GeezerHiker

October 7, 2012

Cougar Divide

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 2:37 pm

Last Thursday one carload of hikers was treated to the sight of a cougar ambling across the highway near Maple Falls. Not to be outdone, five of us headed east on Saturday to explore Cougar Divide.

I had recently added it to our fall schedule – it had always been on of my favorites but I hadn’t been up there in years, partly because of the 12-13 miles of often very rough and occasionally precarious driving on Wells Creek Road and partly because of a perennial dense infestation of mosquitoes at the trailhead. On the one hand I’d heard reports that some folks from Glacier have been working to keep the road open. And there was hope that the extremely dry summer and some recent frosty nights would have knocked the mosquito problem down. So off we went.

As I mentioned, this was one of my favorite hikes. Several years ago, when the road was washed out by Wells Creek, I hiked 7 miles up the road and 3 miles out the trail and spent a magnificent cloudless and moonless night in the shadow of Hadley Peak and Chowder Ridge. But several trips had been marred by rainy weather and those mosquitoes and that kind of stuff can stick in your mind.

From Wells Creek Road

From Wells Creek Road

However, it didn’t take long to remember why I loved this hike. We were still 5 or 6 miles from the trailhead when this sight forced us to stop and take some pictures.

The gang

The whole crew (Steve, Jonelle, Fred & Terry) on the road

The trail is anything but boring. It was dropped from the Forest Service’s official hike list more than ten years ago and has not been maintained in any organized way since. It is only 3 miles long with 1000′ of net elevation gain but there are lots of ups and down, some of them steep and scrambly; it passes through dense forest and open meadows; and there are lots of fallen trees to climb over, under and around. But overall, it is a pretty moderate hike.

It starts with a moderately steep uphill, mostly in open meadows, for about half a mile until it pops up onto a rock outcropping that I’m calling the Beauty Spot.

Panorama from the Beauty Spot

Panorama from the Beauty Spot – from Shuksan past the Portal and Baker to Skyline Divide

This place has yielded several of my all-time favorite pictures ever. Baker looks different from every direction, but I think this shows it at its best. And I could have continued this panorama the full 360 degrees to Church Mountain, High Divide, Tomyhoi and the Border Peaks, and around to Mount Redoubt and Ruth Mountain. But I probably would have gotten dizzy and fallen on my face, so I’ll settle for now on one more picture, taken from about 100 yards on up the trail:

More from the Beauty spot

More from the Beauty spot

BTW you can enlarge any picture (please!) by clicking on it.

The lighting on this perfectly clear day just got better my the hour, Here’s a view on our way back in one of the meadows – the flowers are mostly gone and it is ready for the new snow that will be coming all too soon.

Meadow waiting for new snow

Meadow waiting for the new snow

Here’s one of the steep, but not scrambly, places:

A steep spot on the trail

A steep spot on the trail

And finally, I can’t resist one more picture, taken as we climbed back up onto the Beauty Spot.

Back at the Beauty Spot

Back at the Beauty Spot

Oops! I almost forgot to mention that the road is, in fact, in considerably better condition than the last time I was here. It is still 12 miles long and has a number of very bumpy sections, but there are no serious ground clearance issues and the exposed, scary spots have been much improved. And the views!

And best of all, not a single mosquito and hardly any bugs of any kind.

Epilogue

I made the mistake this morning of looking at the long range weather forecasts. Bearing in mind the very questionable value of any forecast that looks ahead more than 12 hours, here is a picture of the Accuweather forecast for the rest of the month:

So the whole high country hiking season could possibly slam shut at the end of this week. But we can hope.

Advertisements

August 5, 2012

Yellow Aster Butte – the hard way

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 6:16 pm

On Saturday Fred and I set out to do some hiking, with no definite destination in mind. His first choice was Welcome Pass but I talked him into doing the Keep Cool trail because it was going to be a very warm day (by Pacific Northwest standards) and I was afraid that there might not be any water on Welcome.

