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  • Sooji Clarkson

Keeping your head in the snow



Without fail, in the middle of every year in New Zealand (without fail…. did you hear me, 2023?) the snow starts to fall. Our skis, ice axes, ice screws, maybe even snowshoes, start to wake from summer hibernation at the distant beautiful sound of flakes puking from the sky (2023… hellooo…?) and blanketing our mountains in blower powder. (OK, perhaps fine NZ wind-pressed powder. Mashed potatoes, smashed shmotatoes)


At the same time, my winter brain sleepily opens one eye, tries to fumble the alarm to snooze and attempts to roll over back into bed.


Early winter is a tricky time to recreate in our mountains. Snowpacks can be thin, there is much less information available on conditions, days are shorter, and weather is unsettled. Possibly the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory (NZAA) hasn’t yet started to forecast for the region you’re headed to. And for many of us, it’s been a long time since we last thought about avalanche hazard other than a spring diurnal melt-freeze cycle.

Throughout the season, many of us live and work in locations where we can only see snow if it’s on a webcam. Even if the view out your front door contains something white, you might be headed backcountry elsewhere, where the conditions will be different again. I have a few things I like to do to try “keep my head in the snow” both throughout, but especially at the beginning of the winter climbing season.


Forecasting the forecast

Let’s be honest, lots of us have MetService, Metvuw, Windy, YR.no, etc, etc… bookmarked in our web browser and have these tabs open at work more often than we might feel we should. Watching the forecast is part of getting excited and planning for trips into the alpine, so I play a bit of a game with myself.


Taking any (or all!) of these forecasts and the current NZAA*, write your own avalanche forecast for the next few days for an area - eg Arthur’s Pass. I’ve chosen Arthur’s Pass for this example as it is forecast for in the NZAA, and also has its own webcams available online so you can have a visual check of where and how much snow fell. This is often much more interesting right before a storm comes through - the NZAA will likely be more frequently updated, and there’s actually changes to forecast for.


This gets you thinking about how the current weather patterns are affecting the current snowpack (or creating it) and what that means for climbing or skiing conditions, and for avalanche problems. It also builds your skills in interpreting weather and avalanche forecasts! If you’re fairly new to weather forecasting, the NZ MetService has some excellent resources on how to read weather maps (and more!) at:


*If you’ve studied weather forecasting/Avalanche Risk Management 5 (ARM5) or equivalent, for added difficulty and learning take just a few bits of the forecast (eg MSLP and Infrared satellite only). Then write your own weather forecast, and from that your avalanche forecast.



Small Talk for alpine addicts

Stereotypical small talk centres around the weather anyway, but most of my awkward small talk at this time of year probably centres around the snow. Has it snowed? Will it snow? How much snow? What type of snow? What type of avalanche problems?


Discussing snowpack and conditions, and trying to guess what conditions will be like, is definitely a part of getting excited about the coming season and what we want to do with it. It makes us think about what the information we have (whether from meteorological services, Facebook groups, or just other friends and people who recreate in the alpine) means for climbing or skiing conditions in the area we’re planning to next visit. If you’re lucky enough to have friends who know an area like the back of their proverbial hand - alpine guides or ski patrollers can be goldmines of information for this - it’s always invaluable to hear their perspectives on what the subtleties of different weather systems will mean for snowpack and conditions. Don’t forget to keep the small talk flowing when you actually get out there - open and constant communication between a group about what you’re observing and feeling in the snow (and what that adds to your decision making!) is important in keeping you and your friends safe in the backcountry.



Practical skills day

I try to start every season with at least one “skills day” to shake out the cobwebs, and test out any new gear. Often the conditions are trash anyway - so it’s a great excuse to get out in the mountains before any more serious or exciting objectives are “in”. There’s a whole post on this topic here:


Ongoing education

Consider taking an avalanche course, whether for further education or as a refresher. If you’re quite new to avalanche science - the NZAA/NZ Mountain Safety Council provide a short online (free!) course on the basics of avalanches at: https://www.avalanche.net.nz/education/online-avalanche-course/ And also a bunch of other resources at: https://www.mountainsafety.org.nz/learn/skills/avalanche-safety/

Avalanche science is a massive topic - whole doctorates are done on the topic! Podcasts such as Doug Krause’s Slide: The Avalanche Podcast are out there and great to listen to on your commute to work… Pray for snow!


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