I tour alone regularly (yes I feel the safety conscious waving their fingers already, but I take the necessary precautions that I can). The times I tour alone are for many reasons, one of them is because I like to be quiet and get lost in the world around me. But the skin track is a social place, meeting people and sharing the obligatory questions “where you headed?” and “where you been?” It’s a great bit of comradery amongst the backcountry community. Sometimes you answer in detail, sometimes not, and sometimes you don’t know! On my last tour I got chatting in a near empty Guthega carpark and we settled into a similar rhythm, chatting on the way to Illawong. Midway up Twynam another two guys on their first overnighter join the track. As we all climbed, we got chatting about locations, access and plans for the day. I was feeling like a veteran imparting knowledge to the up and comers. Classic how the ego works. And classic the dance of knowledge exchanged on the skin track. As the climbs kick in the chat lessens and the thoughts contract back in, at the same time the land around expands. Back at the top after the first line, another crew, and suddenly there are seven of us having a yarn. Conditions, lines, plans, equipment and weather. All the core subjects. Some familiar faces too, from last year’s skin track. Funny how the open spaces can pull people together. Slowly the group disbands and skin tracks diverge, different goals, different timelines. The final lines of the day I ride alone, and on the skin home cherish the space and solitude after a day on a social skin track. - DAVE BAIN
Photo: Craig Brokensha
An Artilce from MRBC Ambassador Dave Bain
21st June 2017
This piece follows on from a previous article I wrote in 2012 for Protect Our Winters (POW) (Bain 2012). It takes a quick look at what the observed trends have been in Australian snowfalls over the past few decades. Regardless of people’s stance on climate change, these observations are a hard look at the likely future of Australia’s alpine environment is and our winter enjoyment.
As we all know, snow cover is strongly driven by precipitation and temperature. Observed long term changes in these factors are leading to significant changes to the Australian snow pack. Snow accumulation in mainland Australia is known to show considerable inter-annual and decadal variability (Grose et al 2015) and this needs to be kept in mind. However, multiple studies have shown that snow depths at many sites have undergone long-term declines in recent decades (Davis 2013; Bhend et al 2012; Nicholls 2005; Hennessy et al 2003).
In the high Australian Alps from 1950 to 2007 there has been an increase in winter temperatures approaching 1C. From 1954 to 2013, Australia has seen an overall decrease in snow depth of about 10% (Pepler et al 2015). However, these decreases have not been consistent across the snow season. The mid-winter snow depths have only decreased a small amount, whereas spring snow depth has dropped by almost 40% (Nicholls 2005) due to late season warming. Pepler et al (2015) has reported this decline in spring snow depth as an 18% decline in late September and a 30% decline in early October. These declines have occurred despite no significant changes in the average precipitation (Davis 2013) or the frequency of extreme precipitation events (Fiddes et al 2014), with snow melt being the driving force rather than a lack of snowfall during this period.
Only three out of the last 15 years have had enough snow to reach the long term (1954 to present) average peak depth at Spencers Creek, and the lowest peak also occurred during this period (Domensino 2016). These figures show what many snow enthusiasts in Australia have suspected, that the snow seasons are changing.
In regards to the actual storms and snowfalls across the season, light snowfalls of up to 10cm have shown a decline in frequency of about 5 days per decade since 1988. However, thankfully, the rarer heavy snowfall events have shown no change in frequency (Fiddes et al 2014).
Temperatures in the Australian Alps are increasing at a greater rate in the higher altitudes than in the lower altitudes (Hennessy et al 2008). The result of these changes in snowfalls and temperatures is that the gradual build-up of snow will become less likely, making it harder to retain the snow already on the ground (Fiddes et al 2014). Some evidence of this is that there has been a 5% decline in the length of the snow season in the 2000-2013 period as compared to the 1954-1999 period (Pepler et al 2015).
The outcomes of these observations for the future have been examined under predicted climate scenarios (Hennessy et al 2008; Bhend et al 2012). Declines in snow depth, an earlier end to the snow season and deceased extent of snow covered areas are projected with high confidence for the future for mainland alpine areas. In addition, there seems as though there will be even more uncertainty in predictions and seasonal outlooks.
Changes in snow fall will have wide economic implications. Our snow industry is worth an estimated $1.8b employing approximately 18,000 people (Muller 2013), and is already based around a short and at times fickle snow season. In addition, the spring snow melt is very important for the hydro-electric and irrigation industries. In the very near future, if not already, snow making will have to become the dominant means of achieving an effective ski season (Hennessy et al 2008).
Our unique Snowy Mountains contain highly specialised, sensitive alpine environments. This is due in part to their old age; having only minor glacial activity; and being found as a series of small alpine ‘islands’ atop of mountains within a sub-alpine ‘sea’.
