly insignificant slides may be dangerous.”

Photo by Carolyn Burkhart.

Snow can be fun, beautiful and dangerous. Photo by Carolyn Burkhart.

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.