Why do I keep going back to that Keep Cool trail? The forest service orphaned it about ten years ago and built a new trail to Yellow Aster Butte that takes off from the venerable old Tomyhoi Lake trail just before it reaches Gold Run Pass. I doubt if Keep Cool was ever a very good trail and a decade without any organized maintenance has not been kind. The lower reaches are nearly overgrown with brush, there are numerous fallen trees to cross (some as much as three feet in diameter), some segments are cruelly steep. Or rocky. Or wet. Or all three.

I think it is just this desolation that brings me back – in addition to my deep-seated contrarian streak, you don’t have to worry about running into crowds on the weekends.

The isolation was not perfect this time as we were over taken at one point by a younger, fast-moving hiker who couldn’t see why the FS had closed this trail, as it is just to his liking. He added some sharp remarks about all the sissy trails in the area with “4% grades” before he disappeared into the trees. Later as we were squeezing through a particularly narrow spot on the trail I commented to Fred that he probably likes it because it fits his mind so well.

Snow in the meadow

Snow in the meadow, YAB in background

Enough snarkiness. When we got to the wet meadow at about 4700′, where we were stopped by the snow the last three times we’d tried this trail, I was somewhat surprised to see it still covered in snow. The ground shows through in many places and the snow is soft and easy to walk on, but snow always makes the going a bit tougher – those times where your foot doesn’t stay where you put it eat up a lot of energy.

Ice covered pond

Ice covered tarn and Black Rock Butte

But you can see in the photo that Yellow Aster Butte, in the background, is almost free of snow. And the steep slope on the far side of the meadow where the trail continues on up to the series of small lakes below the Butte looked dry as a bone, so we eagerly hustled across the level area and started climbing again.

We found a lot more snow when the trail levels out and winds through a chain of small lakes that are usually called “tarns”. (It was my understanding that the word “tarn” referred specifically to the lake that commonly forms in a glacial cirque after the glacier has played itself out, and that doesn’t appear to apply to these ponds. That is indeed what you will find in a geology dictionary but the word is commonly applied to any small mountain lake. So I guess I’ll stop being a smart-aleck. About that.)

Fred was coming down with a pretty serious case of summit fever as we looked across at Yellow Aster Butte. My goal had been more modest – taking a left turn over toward High Divide and climbing an prominent unnamed peak that I am calling Black Rock Butte today. As we got a better look over that way we could see a big streak of snow heading right up where the “trail” goes; on the other hand Yellow Aster, while further away across the ice-covered tarns, looked almost free of snow. And we could see a few hikers traversing the new trail and even caught sight of one person almost at the summit.

Ptarmigan family

Ptarmigan family

The trek through the snow among the tarns really wore me out. The area looks fairly level when you are looking down on it from almost 1000 feet above on the summit, but it is really quite bumpy. By the time I had dragged myself up the steep (I use that word a lot) set of a dozen switchbacks that leads to the new Yellow Aster trail, I was pooped. Fred headed on up the last quarter mile that climbs 400′ to the summit (Ha! I didn’t say “steep”. Oh, wait. Darn.) and I sat down and ate everything in my pack that was even remotely digestible. I also drank the last of the liter of water that I had brought from home.

Flowers framing Goat and Sefrit

Flowers framing Goat and Sefrit

Feeling restored, I parked my pack under a nearby tree and began to shuffle up the trail. I was quickly rewarded with a cheeping sound as a little Ptarmigan chick popped onto a rock about 10 feet away. Then another and another. And then Mama caught up. The chicks were scampering around, climbing onto and falling off of rocks, and paying no attention to me at all. Mama, however, kept a close eye on me as she tried to manage the exuberance she had hatched.

These birds are paragons of the concept of “protective coloration”. They almost completely disappeared when they were on the rocks and, more surprisingly, blended into the foliage, too. In winter they up their act by turning snow white.

