This summary is generously sponsored by Peace Surplus. Voted best outdoor shop 10 years straight, by the people of Flagstaff and the Arizona Daily Sun.
No significant new snow has fallen on the San Francisco Peaks in the last two weeks, and no avalanches have been reported since January 25th. For the most part, the snowpack has settled, densified and gained strength. Until significant precipitation arrives, dangerous natural or human triggered slab avalanches are unlikely.
Potential future concerns are tiny facets observed in association with a rain crust from last week. These were uncovered below thin wind slab on a SW aspect, but may be more widespread. Diurnal faceting was observed in Lew and Philomena Canyons last weekend, and surface hoar was reported at Snowbowl on Thursday morning. With a potentially robust storm predicted for Saturday and Sunday, February 13 and 14, avalanche hazards could rise dramatically, particularly considering these weak layers underneath.
During the last two weeks more avalanche fatalities occurred in western U.S. than in any other equivalent period in 100 years. For more information READ MORE
Between January 30 and February 8, 16 avalanche fatalities occurred in the U.S. That is the most avalanche fatalities in a 9 day period since 1910 when 96 people died in the Wellington train avalanche disaster in Washington.
Over these nine days there was a quadruple fatality in Utah, triple fatality accidents in Colorado and Alaska and single fatality accidents in CA, NH, UT, CO, MT and WA. Info from the CAIC and Karl Birkeland (National Avalanche Center).
Could pandemic mindset be playing a role? The combination of pent up energy, reward seeking, and avoiding crowded ski areas after prolonged confinement may be clouding good judgment. Let’s not add AZ to the list.
Near and Above TreelineEven at high elevation snow coverage is variable. Exposed rocks are increasing in frequency, especially on southern and western aspects. Eastern aspects above treeline are reported to have the best coverage.
As mentioned in “Overall”, shallow wind slab may be resting on near surface facets associated with a rain crust. This condition was observed on a SW aspect, but should be suspected beneath any recently deposited wind slab. Using the Extended Column Test (ECT) is the recommended method of evaluating this issue.
Although we have found NO evidence of instability on high elevation N and NE starting zones, where early season facets can be found beneath more than a meter (40”) of slab, we urge backcountry skiers and boarders to carefully evaluate slopes where these conditions exist. Pockets of reactive deep slab instability may persist. Triggering an avalanche of such slopes is probably a matter of VERY LOW likelihood, but HIGH consequence.
A reminder as warm springtime conditions start to appear, even dry slabs soften and become more susceptible to human triggers as they gain heat during warm afternoons.
Below TreelineBelow treeline, the snowpack is becoming thin and obstacle strewn. Finding sufficient snow cover for reasonable skiing is becoming challenging. In many low elevation, sun impacted zones, snow has melted off to bare ground.
Several persistent weak layers have been identified on a variety of aspects near and above treeline. Forecasted loading of new snow on these fragile, near surface facets may result in potentially dangerous delayed action avalanches. Instability may linger for a prolonged time, making slope-specific stability evaluation critical.
View of easterly and southeasterly slopes of Humphrey's Cirque. January 28, 2021 photo by Paul Dawson.
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Weather updated Friday February 12
After a weekend and early week of mild temperatures and breezy N and NW afternoon winds, the snowpack matured and densified. Cooler unsettled weather later in the week brought a threat of flurries, but no accumulation of snow. Winds were moderate and variable in direction. Little snow remains available for transport, most of it is locked up in a consolidated snowpack.
A stationary long wave trough position over the West is opening up the storm window, allowing short wave disturbances to track through our region. Several weak systems have passed, with a more productive storm expected to arrive on Saturday, continuing through Sunday and exiting by President’s Day. As much as 8”-15” of new snow could accumulate at higher elevations. Unsettled weather will continue through mid-week, with the possibility of more precipitation on Tuesday, February 16. Beyond this, there is a lot of uncertainty in the forecast.
Snowslide SNOTEL reports 32” (81 cm) of snow at 9,730' on Friday, February 12 down from a maximum of 51" (130 cm) on January 29th. Since Friday, February 5 Snowslide SNOTEL low temperatures have ranged between 14°F on February 6, to 33°F on February 8, while highs have ranged from 39°F on February 10 to 46°F on February 11. For the same period, ASBTP (11,555') reported a minimum of 8°F on February 10, and a maximum temperature of 49°F on February 6 and 7.