Our endemic alpine species have largely evolved in isolation from other continents and often on isolated mountain tops only tens of kilometres apart. Species such as the Mountain Pygmy-possum (Burramys parvus) and Broad-toothed Rat (Mastacomys fuscus) and vegetation communities such as the short alpine herbfields, alpine bogs and peatlands have very narrow environmental tolerances. These vegetation communities are reliant on long-lasting snow for a cool moist environment and are at risk from the observed changes in snowfall. Other changes may include introduced predators (foxes & cats) moving higher in the mountains because the thinner snow allows them to find alpine prey more easily (Green and Osborne 1981). One environmental change already observed is the earlier spring migration of birds to the Alps as a result of the reduction in snow (Green 2002).
All of these observations do not bode well for our alpine environment, our economic industries that rely on the snowfall or all of us who enjoy and appreciate the Australian snow season. One thing is for sure though, with a shorter season and thinner snow pack, we are all going to have to make the most of those storm events when they come, as thankfully, for now we are likely to continue to see the big events occur, at least very occasionally.
Bain, D (2012).
Bhend, J., Bathols, J., and Hennessy, K (2012). Climate change impacts on snow in Victoria. Aspendale, Australia: CSIRO report for the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment 42.
Davis, CJ (2013). Towards the development of long-term winter records for the Snowy Mountains. Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Journal. 63: 303-313.
Domensino,B(2016) Snow season high becoming a low point. http://www.weatherzone.com.au/news/snow-season-high-becoming-a-low-point/524859
Fiddes, SL., Pezza, AB., and Barras, V (2015). A new perspective on Australian snow. Atmospheric Science Letters. 16: 246-252.
Green, K (2002). Impacts of global warming on the Snowy Mountains, in: Climate change impacts on biodiversity in Australia. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Canberra.
Green, K. and Osborne, WS (1981). The diet of foxes, Vulpes vulpes in relation to abundance of prey above the winter snowline in New South Wales. Australian Wildlife Research. 8: 349-360.
Grose, M. et al. (2015). Southern Slopes Cluster Report, Climate Change in Australia Projections for Australia’s Natural Resource Management Regions: Cluster Reports, eds. Ekström, M. et al., CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, Australia.
Hennessy, KJ., Whetton, PH., Smith. IN., Bathols, JM., Hutchinson, M., and Sharples, J (2003). The impact of climate change on snow conditions in mainland Australia. Report the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, Victorian Greenhouse Office, Parks Victoria, New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, New South Wales Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, Australian Greenhouse Office and Australian Ski Areas Association. CSIRO. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/228606768_The_Impact_of_Climate_Change_on_Snow_Conditions_in_Mainland_Australia
Hennessy, KJ., Whetton, PH., Walsh, K., Smith, IN., Bathols, JM., Hutchinson, M., Sharples, J (2008). Climate change effects on snow conditions in mainland Australia and adaptation at ski resorts through snowmaking. Climate Research 35: 255-270. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51986536_Climate_change_effects_on_snow_conditions_in_mainland_Australia_and_adaptation_at_ski_resorts_through_snowmaking
Muller, G (2013). Climate change threat to $1.8b snow industry http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bushtelegraph/alpine-tourism/5023908
Nicholls, N (2005). Climate variability, climate change and the Australian snow season. Australian Meteorological Magazine, 54, 177-185.
Pepler, AS., Trewin, B., and Ganter, C (2015). The influences of climate drivers on the Australian snow season. Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Journal. 65(2): 195-205.
Welcome to Winter 2017.
Since my last blog the likelihood of an El Nino has lessened, tho we are still officially on “El-Nino Watch “. The IOD is back to (a slightly Positive) Neutral. Although not ideal it is far from what might have been possible a couple of months back, and will no doubt occur again in the future .
I still anticipate a relatively mild , dry winter in general. Hope I’m pleasantly surprised.
We are now seeing the eternal battle of the necessary low pressure systems and their cold fronts from the south and west begin to impact (and at times break down) the sub-tropical high pressure ridge we spoke about last time (refer SAM & AAO).
Quick re-cap in case, like me, you forgot.
The position of the sub-tropical ridge plays an important part in the way the weather in Australia varies from season to season.
During the warmer half of the year in southern Australia (November to April), the sub-tropical ridge is generally located to the south of the continent. High pressure systems (also called anticyclones), which are associated with stable and dry conditions, generally move eastwards along the ridge.
In Autumn the sub-tropical ridge moves northward and remains over the Australian continent for most of the colder half of the year in southern Australia (May to October). Conditions along the ridge, under the influence of the high pressure systems dry and descending air, tend to be stable and drier.