I got to within 50 feet or so of  summit when I ran into Fred on his way down. He wouldn’t allow me to quit at that point so we popped on up to the top for the grand 360 degree views – my first true summit of 2012. (We had gotten to the “end” of the trails on Excelsior and Goat, but the was the first honest-to-Pete summit.)

We had a direct view of the Mount Baker Ski Area and its cell phone tower, so we each made a call to let our wives know that we would be late. It was already after 2:00 – it had taken us (i.e., me) almost five hours to get here and, given the snow and the steepness, it would not be a cakewalk getting back down.

Fred on Yellow Aster Butte

Fred on Yellow Aster Butte

When I checked the track log on my GPS we were both shocked and amazed to learn that we had gone not quite 4 miles! It is normal for me to pooped and sweating like cold beer in Georgia after 4 miles, but even Fred was feeling this one. How could it have taken us 5 hours to go 4 miles?

Later I worked on the numbers. Our net elevation gain was about 3100′, but with all the ups and downs, my altimeter gave 3700′ of total gain by the time we got back to the car. By comparison, the Excelsior Pass trail (on of the hardest in the area) rises 3500′ in 4.5 miles. And Excelsior, like Church and Goat, is a pretty steady climb – the actual rate of climb stays pretty close to the average of about 800′ per mile. This hike had an average of more than 900′ per mile, and the actual grade swung wildly from flat or slightly downhill to as much as 1600′ feet per mile (or maybe more – it’s hard to measure that). When the grade gets to the point, as it does often on Keep Cool, where your motion can no longer be called “walking” and gets to bemore like climbing stairs – lifting your entire weight with every step – then it’s a different story. (Would anyone even think of taking the stairs to the top of a 300 story building. Are there any 300 story buildings?) Add in the fact that most of the “level” areas were largely covered in snow and you get a tough 4 miles. And 4 more to go…

I had brought my water filter/pump so as soon as we got back down to the tarns I pumped a liter of fresh cold water into my hydration tank, and pumped a liter for Fred as well. The trip back went a little quicker but it still took 3.5 hours to go those measly miles. And we stopped and pumped two more liters when we got to the big stream in the woods. Total for the day: for me, 3 liters; for Fred 5 liters. And I didn’t have to “relieve myself” until I got back to Bellingham and had drunk all the water in the car and a 20-ounce Dr. Pepper.

I stitched up this panorama taken just below the summit to show the perfect weather. Mount Rainier was barely visible in the distance between Shuksan and Baker, but this picture doesn’t show it. To the right of Baker is Black Rock Butte and High Divide.

North Cascades Panorama

North Cascades Panorama

July 23, 2012

Excelsior

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 9:19 pm
Fred & Jonelle surveying the Pass

Fred & Jonelle surveying the Pass

On Sunday, Fred, Jonelle and I set out with the intent of checking out the Hannegan Pass trail in advance of Thursday’s scheduled hike. On the way up I expressed skepticism that Hannegan would be sufficiently snow-free for anything more than a trip to the camp – perhaps we could get to the pass but I don’t really care to hike Hannegan unless there is at least a chance of making it to the peak. I had been thinking of Excelsior as a replacement, so we decided to go there instead – this would give the maximum total information since we could find out about the situation on Hannegan from Pat, who had taken the other Trailblazers’ group up there last Thursday.

Glacier Lilies below the Pass

Glacier Lilies below the Pass

We were pleased to see not a trace of snow until we were well past where we’d reached on our earlier attempts this year. We hit the first significant snow on the trail at about 4600 feet, less than a mile from the pass; from there on the trail is about 50-60% snow-covered. At first, under the canopy, the snow is dense and firm, with lots of small depressions to cradle your foot; as you enter the open meadow and begin to get views up toward the ridge, the snow is softer. Of course, walking in snow is always harder than bare ground but none of this is scary or difficult. Jonelle was on the Goat Mountain hike the week before last and felt that this was easier.

