Dealing with Weather on the Coast
The Coast Mountains are famous for abundant snowfall, relatively warm temperatures and vast ice fields and glaciers. This is all due to the mountain range's proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Warm and heavy systems come soaring over the Pacific heading North-East and the first mountain ranges they come in contact with are the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Mountains. Orographic lifting causes them to unleash large amounts of precipitation and the warm nature of these systems means that the snow is often heavier and has a higher water content than snow falling in interior or continental parts of the world such as the Selkirks or Canadian Rockies. On top of that these systems often bring strong South West winds and thick low clouds.
The combination of wind, wet snow and terrible visibility is one of the most difficult weather combinations mountains can throw at you. On top of that with today's changing climate and warming oceans, you can expect the Pacific Storms to be more frequent, more powerful and warmer.
So how do you deal with the various difficulties that the weather in the Coast Mountains can throw at you?
1)Choose the right location.
The first thing people think about when dealing with weather is gear but in my opinion that comes second.
-Choose a location with a hut. Huts are great because they offer refuge from the weather. If you can survive the approach and a day spent outside, afterwards you can dry out and relax. Think about what hut you want to go to. Not all huts were created equal. Some have wood burning stoves, some have white gas burning stoves and some have no heat source at all.
- Choose a location with good tree skiing and with Simple or Challenging avalanche terrain for those bad weather days.
Forests offer a refuge from wind and falling snow. In bad visibility the forests provide definition to a slope which might otherwise be featureless. If the forest is dense enough, you can use it when weather makes avalanche conditions hard to predict and possibly dangerous. Be mindful of tree wells and cliffs when tree skiing. Both can come as a surprise and are potentially life threatening.
When selecting an area to go tree skiing, take it a step further and consider the types of forests and trees in the area.
Hemlock forests can be tight with big tree wells but old growth hemlock can provide fantastic tree skiing when the new snow is wet. The majority of that new snow will land on the hemlocks' branches and what's on the ground might be nice preserved powder.
Pine forests can often be quite tight, difficult to manage with tons of dead sharp branches. On the flip side, pine forest are often in dry climates which may not support a high density. That means nice glades. In addition, a pine forest which has been burnt or killed by the pine beetle provides some of the most spectacular tree skiing imaginable. You'll find these more on the interior side of the Coast Mountains.
Old growth Cedar, Spruce, Hemlock and Douglas Fir forests are an absolute pleasure to ski. Along the Sea to Sky corridor you can find some of these in unlogged areas around the Duffey Lake Road, the Musical Bumps and Rainbow & Sproatt Mountain.
If you plan on heading to a hut for bad weather days, take the time to make sure the hut has good tree skiing around it. Many huts are located in the Alpine and less suitable for bad weather days.
- Go to the interior side of the Coast Mountains.
"What?". Most people forget this but by simply going skiing on the eastern edge of the coast mountains you can avoid a lot of the bad weather and sometimes get sun while others get storms. "How?" The Coast Mountains cast a huge rain shadow and while the western side of the range gets the majority of the storms, often the eastern edge gets much less precipitation and colder weather. Areas like Phelix Creek, Bralorne, D'Arcy, and the eastern skiing on the Duffey Lake Road (Blowdown Pass, Channel Creek, Steep Creek and Hurley Silver Mine Road) get much drier and colder weather than areas around Whistler and Squamish. You'll be amazed at how big a difference it makes. The only difficulty is extra driving distance and in some cases access. I see it as a long term goal to improve access to some of these more interior locations. Till then access is limited only by your imagination and willingness to explore. Take note that with a more interior location you will come across a more interior like snowpack. This means a thinner snowpack with higher chances of facets and depth hoar.
2) Choose the right gear systems.
- A soft-shell often isn't enough for those wet days with heavy precipitation and wind. You want a strong hard shell for both top and bottom.
-Wear a thin hat while skinning. Try and keep your helmet or warm toque as dry as possible. This is never fully possible but worth trying to maintain. Choose wool for your warm toque, it's easy to shake off snow and water by slapping it around before stuffing it into a pocket or pack. Choose a thin polyester or fleece toque which dries quickly while you're skinning. A lightweight climbing helmet like the Petzl Meteor III offers great waterproofing to your hat with the added bonus of being rated for biking (and thus skiing).
-Wear skinning gloves. Same concept as with the hats. For your warm glove, it should be a must to have removable insulation. That way if it's windy and your hands are freezing you can take out the insulation in your gloves and wear the shells as a wind block. If your warm gloves get wet you can replace the insulation with a spare if you happen to carry something. The insulation can also be easily dried inside your sleeping bag or by a stove at night. I recommend never using the insulation in your warm gloves until you actually need it. When transitioning from skiing to skinning, slip the shell over top and often that's enough. If you expect weather to be cold, wear a thicker skinning glove. By wearing the insulation as little as possible you're keeping it dry for when you really need it and you're preserving it by packing it out less. The more you use the insulation, the less it keeps your fingers warm. Leather for your warm gloves can be difficult to decide on. It provides the best dexterity, grip and durability but in a wet environment it often absorbs water. This can be difficult to dry and the water in the leather can freeze, negating its advantages. The answer? Wear a nylon mitten shell like the OR Baker Modular Mitt overtop in wet conditions. The mitts can easily be taken off and left to dangle on your wrists while you fumble with ropes and then put away when it isn't soaking. They can also be used with the leather glove's insulation if the leather does get wet and freezes.
