Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Snow Snow Snow

Hello all! Yesterday, I returned safely from this weekend's adventures on Mount Hood. Snowpit sampling and logistics were handled by a great team- Hiram Henry, Janelle Mueller, Jan Dougall, and Dave Dranchak (folks from Portland State University and/or former Juneau Icefield Participants). The goal- to resample just below my summer sampling location on Snowdome and compare the fresh snow trace metal signature to the melting summer snow (collected last June). We had plenty of snow- so much that I nearly cancelled the trip the day before... avalanches are a big concern in the Cascades this year with record snowfall---- the reports were ominous with avalanche warnings at moderate levels, it could get worse if the storms continued. Jan called the day before reporting snow in Portland (which rarely happens...) However, as the day continued the outlook improved and it looked like the Cooper Spur road to the trailhead would be plowed and avalanche hazards minimal- due to the relatively consistent nature of the snow...After waking up at 5 am in Columbus, I arrived in Portland at 11 a.m. We were skiing up Mount Hood toward the Tilly Jane Cabin by 5 p.m. Shovels, avalanche probes, beacons, and sampling equipment in tow. (Safety = Good Science) The uphill ski took us just under 5 hours. Fortunately, we did not have to break trail- earlier skiiers had paved the way to the cabin... and we were blessed to ski in the moonlight the whole evening. Hiram had his compass out just in case... The moon nearly full provided ample light and it was refreshing after 6 hours on the plane and a few hours of studying in the airport... we were in great spirits!
Arriving at the Tilly Jane Cabin felt great! I had been awake for nearly 20 hours, and skiing uphill with sampling and sleeping equipment isn't as easy as Hiram (an Alaskan native) makes it look. A group of backcountry skiiers and snowboaders had the wood burning stove blazing and we quickly settled into the rustic comfort. Dinners ranged from sandwiches to gourmet pasta dishes, depending on what people had packed in- but the generous snowboarders offered us all hot water for drinks and to fill our nalgenes for the next day's ski. After eating well, playing a round of cards, and laying out my thermarest in the loft above the kitchen area, I fell soundly to sleep nevermind the jungle of snoring snowboarders. A thermarest can feel like down if you are tired enough. We woke up slowly, to enjoy the morning, Dave even had a little metal espresso maker- but after eating, double-checking our equipment, and strapping on avalanche beacons (they are transmitters to aide rescue), we skiied uphill once more... heading above treeline to fresh undisturbed snow.

This didn't take long, we found a good fresh patch within two hours. By the time Dave, Jan, and Janelle and I had eaten our sandwiches, Hiram had dug a pit. (We all offered to help after eating, but Hiram was particularly enthusiastic). Before Jan and I put the clean suits on to avoid contaminating the pit with dust from our clothes- Hiram demonstrated how to check the safety of the snow by looking for inconsistent densities... I learned something new- I had no idea that depth hoare could form on temperate glaciers... depth hoare is snow that is less dense that its surrounding layers- (it forms on polar glaciers in areas of high sublimation)... Anyway, given the right radiation and wind conditions depth hoare may also form in temperate glaciers...

Both depth hoare and ice lenses (melted and refrozen snow) create instability in the snow, making easier planes for the snow to slip on--- luckily, our poking into the side of the snowpit revealed the snow was a relatively consitent density for at least the top meter. (This is something I had just been studying at home in Paterson for those glacier physics freaks).

Once we established the snow was safe, Hiram, Janelle and Dave went skiing nearby and Jan and I began sampling. The sampling went quickly with great snow conditions! Jan and I managed to finish sampling and pack up a half hour before the skiiers returned. By 4 p.m. we were skiing down the mountain, enjoying great snow conditions and samples! We stopped at the Tilly Jane to pack up the avalanche equipment and repack our sleeping gear. Then we headed down the mountain. Skiing felt wonderful, it was a bit tougher for me, having not telemarked in awhile, but I put skins on and had no difficulty skiing down with the extra friction--- Hiram skiied the best, even after his binding broke, at which point he strapped his useless ski on his pack and continued skiing on one foot easily through the woods...

Unfortunately, we overshot our cars and ended up just below the Cooper Spur Ski Resort. The sky darkened and in moonlight once more, we followed the road up 2 km to the vehicles. Seeing the cars brought smiles!

Thank goodness for Thai food. By the time we made it to Portland (10 pm) all of us were grateful that we could enjoy a warm meal together. I couldn't have asked for a better team. Not everybody would maintain such high spirits given the detours we had that day- but our team was excellent. Everyone focused on collecting samples, and logistics were well planned by the PSU crew. I am very happy to have had this experience with Hiram, Janelle, Jan, and Dave.