As you can see in the photos, the open meadows below the pass are largely melted out. The photo on the right shows some of the wild abundance of glacier lilies along the trail – I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. In that picture, way up in the upper right corner, you can see the trail as it approaches the last line of trees before the pass.

Mystery Plant

Mystery Plant

Snow areas are in blue

Snow areas are in blue

We also saw masses of these little grass-like plants tipped with blackish-purple spearheads about an inch long – I’m sure someone can tell me what they are.

You can see that we were right at the level of the cloud ceiling, so there wasn’t much of a view, except for one little hole in the clouds that exposed a bit of Ptarmigan Ridge over on the NE corner of Mount Baker. Thursday is forecast to be clear and cool, perfect weather both for hiking and for views.

To show the scale of the snow issue, on the way back down I kept track on my GPS of the edges of the major tracts of snow and prepared this little map – the green is bare earth and the blue is snow-covered. This is a long, steep hike (9 miles round trip and 3500′ of gain) and my main memory today is not of hiking in the snow. I joked to Jonelle that this hike is 4.5 miles on the way up but about 7.5 miles on the way back. When we got to the car she disagreed – she thought is was only 7 miles down.

Afterword

Today I talked to Pat and learned that they ran into snow on the Hannegan trail about a half-mile before the camp area. This would mean covering a mile or so of snow, including some steep side slopes, just to get to the pass (also a 4.5 mile hike). To my mind the choice is an easy one – Excelsior it is!

July 17, 2012

And the snow lingers on…

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 11:50 am
Early glimpse of Baker

Early glimpse of Baker

On Sunday five stalwart hikers made our way up the Keep Cool trail to assess the snow conditions for this Thursday’s hike. (You can read more about this trail on an earlier post of mine.) The weather forecasts have been bouncing all over the place for the last week, so our concerted efforts to find the best day for a hike managed to come up with just about the worst. We caught a couple of peeks at the mountains across the river in the first few minutes of the hike and tantalizing patches of blue sky appeared now and then. The sun even squeezed through the trees a few times.

Keep Cool trail profile

Keep Cool trail profile

This trail is anything but boring. It starts out with the trail barely visible in brushy Alder thickets, gets very steep for awhile, levels out in at about 4000′, goes steeply up between two streams, flattens out in a wet meadow at 4750′, continues up a steep rocky slope. On the right is a profile of the trail taken from my GPS software. The line just looks a bit bumpy, but on the ground those changes in slope are huge.

Church Mountain trail profile

Church Mountain trail profile

On the left we have the opposite extreme: a profile of the Church Mountain which is a broad boulevard by comparison, albeit still a steep and challenging trail. (On each of these profiles, the guide lines point call out the meadows that are just below 5000′ – about as high as we are likely to get any time soon.)

At any rate, the snow situation is pretty similar to last year at this time, perhaps a bit better. You can see more about last year on DJan’s blog, including a picture showing the summit of Yellow Aster Butte on hikes at the beginning and end of July, 2011. This time there was only a tiny bit of snow on the level section at 4000′ and no significant amount until shortly before the meadow, which is full of soft snow.

A quick look at Yellow Aster Butte

A quick look at Yellow Aster Butte

Just as we got to the edge of that meadow there was a lot of blue sky above and the clouds parted in front of Yellow Aster Butte for just long enough for me to unholster my camera and grab a shot to compare with last year’s. I would say that there is a bit less snow on this day (7/15) than there was on the second hike last year (7/25) but it is still roughly in the same ballpark.

Fred lunching in the meadow

Fred lunching in the meadow

The blue sky lasted for about 30 seconds. By the time we’d mushed across the meadow and settled down for lunch the conditions had reverted to something that has been all too familiar on this season’s hikes – eating lunch while hunkered down in a cloud. As we finished eating the fog got a little more aggressive and gradually changed to a light rain on the way down. It wasn’t enough to cause any real problem but just enough to remind us that this trail, which could (charitably) be called “challenging” and “interesting” on a dry day, is truly unpleasant in the rain. The steep sections, the struggling around or over downed timber and the Alder brush are all much worse when wet.

