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How to Cross a Spring Snowfield

Cross the steeps safely and avoid avalanches with these guide-approved tips.
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Assess the Snow

“In spring, the days are longer and temps rise—so heat penetrates the snowpack more deeply,” says Caroline George, a Utah-based guide. That can saturate layers, destabilizing the snowpack and increasing the risk of avalanches. In these conditions, slopes are safest in the morning, after cold overnight temps have refrozen and consolidated the snow. Travel before 11 a.m., when the sun starts turning the surface snow to slush. “If you’re sinking in farther than your boot top, it’s time to get off the steep slopes,” says Andrew Councell, a Colorado-based guide. Here’s how to handle a day up high:

>> Weather Check the forecast and recent conditions through local reports. Avalanche risk increases after several warm days and overcast nights in a row, or after spring storms dump fresh snow or rain on top of older, crusty layers. 

>> Angle “Spring snow can produce slides at lower angles than in winter,” says George. Late-season slides occur most often on slopes between 27 and 45 degrees. Pack an inclinometer to check angles accurately; we like Backcountry Access’s Slope Meter ($24). 

>> Terrain East- and southeast-facing slopes soften before those facing west or 
southwest, because the sun hits them first. Leeward slopes are also less stable than windward aspects.

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