So far this winter we have had a total of 112" (285 cm) of snowfall at 10,800 feet, with a 38" (119 cm) undisturbed settled base depth reported by Arizona Snowbowl on February 12.
The avalanche problem/character describes part of the current avalanche danger. However because we only realease a summary once a week, the current avalanche problem will likely change.
Understanding avalanche problems is essential, because it allows you to determine your approach and strategies to risk treatment. Below are brief descriptions of avalanche problems/characters, and links to detailed information on the problem, formation, patterns, recognition, and avoidance strategies.
Avalanche Problems Explained Also see the North American Danger Scale.
Release of dry unconsolidated snow. These avalanches typically occur within layers of soft snow near the surface of the snowpack. Loose-dry avalanches start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. Other names for loose-dry avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose-dry avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.
Loose Dry avalanches are usually relatively harmless to people. They can be hazardous if you are caught and carried into or over a terrain trap (e.g. gully, rocks, dense timber, cliff, crevasse) or down a long slope. Avoid traveling in or above terrain traps when Loose Dry avalanches are likely.
Release of a soft cohesive layer (a slab) of new snow that breaks within the storm snow or on the old snow surface. Storm-slab problems typically last between a few hours and few days. Storm-slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.
You can reduce your risk from Storm Slabs by waiting a day or two after a storm before venturing into steep terrain. Storm slabs are most dangerous on slopes with terrain traps, such as timber, gullies, over cliffs, or terrain features that make it difficult for a rider to escape off the side.
Release of a cohesive layer of snow (a slab) formed by the wind.
Wind typically transports snow from the upwind sides of terrain features and deposits snow on the downwind side.
Wind slabs are often smooth and rounded and sometimes sound hollow, and can range from soft to hard.
Wind slabs that form over a persistent weak layer (surface hoar, depth hoar, or near-surface facets) may be termed Persistent Slabs or may develop into Persistent Slabs.
Wind Slabs form in specific areas, and are confined to lee and cross-loaded terrain features.
They can be avoided by sticking to sheltered or wind-scoured areas.
Release of a cohesive layer of soft to hard snow (a slab) in the middle to upper snowpack, when the bond to an underlying persistent weak layer breaks. Persistent layers include: surface hoar, depth hoar, near-surface facets, or faceted snow.
Persistent weak layers can continue to produce avalanches for days, weeks or even months, making them especially dangerous and tricky. As additional snow and wind events build a thicker slab on top of the persistent weak layer, this avalanche problem may develop into a Deep Persistent Slab.
The best ways to manage the risk from Persistent Slabs is to make conservative terrain choices.
They can be triggered by light loads and weeks after the last storm.
The slabs often propagate in surprising and unpredictable ways.
This makes this problem difficult to predict and manage and requires a wide safety buffer to handle the uncertainty.
Deep Persistent Slab
Release of a thick cohesive layer of hard snow (a slab), when the bond breaks between the slab and an underlying persistent weak layer, deep in the snowpack or near the ground.
The most common persistent weak layers involved in deep, persistent slabs are depth hoar or facets surrounding a deeply buried crust. Deep Persistent Slabs are typically hard to trigger, are very destructive and dangerous due to the large mass of snow involved, and can persist for months once developed. They are often triggered from areas where the snow is shallow and weak, and are particularly difficult to forecast for and manage.
They commonly develop when Persistent Slabs become more deeply buried over time.
Deep Persistent Slabs are destructive and deadly events that can take months to stabilize.
You can trigger them from well down in the avalanche path, and after dozens of tracks have crossed the slope.
Release of wet unconsolidated snow or slush. These avalanches typically occur within layers of wet snow near the surface of the snowpack, but they may quickly gouge into lower snowpack layers.
Like Loose Dry Avalanches, they start at a point and entrain snow as they move downhill, forming a fan-shaped avalanche. They generally move slowly, but can contain enough mass to cause significant damage to trees, cars or buildings. Other names for loose-wet avalanches include point-release avalanches or sluffs. Loose Wet avalanches can trigger slab avalanches that break into deeper snow layers.
