Surface Considerations

Evaluating the snow surface begins before you even leave home, by considering the effects of both the current weather and of conditions over the last several months.

If you are climbing during a cold, snowy spring following a prolonged late-winter thaw, the thaw's thick crust could hold a heavy load of spring snow ready to avalanche. If spring is cold but sunny, and follows a winter with little snow, a gully that usu ally offers good step-kicking in May could be filled with rock-hard consolidated snow. However, much of the change in the snow surface takes place rather quickly, so the weather just before and during a climb is the most important.

The best snow, from a mountaineer's point of view, is snow that is safe from avalanche and that will comfortably support a climber's weight for easy step-kicking. Such snow exists, but you have to seek it out. Location of the best snow varies from day to day, even from hour to hour. If the snow is slushy in one spot, or too hard or too crusty or too something, look around: there may be better snow a few feet away.

Here are some tips for making best use of the snow surface:

• Find patches of firmer snow on a slushy slope by walking in shade or using suncups as stairs.

• Try to find patches of softer snow on a slope that is too firm for good step-kicking.

• When the going is difficult, detour toward any surface with a different appearance and possibly more comfortable support.

• Use a different descent route if necessary to find the best snow.

• If you want a firmer surface, look for dirty snow, which absorbs more heat and therefore consolidates more quickly than clean snow.

• Remember that south and west slopes in the Northern Hemisphere, bearing the heat of afternoon sun, consolidate earlier in the season and quicker after storms. They offer hard surfaces when east and north slopes are still soft and unstable.

• Get an early start after a clear, cold night that follows a hot day, in order to take advantage of strong crusts on open slopes before they melt.

• Beware of the hidden holes next to logs, trees, and rocks, where the snow has melted away from these warmer surfaces.

• If you don't like the snow conditions on one side of a ridge, gully, clump of trees, or large boulder, try the other side. The difference may be just what you need.

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