All the naysayers were proven wrong as mother nature winded up for a storm not seen in the alps in a long time. This article is not going to be a report on how to score the right location this week. Instead I will share my process of data analysis to give you an insight into how I get to the right place at the right time. Call it a guide based on adapting my “algorithm” to suite the current conditions, mostly because every time the hype goes up 15 people call me asking where to go and I am more of a fan of the old saying : “Give a man a fish and he will not be hungry for a day, teach him how to fish and he will not be hungry for a lifetime“.
The Slovenian drought found and end with a good 20-60 cm to a meter coming down in the Julian alps and most Instagram based jabbering about bad winters and motivational problems biting the dust, as soon as the first snow hit the ground. The hype was on at home regardless of the COVID19 restrictions. Shipping to the ski shops form the vendors shops suddenly resumed and from what I hear touring gear is in great demand again. But I am not going to write you guys a analysis of the current situation. I will educate you on the example of the final week of last season before the lock down hit us in march on how I find good powder in the alps.
For some of us, who hunt powder all winter under any conditions, the last week of February 2020 proved to be just another in a winter that, thou higher in median temperatures, had proven that above and bellow a certain altitude “line” just a bit south of the main alpine ridge (and most of the western alps) winter was not just a myth of recent past.
I know it is hard to make a case for powder skiing these days, especially if you are not willing to travel or do not have the means or time, but in changing conditions one has to challenge perception of what is “normal” and adapt. Like the whole of the 2020 is teaching us every new dawn. Staying at home and whining that the snow is not in front of your door posting old pics from whiter seasons past on Instagram is not going to make you find the next powder hot spot. Like with changing seasons and evolution itself. A skier has to evolve too. Nature is your habitat. With that in mind consider my recepie.
We had a lot of snow at the beginning of last winter. Then November and specially December was really low on precipitation, but January and February not all to bad. The main issue that formed a big problem was temperature inconsistency, the storm winds and the shifting of major weather systems, that in the seasons prior had already had an adverse effect on snow pack accumulation.
Now thou, I will amuse that we have become used to all these changes. Sure everyone who had an Austrian season pass last year will say this is a mild winter, and by a lot of metrics it is. But it is not the first and not the last and not as bad as we are led to believe by tourism operators. After all they hatch their egg on a few busy holiday weeks and weekends. You do not need to. If the pattern shifts, and a lot of snow falls a week later then expected, for them this is lost revenue. For you it means less crowds. People are creatures of habit. So are holidays fixed in calendars. If you can avoid them and add a bit of flexibility… you will win. Also winters have ups and downs, like relationships and life itself…
That means that, as the climate shifts, so to must our powder hunting habits. If in the old days it was easy to find a spot for three days of fun, in today’s world it is a matter of location and hours. That thou does not mean that you will not find spots to stay for days on end in deep fluffy snow.
General temperatures in the Austrian alps were 1 degree higher then average in the 2019/20 winter. This translate to the movement of the effective snowline for “useful” (meaning good snow) precipitation form base level to 700 m – 1000 m for most of the season. The high winds shift the snow from alpine altitude (2000 m+) into the trees. It creates a juicy powder sandwich. Since the wind is mostly either warm Föhn or cold high wind, the north and south facing tree lines in my experience get the most good snow. In Decembers that is especially prone for East and South East faces. One factor not to underestimate is also the sun and the topography. As the days get longer the sun gets exponentially stronger. Do not forget that while planning longer tours into steep terrain beginning of March!
Ironically that puts popular powder resorts that are not in this sandwich range, or slightly to the south bellow the Hohe and Hohen Tauern line (excluding parts of Carinthia), at a disadvantage. Ironically smaller cheaper off the map destinations now become major playgrounds. These are very general “keep in mind” rules for the season and do not account for “freak” storms. For the south, without the power of a Genova Low the chances of a storm and a dump are getting slimmer every year. As extreme pressure areas and weather phenomenon’s increase, so does the likelihood of a storm dump like the one currently active at home. But be careful. We are far south of the main alpine ridge in Slovenia and the temps are higher. The windows of opportunity are therefore shorter.
BE YOUR OWN METEOROLOGIST
The next thing to consider is rapid weather pattern changes. We used to be spoiled and read just preliminary reports at places like bergfex. It was enough to pinpoint the location of choice (valley or resort) and hit the mark by a good % most of the time. With our definition of what a good powder day is, and what weather must be in place to manage that steep death culi or collect face shots also evolved over the years, so did our method of selection.
