We headed up to Blewitt Pass on this stormy Sunday as part of an avalanche safety seminar I was taking. Gary Brill, the instructor, selected Blewitt Pass as our destination because he thought is was probably one of the very few places in the Cascades that would give us some snow to look at and dig in, while not exposing us to the considerable to high avalanche danger predicted for the weekend.
Just the drive up turned out to be an adventure, with strong winds gusting, and thick, heavy slush coating I-90 in the vicinity of Snoqualmie Pass. By the time we were near Cle Elum, we passed the snow plows heading west for what must have been their first pass of the morning. Road conditions were a little better east of the crest, but still required concentration and careful driving. The road up to Blewitt Pass itself was in better condition than what we had been on most of the morning, and the snowpack at the top of the pass (which is really Suak Pass if you're a stickler for details - Blewitt Pass is a bit east of there) seemed to be about 2-3 feet, which is what Gary was expecting. We all threw on snowshoes and headed across the highway to the east side, and started trekking through the trees into a shallow ravine. Here we stopped and took our first look at snow conditions, and excavated quick snow pits with our hands. We could see the layer of new snow that had fallen the previous week, and it was easy to find the icy crust everything was sitting on top of. At this point we could all tell the snow pack was extremely unstable, but we were going to avoid any hazardous terrain, so we continued on to find other interesting areas to investigate.
The other threat of the day was the strong, gusting winds. At several points our route took us near Ponderosa pine forests, and the trees were swinging back and forth in a 30-40 degree arc at times. We had to pick our way around these areas to not expose ourselves to the possibility of falling trees and branches, while making sure we didn't inadvertently travel into any kind of avalanche terrain. After doing several more cursory snow pack analyses, we arrived at a safe area outside of the forest and along a road cut that was tall enough to give us good snow to dig in. A quick bite of lunch to refuel our furnaces, and we started doing a much more in depth analysis of the snow pack. We dug full avalanche pits, examined the snow crystals from the various layers using a metal card to measure crystal size, and under a loupe to see the crystal shapes. We did shovel-snow block tests and observed that there were two extremely weak layers of snow that everything easily slid on. One of the most impressive demonstration occurred during a Roschblock test. I had cut and isolated a block of snow about 5 feet wide (it should have been wider, but we were running out of road cut!), and Gary got up on top of it with his skis. One light stomp with his ski sheared the snow block off, but more interestingly, it also sent a fracture line almost 20 feet along the road cut, where the top 2-3 feet of snow collapsed and slid down to the road. That gave us a very good understanding of what conditions would be like above tree line, or on any open slope this day!
After lunch we headed back towards a small gully system where we had the opportunity to practice avalanche transceiver recovery. We spilt into teams of three, and then each person took turns burying the transceiver for the other two team members to find. By the end of the exercise I was doing okay, but still taking too long to find the transceiver - the two lessons I came away strongest with were that I needed to practice more, and that if I bought a transceiver, it'd definitely be a digital one!.
After this practice, Gary grabbed three transceivers and headed up into the snow to give the whole class a chance to do a multiple burial scenario. This actually went surprisingly well, and in the two practices we had time for we were able to located and recover all three transceivers in less than 10 minutes each time.
As we used to say in the Intermediate Climbing Class: "I had fun, and learned lots!" It was an amazing day to be out somewhere safe in the mountains, and Gary imparts a tremendous amount of knowledge to all members of the class. I still have a tremendous amount to learn, but I feel like I've been exposed to the basics very thoroughly now, and at least understand most of the terminology. Now I just have to keep working on getting the experience with the snow conditions, and learning how to interpret them!
Gary is an instructor for Mountain Madness, and he teaches his backcountry avalanche clinic (look near the bottom of the page) through them. I'd have no hesitations recommending the course. It consists of three evening lectures and a one day field trip. (The evening lectures are supplemented by many of Gary's excellent slides taken during his alpine tours.) If you get out in the backcountry during the winter, whether as a climber, skier or snow boarder, Gary gives you the info that can start you learning about how to stay safe from avalanches. I give it a definite thumbs up!