Travel when the snow surface is colder and stronger. Plan your trips to avoid crossing on or under very steep slopes in the afternoon. Move to colder, shadier slopes once the snow surface turns slushly. Avoid steep, sunlit slopes above terrain traps, cliffs areas and long sustained steep pitches.
Release of a cohesive layer of snow (a slab) that is generally moist or wet when the flow of liquid water weakens the bond between the slab and the surface below (snow or ground). They often occur during prolonged warming events and/or rain-on-snow events. Wet Slabs can be very destructive.
Avoid terrain where and when you suspect Wet Slab avalanche activity. Give yourself a wide safety buffer to handle the uncertainty.
Cornice Fall is the release of an overhanging mass of snow that forms as the wind moves snow over a sharp terrain feature, such as a ridge, and deposits snow on the downwind (leeward) side.
Cornices range in size from small wind lips of soft snow to large overhangs of hard snow that are 30 feet (10 meters) or taller. They can break off the terrain suddenly and pull back onto the ridge top and catch people by surprise even on the flat ground above the slope. Even small cornices can have enough mass to be destructive and deadly. Cornice Fall can entrain loose surface snow or trigger slab avalanches.
Cornices can never be trusted and avoiding them is necessary for safe backcountry travel. Stay well back from ridge line areas with cornices. They often overhang the ridge edge can be triggered remotely. Avoid areas underneath cornices. Even small Cornice Fall can trigger a larger avalanche and large Cornice Fall can easily crush a human. Periods of significant temperature warm-up are times to be particularly aware.
Large cornices are generally rare in Arizona, but they have been observed during very snowy winters.
Release of the entire snow cover as a result of gliding over the ground. Glide avalanches can be composed of wet, moist, or almost entirely dry snow. They typically occur in very specific paths, where the slope is steep enough and the ground surface is relatively smooth. The are often proceeded by full depth cracks (glide cracks), though the time between the appearance of a crack and an avalanche can vary between seconds and months. Glide avalanches are unlikely to be triggered by a person, are nearly impossible to forecast, and thus pose a hazard that is extremely difficult to manage.
Predicting the release of Glide Avalanches is very challenging. Because Glide Avalanches only occur on very specific slopes, safe travel relies on identifying and avoiding those slopes. Glide cracks are a significant indicator, as are recent Glide Avalanches.
Glide avalanches are very uncommon in Arizona.
Snowpack Summary Disclaimer
The summaries on this site were written by Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center Board Members. They are based on a broad spectrum of data collected from weather stations, National Weather Service point forecasts and field observation by qualified individuals.
The summaries are not intended to substitute for good knowledge and decision making skills in avalanche terrain. If you have any doubt of stable conditions, please stay away from avalanche terrain. You can usually find good places to go that are not prone to avalanches, such as on low angle slopes away from avalanche run-out zones. If you have any questions about where to find such places, you should consider further avalanche educational opportunities, such as those listed on our education page.
Snowpack Summary – Format and Limitations Statement
Starting in 2012 Kachina Peaks Avalanche Center (KPAC) has publish a weekly Snowpack Summary on our website.
These summaries are currently issued on Friday afternoons. On occasion, we will give storm updates or warnings of rapidly increasing avalanche hazard at more frequent intervals.
Our objective is to reach weekend recreationist, informing this user group of prevailing conditions, but particularly warning of avalanche hazards whenever they are present.
Many people have asked us why we use the format we do, but do not include a danger rating or a hazard/stability rose as many other avalanche centers do around the west.
The National Avalanche Center (NAC) advises small operations like KPAC, who do not issue daily bulletins to not use danger ratings in our snowpack summaries due to the regular but intermittent nature of their field observations and the length of time between issuance of snowpack summaries.
A primary concern is for how conditions can change in the time between publications, potentially giving the public misleading information. At this point, we simply do not have resources to monitor the snowpack at the level necessary to accurately produce more frequent bulletins.
While we understand the benefits of a danger rating using the North American Danger Scale, we also feel that our format encourages people to dig in a little deeper, and spend some time reading what our forecasters are saying. Although the area that we forecast is relatively small, the variability has proven quite large.
Inner Basin conditions are often surprisingly different from those on the more wind-affected western side on the Peaks.
We hope the information that we provide in summaries helps give you a good overview of what is going on out there, and what avalanche problems you should be attentive to, but if there is any uncertainty, then we encourage you to ask questions via Facebook or email@example.com.