Now we have three basic ingredients to look out for when we are observing the computer models or looking at the synoptic weather charts . You will likely hear these terms regularly on the weather reports.
Blocking Highs ( the Enemy )
Blocking highs are strong high pressure systems which have formed further south than usual and remain near stationary for an extended period of time. These highs essentially "block" the west to east progression of weather systems across southern Australia. Blocking highs are often, although not always, associated with a cut-off low (see below) which may form to the north of the blocking high, the two systems creating a blocking pattern. As frontal systems (see below) approach the blocking high, they slow down, weaken and tend to slip to the south of the high pressure system. Blocking highs can affect all of southern Australia. They can occur at any time of year, and can be in the Australian region from several days to several weeks.
Cut-off lows are low pressure systems which have broken away, or are cut-off, from the main belt of low pressure which lies to the south of Australia. They can be at any level in the atmosphere, and therefore may not show on the surface charts. Cut-off lows bring enhanced rainfall to parts of southern Australia.
A cut-off low may develop when a low pressure system forms on an active cold front. Alternatively, they may form in an unstable easterly flow on the northern flank of a slow-moving or blocking high.
Last week we have just seen an East Coast Low , which is a form of intense cut-off low. These are visible on surface charts.
Australia can be affected by both warm fronts and cold fronts, however cold fronts are more common and have a greater impact. A cold front is formed when cold dense (heavy) air advances equator-wards, causing warm air to be forced up and over its sloping surface. A warm front is formed when warm air of lower density (i.e lighter) moves pole-wards, sliding over the sloping surface formed by a colder air mass. Frontal systems bring rainfall & affect all of southern Australia. They can occur at any time of year, however they have the greatest impact during the winter months. Fronts generally move across southern Australia from west to east, and can be in the Australian region from a couple of days to a week.
In summary…. below we have Cut-Off Low (cradled by a Blocking High) seen over SW of WA and another Blocking High over East Coast of NSW that would have interfered with the progress of the Cold Front seen to the South .
Looking ahead from here I get a feeling in the next couple of weeks we will see a couple more East Coast Lows develop as the troughs between big dominant Highs drift across over the relatively still warm ocean surface or Cut-Off Lows intensify as they drift north. This is not unusual for this time of year and does not necessarily help us with snowfall (usually it means a good soaking on the coast like has been seen last week), although it can if they deliver the moisture in the right place at the right time into the path of some colder polar air.
Ski Heil !
P.S. If you don’t believe me …..or want to learn more of this like I do - look here !.
I have been commissioned here on a very lucrative contract (straight out of the Wild Brumby distillery) for regular weather & climate updates & timely alerts of significant winter weather events.
If you get any alerts a day or two after the freshies just remember there’s no friends in powder & send all correspondence immediately to Pieta at MRBC. Please.
She will reply to you all personally within 12 hrs even if it’s dumping and the surf’s pumping.
So rather than doing an out and out prediction for the winter (as you likely already have read the Grasshopper and the other croaky something something I forget….) let's start with the basics of what drives our climate , and we can progress from here as we get into the season and the topic that really matters.
Warning !!! You may learn something here if you’re not careful.
You can even ask questions , c/- Pieta…., if you like .
If I don’t know the answer I will make something up.
OK. The Australian climate is largely influenced by temperature patterns in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The Pacific Ocean is illustrated with the Nino 3.4 outlook, and the Indian Ocean by the Indian Ocean Dipole (i.e IOD) .
Both these models are trending into the Positive which means that the general wind direction (and moisture) from the sea surface over these oceans is being drawn away from Australia. i.e El Nino and Postive IOD.
The sea surface heat & moisture rises in the Eastern Pacific ( North/South America) & West Indian Ocean (Africa) causing the prevailing winds to flow towards these warmer waters. It’s called Atmospheric Convection and is illustrated in the images below.
**Please understand the model outlooks that are generated in Autumn have a lower accuracy than at other times of the year.**
To help understand further let’s think back to last year when we had a Negative IOD .
We all know how much r@#n we got, when the moisture from the Indian Ocean was regularly drawn down to the Alps (see previous page & Northwest Cloudbands in image below).
Then it was the guessing game when the cold fronts/freezing air would arrive relative to when the moisture would arrive.
Remember when Perisher all but disappeared underwater one afternoon, Guthega Rd and the Alpine Way washed out…
Another event again we got the early moisture then a severe drop in temps, the roads all snap-froze and it was carnage from the resort carparks back to Jindy (except for the tow truck drivers who loved it with $500 each recovery)
Flipside we also got the cold air before the moisture a few times and then it was game on in the trees for those lucky to be on the spot. How sweet that was ;-) !