So what’s up for Thursday?

I think the Trailblazers could handle this hike this week if the weather were good. Of course, not everyone enjoys slogging through the snow as much as I do, so I might get some argument on that. The recent spate of rapid melting does seem to be continuing, as evidenced by the rivers and streams running deep and brown and by the snow monitoring stations – the one at 5000′ just south of the town of Glacier has the snow depth at about 30 inches and dropping about five inches per day.

So I lean toward doing Keep Cool this week but I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole if the weather is bad.

Given the continuing unsettled state of the atmosphere it would seem prudent to plan on something with less of a down side. And the only one that comes to mind is a return to Church Mountain – it is a wide, well graded trail and we know from personal experience three weeks ago that the trail is snow-free to the meadows. Even if the weather is bad we’d still get a good, safe workout with the possibility of terrific views if the clouds permit.

July 10, 2012

Goat is a Go

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: , — geezerwriter @ 12:16 pm

Goat Mountain Panorama

On Saturday I hiked up the Goat Mountain trail to see if it would be reasonable choice for this Thursday’s hike, and the short answer is, “Yes!” As you can see from the picture above I made it to the ledge at 5100′ which gives the splendid views of Mounts Sefrit, Shuksan and Baker, among others. The snow in the foreground gives away the fact I had to travel across some of the white stuff to get there.

First look at Shuksan

The trail is entirely free of snow as you climb up through the woods, with just a few small patches as you break out into the more open terrain and start to get views of Shuksan like the one at the left. Then at 4600′ where the trail takes a sharp right turn uphill, giving the first sighting of the summit of Goat Mountain, the trail suddenly disappears under the snow, never to appear again.

Sefrit & Shuksan

But the snow is fairly soft and there is a well-beaten track that leads to the ledge. It doesn’t follow the trail exactly but that may be an improvement – this part of the trail is pretty steep and rugged and muddy and rocky anyways. I went about half a mile and up about 500′ through the snow, but you could stop any place along the way – it is all open and sunny and the view just gets better with every step.

And even at my very slow pace I got to the ledge in just two and a half hours, making it a reasonable destination for lunch time.

By the way, don’t forget your sunglasses (as I did). And the bugs are beginning to make an appearance.

Directions

Since I won’t be able to make the hike on Thursday, I’ll give some directions for the part of the trip that is on snow. This is probably unnecessary since the boot track was very easy to follow and will surely get more traffic before Thursday.

About 3 miles up the trail you come to a couple of long switchbacks where the trail gets muddy and passes through groves of recumbent aspens and willows whose trunks have been bent almost horizontal by the winter snowpacks and you start to get views of Shuksan (like the one above) and Baker begins to poke its head out from behind Mount Herman:

Then you come to a 90 degree right turn, and you can see one of the summits of Goat straight ahead to the northeast:

First look at summit of Goat

At first you will head almost straight at the summit, into the open area. If you look closely at the picture above you can see another hill to the right, just peeking through the trees. That hill gradually emerges, giving a view like this:

Heading toward the notch

Your ultimate goal is to the right of that hill, way up in the upper right corner of the picture. But for now you want to head right up the center of the picture, aiming more or less for the notch between the hill and the summit. As you near the hill you will see a very steep slope ahead of you – but just before you get there you make a sharp right turn up a gully:

Up the creek

This gully is kind of gray and dirty-looking and it heads right up to the ledge. At this point you are back on the official trail. But you may recall that passes for a “trail” here is actual a steep slog over big rocks and up a creek – the current conditions are actually an improvement! Of course you should keep in mind that there is a whole lot of melting going now right now – the most likely place to break through would be right down the center of the gully so you might want to keep to one side.

I hope I didn’t make this sound more complicated than it is: you just head toward the notch and turn right at the gully.

Epilogue

Bagley Lakes from Ski Area

After the hike I drove up to Heather Meadows to assess the conditions there. As you can see by this picture looking down in to Bagley Lakes from the parking lot by the winter gate, there is a lot of snow up there. The DOT is determined to open the road to Artist Point but I’m not sure what good it will do – you will probably step out of your car and be faced with ten foot walls of snow!

Post-epilogual Afterword

Yesterday I went with friends to check out the Excelsior Pass trail. I was a bit disappointed; the snow is melting very slowly there. We may just have to trade back and forth between Church and Goat for the next month or so. On the other hand, there is a lot of melting going on. Sigh.

May 27, 2012

Good news and bad news and good news and …

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — Tags: — geezerwriter @ 1:14 pm

On Saturday Fred and I hiked up the Excelsior Pass Trail to get a close-up look at the snow conditions in the high country.

The Flume

The Flume

The good news is that there is some serious melting going on up there – early in the hike we could hear Nooksack Falls roaring through half a mile of dense forest. A bit further on that joyous noise was replaced by the roar of the stream that the trail follows toward the pass, and soon we came to the place I call The Flume, where the stream has completely stripped the soil from an almost artificially flat expanse of bedrock, forming a tempting water slide. It is always a lovely spot but it, too, was roaring more than usual.

First snow bridges

First snow bridges

The bad news is that we ran into snow at about the same place we did last year, when the deep and lasting snowpack made a mess of the local hiking season. We saw the first dab of snow on the trail at about 3700′ of elevation and the snow patches grew across the trail soon thereafter. The snow in the picture on the left is very near the point on last year’s June 16th hike where DJan’s blog (click to view) shows me trying to blast my way trough a thin snow bridge. By the time we got to 4000′ the trail was completely buried – from then on we depended on instinct and a good GPS track (from last year’s first fully successful hike to the high country – on August 11!) to continue. We did pretty well at following the trail and continued on to about 4750′, a few hundred feet higher than on the June hike last year.

Postholing

Postholing

But the only times we could be absolutely certain that we were still on the trail were when I punched through the snow into the cavern carved out by the meltwaters flowing along the trail. The snow was not deep enough for this so-called “postholing” to be dangerous, but it can be a bit disconcerting to be strolling along and all of a sudden be up to your unmentionables in firm, wet snow.

But the bottom line, I think, is pretty good news. Last year’s hike was in mid-June and this is still May; we scheduled it for June 7 this year and that gives us two more weeks of melting. While we probably won’t make it to the pass at that time, we should be able to have at least as good a hike as last year. (Assuming decent weather, of course. I don’t think I’d like to do a hike like this in the rain. Again.)

And all things considered, the North Cascade Highway experience seems to be an accurate omen – the DOT managed to open the highway this year two weeks earlier than last year and the snow depth gauges and yesterday’s hike all are running about two weeks ahead of last year. So it’s not likely to turn into an average snow year but with some reasonably warm weather it won’t be a complete mess.

But the best news…

Fred at viewpoint

Fred at viewpoint

is that Fred is out hiking again. In addition to the misfortune of having a full-time job, he was slammed a few months ago with a flare-up of his rheumatoid arthritis, which had been dormant for decades. Unlike the more common osteoarthritis, which is largely a matter of wear-and-tear on aging joints, RA is a tricky auto-immune disorder – the body mistakes its own tissues for a foreign invader and rallies the considerable forces of the immune system to repel the insidious “invader.” It also shows up most commonly as swollen and painful joints, but in this case it sneakily avoided treatment by presenting as debilitating pain in his leg muscles. But a few weeks ago the situation was decoded and brought under control by some powerful modern medications – yesterday’s hike was Fred’s first serious outing (almost 8 miles and 3000′ of gain, 1000 of it in the snow) in some time and it went very well.

Now is we can just do something about that darn job…

Baker

May 13, 2012

Snow in the Cascades, continued

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Weather — geezerwriter @ 12:01 pm

I started examining the snow depth situation in the North Cascades last week, and just couldn’t let it go. I had noticed that the snotels gave the water-equivalent of the snow on the ground, but my first thought was that we wanted to know the actual depth of the snow and that the water equivalent, while more useful for agriculture and Seattle City Light’s summer planning, would be kind of abstract and even a little precious for our purposes.

But I got about halfway into patching all the missing data in the snow-depth table when I noticed that the water-equivalent data didn’t have all those gaps. This makes sense to me since it seems that measuring snow-depth remotely would be a harder problem than measuring water-equivalent, just the opposite of the situation that would obtain if we were present on the site. How would you locate the top surface of the snow? A very tall pole with some sort of automated range finder looking down on the snow? On the other hand, for the water-equivalent you would just need to get the weight of the snow (OK, it’s the mass, but I’m not a physicist) above a certain area and do a little calibration and arithmetic – a suspended plate and a pressure sensor would do the trick.

It also makes sense that the WE would be more stable – a large, powdery snowfall can bump the SD way up suddenly, but it would settle back down in a few days. By spring we are looking at well-compacted snow.

The WE data may indeed be of higher quality than SD, but it not what we are looking for! [I’m somehow reminded of the old story of the drunk crawling on the ground under a streetlight searching for his car keys which he had dropped while fumbling to open the door. When a passerby pointed out that the car was half a block away, the drunk said, “Yeah, but the light’s better here.”]

So I looked more closely at a couple of years’ data. First I did a quick check of the ratio between SD and WE and found that it generally started the snow year at 10 or 12 to one (consistent with what I’d always heard that an inch of rain falling as snow will pile up a foot or more deep) and tapers down irregularly to about 2 to one by the spring (as the air is pressed out by the weight of the overlying snow). And we don’t care much about the absolute values, just how fast the snow is disappearing, so a ratio is OK.

The one value we do care about is zero – when is the snow all gone? Everywhere I checked both numbers hit zero at about the same time and that pretty much settled the issue. So here is the graph of all ten years of operation of the Middle Fork Nooksack snotel:

Note, if you will, how all the curves but two crash into horizontal axis in early July (actually June 26 to July 12). (May 31, 2005 and August 12, 2011 are the two outliers.) As before, I took the average of all the years except this year, last year and 2005 and got this picture:

On the snow-depth graph on the other posting, this year’s blue line had already crossed below last year’s green one and seemed like it might join the average group. This water-equivalent graph is less encouraging: this year peaked higher and earlier but looks like it is trying to cross 2011 – will it drop quickly or hang up there for another month? The current warm weather is a good sign (it reached over 60°F at the snotel yesterday).

My best guess is that unless we get some really toasty weather (or, even better, some nice warm rain) it will just about split the difference between last year and the average. This is also not inconsistent with the fact that the North Cascades Highway opened Thursday, about two weeks earlier than last year.

Epilogue

I poked around and found some info about the sensors used on the snotels. I understood hardly anything but there was a reference to a “200 inch Transducer” , suggesting that perhaps it was not a coincidence that this year’s snow fall seemed to max out right at 200 inches, but in fact overshot the sensor’s capacity.

May 9, 2012

Snow in the Cascades

Filed under: Hiking, North Cascades, Snowpack, Weather — geezerwriter @ 4:39 pm

This morning as I was sitting at my computer trying to avoid going to the gym, I recalled having a short conversation at my meeting last Sunday about Snotels. These are remote automated weather stations that have been built at various places in the mountains by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the USDA (Department of Agriculture). I had run across them in the past while poking around on my favorite weather website Weather Underground, Inc, but I never knew if they were accurate or reliable – I knew they reported snow depth, for instance, but were they measuring the actual snow depth at the moment or the total amount that had fallen or the water equivalent or what?