In practice that means that one has to become their own “weather guy” ;). The process I use is simple, sometimes stressful, a bit time consuming and teaches you to make decisions. Sometimes its so close to call that it frustrates too. When you spot a window of opportunity on the preliminary weather forecasts you can narrow down the days of the week that are going to be powder days. Pages like wepowder, yr.no even bergfex and specifically LAWIS data stations are of the utmost importance.
“As a rule of thumb I consider a powder day 20+ cm at an altitude of 1500 m or higher. That can be calculated from the amount of precipitation predicted to come down, the temperature and the humidity at the destination”.
Once you spot these days on the long term prediction the hunt is on. Every day before P.O.W. day you start following these three:
- The satellite and precipitation maps for the coming 48 hours.
- Multiple weather models for your area of choice (ECMWF, GFS)
- Local weather stations across a wider topographical area (LAWIS data)
On the day before the powder day after work (yes it requires full time employment pay to play this game :P) you go into “deep data”. Every hour you sweep:
- Satellite and precipitation data,
- Quick glance of the models (you are going to start seeing considerable discrepancies now)
- Then check the terrain of the areas of interest you were narrowing down (ex. Fatmap).
You have to consider terrain angle, wind strength and direction as well as the topography of the area. Ask yourself questions like:” Are there steeps to the north? Is it at the end of a valley?”. Also consider the current state of the snow pack. For this check LAWIS snow profiles from areas close bye. Note the date of the profile! Webcams are of good help for a rough estimate as well. Check the webcams of the last few days on bergfex to see what was going on in real life at the area of choice.
Then after your brain processes all of this data you are probably left between one or two destinations. Now is time to switch to “real time data” and “gut instinct”.
Fortunately for us there is a very wide network of weather monitoring stations all across the alpine countries. You can find these on the local avalanche webpages from the EAWS web portal. Now you start following the wind, temperatures and the snowfall at the weather stations at or closest to your destination. It helps if you chose a few at different altitude in close proximity. Different countries have different guidelines for this kind of data. Again here I consider the Austrian LAWIS system the gold standard.
If like me you usually drive for a few hours to reach the best spot keep monitoring the stations in question until the last chance to turn to either one of the left destination options. Also consider the following safety parameters:
- Do I know the terrain at the destination well enough to go hunt in changing cloudy of whiteout conditions?
- How is the avalanche situation in the area?
- How will the temperature and wind change over the course of the day and how will it effect the snow pack and avalanche probability?
- Is it a destination that is crowded aka the human danger factor?
When you have thought about all these things then you have your location.
I deliberately did not go into descriptions on locations we went that last week before lockdown because the idea of this article is to make you use your own brains to find good conditions. I am also not your classic Slovenian who makes big secrets out of locations everyone knows about so for reference, the area of interest then was the Dachstein massive . If you wanna see how it looked like in real life check my edit form last season. There is quite a bit of footage form that weekend in there as well.
It does not matter weather you are a hardcore powder hunter who gets 50 powder days a year all across the world, a weekend warrior who hunts only when everyone is going into powder craze, or a local who only stays in his backyard and never looks over the fence (except maybe once or twice a season). Chose your own destinations. Do your own thing and not what everyone else is doing in their herd mentality. Human beings are complacent and mostly lazy. It is always easier to just go where “he said” and then bitch if it does not pan out the way you thought it would. Where you end up and with whom is completely up to you. If you find your own lines and you were SPOT ON the payoff is even better 🙂 Try it ! It is more fun then crying at home basking in old glories and jabbering how bad mama winter is at any given season. Mother nature goes it`s own way. So just try to catch the wave and have fun surfing that powder.
Now if you ask: “Well gee Aleš, all well and good but how do I get a feeling for when and how the weather will change?”. Well that my friends that takes practice. So it might take some time before the guide above makes sense to you. It also helps to learn some more about the snow pack and the meteorology of winter. So in fact I am recommending that you read a book or two first starting maybe with these two:
You can get them both at our corporate mega corp overlord AMAZON, or a lot of ski shops, preferably the latter 😛 Click the the images for the links 🙂
Have fun hunting and stay safe !