Some punters called it THE best quality ever in Oz. Big call , but true enough.
Quite simply it really is that fickle.
We have another major influence that comes into play and this is where the good stuff comes from. Those cold frontal systems from Antarctica, and that lovely speckled cloud we want to see in the Bight on the Satellite images. We only need a few of these but the more the merrier.
The Southern Annular Mode (SAM), also known as the Antarctic Oscillation (AAO), describes the north–south movement of the westerly wind belt that circles Antarctica and directs our winter weather from the Southern Ocean across the Great Australian Bight and ideally toward the Australian Alps.
The changing position of the westerly wind belt influences the strength and position of these cold front storm systems, and is an important driver of rainfall variability in southern Australia.
In the Positive phase the band of westerly winds contracts toward Antarctica (see Summer Sub-tropical Ridge above), and we get the dreaded blocking high pressures over southern Australia which usually relate to stable, dry conditions.
The big storms get pushed below us and we get the relatively warmer moisture from the Tasman Sea pushed back onto the East Coast.
In the Negative phase the band of westerly winds expands towards the Equator ( see Winter Sub-tropical Ridge above) , so more (or stronger) low pressure systems are able to push up over southern Australia which may likely mean increased storms , & colder air ideally loaded with moisture i.e. Snow !!. Bring this on //.
At this stage the AAO is trending towards the Negative phase as is what you would expect as we transition from Summer to Winter .
To be sure,
We are going to get snow ( I strongly doubt we’ll see 2.0m. )
Some systems will be sweet as , some not so… business as usual in Oz.
Regardless we are going to have fun playing on and in it.
It will be another great winter in the mountains with MRBC !
Ski Heil !
My brain is reeling so fast, I can’t decide whether to panic. I can’t process it. My midriff is freezing from the force of the snow and there’s a sharp pain in my shoulder. My mind must be playing tricks on me, It’s like someone knocking on a door. My ragged breath is all I hear against very unnatural silence. Something hard like metal crunches against my jacket, I feel gloved hands scrabbling at my face and down my leg.
A voice yells, “It’s okay, we’ve got you”. I feel chilly fingers jerk my jaw down and scrape snow from my mouth allowing my airway to suck gratefully at mountain oxygen. My goggles are pushed back and I look up to see my friend’s face, panting with exertion and concern. Behind her, two others use metal snow shovels to dig the rest of me out. “It was an avalanche, helicopter is on its way”, I’m told. What felt like an hour has taken just six minutes.
Fourteen minutes is all rescuers have in an avalanche to give the victim a 90% chance at survival. To have a 50% of survival a victim is found and dug out within 30 minutes.
To make the fourteen minute deadline, rescuers have seven minutes to locate the body and another seven minutes to dig them out to access oxygen. I was lucky to be found and dug out in six minutes, I’m told later over a cold beer in the pub. I’m grateful, but somehow not surprised. Luck played no part in being with this particular group of like-minded skiers, we deliberately sought out industry leading avalanche awareness training that provided on-mountain rescue scenarios and all carry rescue equipment in the mountains like second skin. A backpack filled with probe sticks, sturdy metal shovel, water, first aid and an avalanche beacon strapped to each skiers’ chest, set on ‘receive’ mode but all trained to flick the switch to ‘search’ mode if and when disaster strikes.
This particular scenario is fictitious but it’s typical of situations that not only can happen but frequently do. In the 2015/16 winter season the USA experienced 29 fatalities in a typical winter season with an average of 27 deaths. Numbers are similar for Canada at 32 deaths.
It’s no surprise avalanche fatality statistics in Japan are more difficult to source online. Recreational snow sports has grown in popularity since the 1950s but snow resorts enjoyed mostly by Japanese people are experiencing boom international growth, international visitor demand can often outstrip services such as adequate ski patrol and lift operation in many resorts, some resorts have rules forbidding ski patrol to search or collect the victim until they are dragged back inside the resort boundary by their friends. At least one resort is famous for their lift operators to go to lunch for an hour, leaving skiers and boarders to load themselves on and off chairlifts until they return.
Humans by our very nature like to push the boundaries. Civilisations have flourished across continents on the backs of intrepid individuals brave enough to search for more. International snow resorts enjoy popularity with Australian snowsport enthusiasts in the pursuit of value for money, great terrain and cultural experiences they can’t get back home.
The lure of ‘off-piste’ skiing is real and accessible for Australians, professional skiers and snowboarders flaunt magazines, tv shows and ski movies making international mountains look appealing. If the desire and funds for the trip is available, there is little else standing in the way of an advanced skier or snowboarder to board a plane and try out these mountains themselves.