-Dress in layers. I won't go into this as it's oldest trick in the book. On the coast, avoid down. Down is warm and not exactly useless but you'll find that fleece and Primaloft 1 (or counterparts) are superior on the coast when temperatures aren't super low but humidity is quite hight. Down is still a fantastic method of insulation. If you do use it you will be saving weight and space, but you have to be careful not to get it wet. I personally like synthetics because of their performance in wet weather, ease of drying and lower relative cost (compared to down).
-Bring goggles with low light (i.e. yellow or clear) lenses. Worth their weight in gold when your getting those face shots or dealing with fierce winds and whiteout conditions.
-Pack your stuff in a tough plastic bag inside your pack. If your pack gets wet, its just a little bit heavier. If everything inside your pack gets wet, life becomes difficult and miserable.
-Should you have a down sleeping bag? I use one and won't go synthetic any time soon. The extra warmth and weight savings make down sleeping bags much more superior than synthetic ones. They also aren't exposed to weather as much as an insulating jacket because they are mostly used in a tent or under a tarp. Just be careful of condensation falling on your bag. Be mindful of water getting into your pack. For a multi day trip in the winter with no huts, consider a vapour barrier system. Your body heat should dry the bag out at night.
-Dress warm. Temperatures might not always be low in the centigrades but the high humidity will get you when you stop moving at the end of the day. This is where one might advocate down for it's extra warmth. I just pull out another layer.
-Hut booties. Don't know why they are called hut booties as I find them to be unnecessary for huts but quite worth their weight in winter camping trips. The more nights you spend out there, the more worthwhile they become.
-Skins. If they get wet, your best hope is to have skin wax or that they freeze. A skin which is iced up can be scraped clean and perfectly fine to continue. The glue will suffer on a frozen skin but that is manageable. Wet skins can glob with snow and be a nightmare. For this reason it's important to treat/waterproof your skins before leaving home and to carry some skin wax just in case.
-Tents. A four season tent with lots of guy lines with a yellow or bright interior is a must. There are lots of different designs out there but make sure the tent can handle snow loading, winds and wet conditions. The reason for the bright interior is for mental reasons when dealing with multiple storm days.
Dealing with Whiteouts.
Wherever I go, whiteouts seem to follow me. Whiteouts are in my opinion one of the most mentally challenging things weather can throw at an individual. Whiteouts mean never knowing what's up or down or where you're going, or wether there is a crevasse right in front of you. They also deprive you of the beautiful views of remote areas you could otherwise have. They're formed when cloud meets a snow covered environment such as a glacier. They both reflect light the same way and as such your left feeling like you're inside a ping-pong ball.
When leading in a whiteout, swap out to ease the mind. Seeing someone going first adds definition to an otherwise featureless world.
Navigation has to be carefully planned and executed. A GPS is almost necessary unless your a god with a compass, altimeter and map. Whiteout navigation is a topic for another time.
Overall, simply avoid getting into a whiteout situation. Don't travel in whiteout conditions unless necessary or you know that the terrain is simple.
Dealing with wind.
Simply cover exposed skin. When skinning, you might not want to wear insulation in windy conditions but a hardshell overtop of your base layer is necessary. Take note of where the wind is transporting the snow for avalanche purposes. Careful not to lose precious items and to layer up appropriately to the wind chill. Wear glasses or goggles.
Dealing with Northerly Systems
Northerly systems often bring high pressure. This can be accompanied with precipitation or might be strictly sunshine.
If the forecast shows NE winds then chances are temperatures will be lower and you'll have reverse loading. Be mindful of the colder than usual temperatures as well of windchill.
Dealing with sun.
In the spring, glaciers and snow will reflect the sun and microwave you on the spot. Exaggerate your efforts to protect yourself from the sun and even then you might still get burnt. A nose cover, wide brimmed hat, sunscreen and SPF lip-chap are all musts. Don't let yourself sweat too much before dark. Temperatures will drop quickly and you'll find yourself shivering fast while you cook your meal.
Much of all that I said goes for summer as well. The only difference is that you deal with more rain and less snow, lightning, bugs, warmer temperatures. Choose gear and clothing accordingly.
Dealing with Lightning Storms.
Thunderstorms tend to be predictable in the sense that they are often at 4pm (16:00) onward. This is not always true but try to watch the weather and get off the summit or ridge before that time. Best way to deal with a thunderstorm is to get out of there. In the event that your stuck in a bad place, drop the pack somewhere safe and seek shelter.
As a last note, in stormy conditions, avalanche danger rises rapidly. Be careful of the changing conditions because Avalanche Forecasts can't always predict the quick changes in weather. As a general rule, avoid high risk slopes in stormy conditions. This even applies in the summer or fall when lots of snow is falling.