Foothill Cautions

by Andy Dappen


With all this new, low snow it’s hard to resist skiing all manners of slopes that surround us in the foothills.

I love skiing the tempting low-lying lines adjacent to Wenatchee when conditions allow. In fact I headed out on a favorite run a few days ago and quickly discovered that much of what is white is currently unsafe. The avalanche conditions were sketchy on multiple accounts. 

First, where there was old snow (northern aspects) I found the same layer of non-supportive facets as described in this video prepared at Rooster Comb: )

In other places the new snow had not bonded to an underlying crust and simply isolating a  block with ski poles for a hasty on-the-go analysis, made the block slide on the crust.

And then there were many places on both eastern and western aspects with no old snow below but where a foot of soft wind slab sat on top of extremely light  powder. Once the snowpack was disturbed, the light powder below couldn’t support the dense slab sitting on top of it. I was getting multiple settlements (whumps) for all manner of different reasons once I was above the 1500- or 1600-foot level. Slopes below this level that I skied earlier didn’t have as much snow and hadn’t been as impacted by the wind, so they weren’t as avalanche prone.

Given these conditions, I’ve been skiing mellow ridge system and staying away from anything steep. This gets to an important point: Good terrain selection can get you up and down places that have unsafe snow (or places where you don’t know the snow’s stability).

If you want to take advantage of the snow blanketing the foothills right now – be aware of why you should currently stay off steep terrain and big open slopes. Stick to gentle ridge systems and ones where vegetation (bushes) and undulations in pitch help anchor the snow.

How gentle is gentle enough? Slopes you can ski straight up without the help of a heel lifter and without overly exerting your arms will be less than 30 degrees and will be safe in all but the very touchiest of snows. If you can ski straight up a ridge system without straining your arms, you’re on particularly safe ground.

Slopes that just barely make you traverse to ascend are around 30 degrees. If this happens to coincide with ridge system that you can ascend by snaking just a little left and then a just a little  right of the ridge crest, you’re still usually on very safe ground.

A slope that has you cutting multiple traverses to surmount is considerably steeper and in the danger zone given the current snow conditions. This is doubly true if you are out on an open slope rather than following a ridge crest.

Why are ridges so much safer? Because if the snow you cut does slide, it will peel off the ridge as gravity pulls it down the fall line. In essence this keeps you at the top of whatever snow begins to slide. You have hugely greater chance of  not getting tangled up in tons of snow that has broken off above you and you have hugely greater chance of being able to dig in to the lower snow that isn’t sliding so that you can stop yourself.

Some things you can do safely in the foothills right now:

1)    Cross-country ski or snowshoe up Horse Lake Road or up the Dry Gulch road leading to the water catchment area behind the earth dam.

2)      Snowshoe or backcountry ski the main trail up Saddle Rock from the Jacobson Preserve Trailhead. Skiers will be tempted to traverse to steeper terrain for the descent but, given our current snow conditions, be content skiing the mellow. 

3) Ski or snowshoe the Burch Mountain Road. Having the snow and the cold temperatures to ski this road ascending south-facing slopes up the the Radio Towers rarely comes into conditions to ski or snowshoe. It is in shape now so grab the rare chance. The grade is not great but currently the bottom 2.5 miles of the road are so well trammeled, packed, and frozen, that descending them on lightweight (i.e., cross-country skis) is extremely challenging. Most skiers will need skins to ascend these trammeled snows and heavier randonnee skis to control their speed on the descent. Beyond about the 2.5-mile mark, the traffic dials back dramatically and after about 3.5 miles only a track or two carry on to the summit.

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