National Geographic reports that 90% of avalanche incidents are triggered by the victim or someone in their group. The worldwide statistics for fatalities sits at 150, these are just the incidents reported, the majority of victims are skiers, snowboarders and snowmobile riders.
AST1 is an introductory avalanche awareness course developed by Avalanche Canada (formerly called the Canadian Avalanche Centre). It is designed to give people an entry level avalanche decision making framework for using unpatrolled snow areas for recreation. It is internationally recognised and regarded as world standard. To have each of your ski party equipped with this qualification is no guarantee of absolute safety but means everyone is trained to search for a victim’s avalanche beacon in a globally standardised way and knows the timeframes to work under. There is a particular tried and tested method for using the avalanche beacon and a structure for best case scenario rescue.
Each person gains decision making competence, gains experience assessing a variety of terrain and performs at least one mock rescue involving one to four avalanche victims somewhere high on an isolated mountain with the only way home to ski down or emergency helicopter out.
Wearing and carrying proper gear is paramount to comfort out on a mountain. It’s great to save money but when you’re out in extreme elements in side or back country it’s no time to skimp on quality. Le Bent, an innovative Australian base layer company has combined the benefits of bamboo with merino wool to produce base layer tops, pants, socks, balaclavas and gloves for snow conditions . Hiking 8 km straight up the ridge from the base of the mountain ready to ski untracked powder in the NSW Snowies, the merits of this unusual bamboo-merino combo is noted and appreciated. A former user of synthetic balaclavas, the breathability of bamboo made hiking bearable, hours later when wind whipped sideways and snow swirled, those perspiration-wicking base layers really counted. The Le Bent socks with added shin layer bore the brunt of every step my cross-country skis took. And the odour-free properties were true to form.
Quality boots, snow jacket and pants help with success of being out in mountainous conditions for long periods of time. Weather can change in two seconds from sunny to inclement gale, The joke of the day during my avalanche awareness course was the coffee van is right around the corner. The reality is far from that. If things go wrong with boots, socks balaclava or skis it’s a long day ahead of discomfort with blisters, extreme cold or risk of a broken ankle.
You are 90% more likely to come home if there is a
female in your group. Women are more risk averse, encourage like-minded female friends to join your group rather than dissuade them based on gender alone. If you’re thinking of pushing personal limits beyond the confines of snow resorts, first think Avalanche Awareness and make your best chance of success your smartest one you’ve made all year.
Information courtesy of Main Range Backcountry.
Taking the #MountainCritterCause challenge to Mt Temple
Touch-down NZ and we were instantly crystal balling the snow reports - the expanse and variability of the Southern Alps of New Zealand keeps you reading between the lines with every 3 hour update. The call was made and we were Otira bound!
Generally strained for dollars and time, New Zealand’s southern alps keeps drawing me back and has been a ‘go to’ for pushing my snowboarding and testing my skills. I’ve always had a healthy fear of avalanche, so training, building skills in reading the snow pack and testing these skills in complex terrain has been important – New Zealand has a fair bit to offer in this respect.
The walk up to Temple is where you pull out the final plug of normality – leave it all behind you, it doesn’t belong up here…. Despite alpine touring/ski-mountaineering being a seemingly selfish pursuit that can carry ego, it can also offer the gift of humility obtained from serious mountain terrain and a welcomed reset from soul draining self-centric life approaches. Temple offers this reset to those that can let go.
The snow was on and we were straight in to it! The rope-tow access was testing - somehow I managed to strip my pack of gear hoop and ice axe in split seconds. The couloirs above were beckoning; however, and I had to get up there – ‘I’ve been walking since I was a bubba, I’m just going to hike this sh_t!’
The light was low, enclosed by clouds and snow....Breath and step...breath and step…the soothing rhythm sets in… the guts of the bluff appear, the craggy rock walls finally giving definition to Temple Buttress...breath and step...breath and step...hand pit tests reveal the underlying layers...10-15 on icey rain crust - the decision for boot crampons validated.
Risk evaluation is heightened, but in a strange calm and awareness...Hiking lines gives opportunity that heli and chairs don’t: to gain an awareness of risks, of snow pack stability, signs of weakness or loading. Evidence of past avalanche shows its head, with one half of the couloir stripped clean of the snow pack and leaving one route alternative down.
The Col atop Mt Temple appears around the corner, the convex roll of snow on rain crust is unnerving...is the risk real enough yet? This intuition can only be formed from training and time in the mountains, I’m a relative novice in this game, but my impression is that mother nature has ultimate control.