The man I spoke to at the American Alps meeting, a long-time employee at North Cascades National Park, was saying that they do measure actual snow depth as well as water content and are accurate enough that they are used by Seattle City Light, the Seattle utility that operates the three hydroelectric generating stations at the three big dams on the Skagit River along North Cascades Highway (SR 20).

And then this morning as I scrolled down through my local weather underground page I noticed a clutch of links to snotels in the area, two along the Middle Fork of the Nooksack River (near Lookout Mountain, called MF Nooksack, and Elbow Lake, resp.) and one on the North Fork (off Wells Creek Road). Those locations are approximate since the websites only give the latitude and longitude down to degrees and minutes, and a minute of latitude is more than a mile – I presume that don’t want unauthorized riff-raff (like me) to be able to find them. [I just had a bright idea of how to narrow the search but I’ll keep that to myself, for now.)

Anyways, the nice people at NRCS not only display current data and complete historical data for the entire lifetime of the snotel (10-20 years) in neat tables on your browser but they also package it in a machine-readable format (CSV) that can be imported into a spreadsheet application. Once there it can be manipulated and charted in all sorts of ways.

The motivation for this is that our hiking season was almost wiped out last year by the extraordinary La Nina snowfall. And we have now had a rare back-to-back La Nina this year, with near record snow depths at the Mount Baker Ski Area – great for skiers, not so much for hikers. We will be setting our July-September schedule in a few weeks and it would be nice to get an idea of when we can go where. So the first thing I did was download the data for the last two years at the MF Nooksack and Wells Creek locations, which I chose because they are in the areas where we hike in the summer and are at the sort of elevations that we hope to reach – 4900 feet and 4030 feet, respectively.

Snow Depth 2010-12 at MF Nooksack (4900′)
and Wells Creek (4030′)

The black line (on all graphs) is the current “water year”, starting on October 1, 2011. The first thing that struck me on the MF chart is the flat-topped area where it seems to be bouncing off the 200 inch line – I suspected that this might be some sort of physical limitation on the equipment. But the WC chart shows a very similar shape (at a lower level, to go with the lower elevation) so I don’t think it is an artifact. Notice also how it tracks with our experience at sea level – it is almost flat in December (which was unusually dry) with barely enough new snow to keep up with the natural settling and compaction, and then takes off after the New Year, with a monster spike in Feb and Mar, which were especially wet in town, too.

The encouraging thing is that the maximum snow depth was higher and earlier this year. Last year’s green line doesn’t peak until mid April and then hangs like Michael Jordan on a dunk well into May. I love the way this year’s line is already below last year’s – and the current warm sunny weather can’t hurt.

To get more of a context I went back and downloaded the 2010 data (the brownish line), which I remember as a more typical year. But was it really? The only way to know is to get more data…

MF Nooksack data for the years 2003 to 2012

So I fetched the entire history of the MF Nooksack snotel which went into service on October 10, 2003. Most years had some missing data (and some had a lot) so I smoothed over most of them, except 2008 (purple) which had such huge gaps that it would just be wild guessing.

This was even more encouraging – with the exception of that big hump in March we are moving close to where all but two recent years are clumped together.

On more picture: I averaged the years from 2003 to 2010 (with the exception of 2005 which is an obvious outlier on the low side) and graphed it with last year and this year, which gives a cleaner picture:

2012 and 2011 vs. the average of seven prior years

So where’s the beef? We are still well above average but well below last year. That little zag in the black line tracks with the damp, chilly weather which has been all too apparent on our recent hikes – without that we would be on a trajectory more likely to join the red line than the green one. So I think it is not too late for some warm, clear weather to rescue this year’s summer hiking season.

« Newer Posts

Blog at WordPress.com.