#sendandreturn: Matching Objectives to Snow Conditions in the San Juan Range

The Lavender Couloir on Mt. Sneffels (14,150’)


By: Matt Wade, BCA Ambassador, Peak Mountain Guides

“Man, it looks beautiful!”, I said as we neared the saddle below the Lavender Couloir on Mt. Sneffels. Indeed it was. The sun was out, the sky was blue, and freshly fallen snow had blanketed the San Juan Mountain Range of Southwest Colorado. It was a day for dreaming and the pull to ski something big was almost impossible to resist. But we knew we had to keep our cool. The Lavender Couloir, which stood before us in all its glory, wasn’t a sure bet.
Before leaving town the day before, we poured over the internet to get the forecast about the current conditions. We read the avalanche bulletin from the local avalanche center. We looked at remote weather stations around the range to measure the amount of snow that had fallen in the recent storm. We looked at wind speed and direction. And lastly, we came up with a backup plan. Because hey, who goes to a gun fight with only one bullet?

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Researching avalanche conditions, snowfall amounts, and wind speed and direction.

From our research, we discovered that light and variable winds during the last storm had created small pockets of wind slab that could be triggered by skiers. These slabs were most sensitive on low elevation south aspects where a slippery sun crust was buried under the new snow. The Lavender Couloir is south facing, but we hoped it was high enough in elevation to stay cold and avoid suncrust. Putting the pieces together, we decided the Lavender Couloir would be a reasonable objective if (1) there was no wind slab, and (2) there was no sun crust under the new snow.

And just in case the Lavender didn’t work out, we came up with a backup plan to ski the North Couloir on Stony Mountain. Stony Mountain is lower than the surrounding peaks, lending it some protection from wind, and the North Couloir would be shaded enough to ensure there was no sun crust. With a good understanding of the conditions and a solid backup plan, we were feeling on track.

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Coming up with a backup plan in case snow conditions poor.

We huffed the final steps to the saddle below the Lavender Couloir. Catching my breath, I gazed at the snow-choked, forty degree, mega-classic, 14’er ski line before me. My eyes darted up and down it, looking for signs of wind affect. A light dusting of snow was being deposited in the top of the couloir and small little ripples could be seen on the snow surface in the middle of the couloir. It wasn’t a horrendous display of wind affect, but it wasn’t encouraging either. We decided to take a closer look with our snow study tools in order to know for sure. We determined it would be safe to approach the apron of the couloir where the terrain was lower angle and the wind had not affected the snow. While the group waited for me in a safe area out of the runout, I walked carefully to the edge of the apron and made some quick observations of the snow. Nothing fancy was needed here. I had two questions to answer: was it slabby? was there a suncrust? In a matter of minutes, I had felt around enough to determine, no, it was not slabby. . . but, yes, there was a suncrust. Reunited with my group, we discussed the findings.

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The Lavender Couloir on Mt. Sneffels on the day of the decision. Note: see the snow plumes near the summit.

Despite the lack of a slab where I dug, we knew there would be slabs up higher where we had watched the wind depositing new snow. On top of that, the presence of the suncrust signaled those slabs could be triggered by skiers. Time to go to Plan B.

As I kicked my feet into the soft snow of Stony Mountain’s North Couloir, it just felt good. There was no suncrust beneath the new snow and shovel tilt tests showed good bonding. No slabs could be seen or felt, and it suddenly felt like we had hit the jackpot.

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Climbing up Stony Mountain.

The turns that day were fantastic. We were in harmony with the mountains and it showed. The snow on our chosen line was blower, the snowpack was solid, and we were having a great time. Were we bummed to leave Sneffels behind? Not at all. Perfect conditions are what make for great ski days, not perfect objectives. Every objective can be phenomenal; it’s just a matter of going when the conditions are right. Today, Stony Mountain was the crown jewel. Tomorrow, perhaps it will be Mt. Sneffels. But no matter what, the best day is the one that ends with great turns, and no epics. #sendandreturn

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Riding Stony Mountain’s North Couloir.

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Fantastic turns in the North Couloir of Stony Mountain.

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About Matt Wade: bca-ambassador-matt-wade-404x4001

Matt is the president and founder of Peak Mountain Guides, who have mastered the San Juan Mountains. Matt holds first ascents of alpine routes in the Andes of Bolivia, first ski descents of steep couloirs in the San Juans of Colorado, and ascents of El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite.