The sun has been setting earlier. Leaves are starting to turn colors in preparation for taking a ride with the rising winds of the first autumn storms. Our nearby mountains are being cloaked in sheets of fresh white snow. It’s beginning to look a lot like fall.

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With the turn of the season there is no reason to toss those hiking boots in the closet and give up on getting out to the mountains. There is reason, however, to rethink objectives and to take some extra steps in planning. First off, I’ll share a few images that will impress upon you that the little bit of extra effort is totally worth it.

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OK, still with me? Good.

Most folks grasp the obvious things to change: extra layers, waterproof boots, reduced TH access and generally trailless navigation. Far too many, however, skip the all important step of considering avalanche conditions when preparing for a day out in the snowy hills.

First off, for those looking to explore deep into the backcountry, find fresh snow, and really go off the beaten path, you should explore this topic in far more depth that the cursory treatment given below. There are excellent education providers throughout the northwest where you can learn all you’ve wanted to know about convexities, snow crystals and weather patterns.

For the casual winter thrill seeker, however, the advice in this article can largely be summed up by two steps:

1. Go here, familiarize yourself with the rating system and click on the proper area on the map.
2. Thoroughly read the report and understand the implications of your planned route.

The fall is a great time to revisit the basics of reading an avalanche report. The most important item to understand is the danger scale legend. This is properly named to remind those that even in the best of conditions, some danger is accepted when venturing into the mountains in the winter.

Further reading linked here .

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Once you understand what the colors represent, its time to look at the danger rose (get the theme, “danger”!). The danger rose is a perfectly symmetrical cone that you mentally place at some point along your hike ­the colors indicate the danger on particular slopes at particular elevations. Recall from your careful reading of NWAC’s forecast description that these forecasts are fairly general in nature, so if you determine that your adventure is in an acceptable danger zone just because it doesn’t quite get onto the wrong aspect, beware! Also avoid the pitfall that many folks miss and look not only at the elevation YOU will be traveling at, but all the elevations that are present ABOVE you.

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A typical situation is a snowshoe along Alpental Valley towards Source lake. A quick glance at the forecast can make this trip seem safe, but once you consider that many avalanches are triggered several thousand feet above you on the slopes next to the ski area, a more detailed reading of the forecast is required.

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Maybe the valley floor is at an elevation that indicates it is “yellow” but that doesn’t tell you much since the avalanches you ought to be worried about start way up on the ridgeline, and if that area is in “orange” you need to evaluate if that is acceptable to your party.

This wrinkle means you need to be able to interpret the basics of a topographic map. The easiest and least expensive (free!) way to do this is to use Hillmap. There are two “screens” on this page so you can use two map layers (I usually just look at one.) You can select a layer (ArcGISUSA is the topographic layer you want for the US) and then scroll or search for your hike’s location. The lines you see scrawling around are lines of constant elevation, and each one represents 40’, typically. If you’re lucky and the section of map you need has dark colored lines every 5th line, those are 200’ intervals. As an added bonus, once you learn the basics of Hillmap, you can easily plot out your hike which will tell you things like distance, elevation and slope angle (a useful tool for advanced avalanche travel).

Ok, I’m a skiier at heart, so I need to include some powder explosions:

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So when the snows begin to fall, don’t give up and head to the gym for all your workouts, but do remember to add a few more steps to your mountain travel planning:

  • ●  A more detailed plot of your route so you know what types of slopes you will be on and exposed to.
  • ●  Reading the NWAC forecast and meshing what you learn there together with your route plan.
  • ●  Acknowledgement from your whole group that danger is involved, though you’ve sought to mitigate it to what your group perceives is a reasonable level.

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