Monday, February 9, 2015

Winter Backcountry Travel 101: Resources for Trip-Planning

Every once and awhile, the winter weather in the Cascades cooperates! (Photo: A.Stephen)

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the weather follows no pattern.  Once winter sets in, the only conditions you can really count on is low visibility and a deep, heavy snowpack.  Experiencing the Cascades in winter can be an unbelievably amazing experience, and a right of passage for budding alpine climbers, but trying to figure out when the weather will allow recreational travel can be like learning another language.  Fortunately, there are several online resources that will be your Rosetta Stone(TM).  These are sites that I've used with much success throughout my winter (and summer!) Cascade climbing career.

NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the most accurate and data-intensive site for North America.  Nowhere else online will you find a more detailed 7-day forecast.  If you look in the upper right-hand corner of the forecast screen, you will see elevation data for the station where the weather is reporting.  This is important for recreational travel because from this measurement you can accurately decipher the average day and night-time temperature of the elevation of your intended area of travel.  For every 1000' gained or lost, the temperature changes 3.3 degrees F.  Also in the right hand corner, you will find a link for the '3 day history'.  Click and you will find a chart of data updated every hour at the weather station closest to the area you searched for; wind speed and direction, temperature, inches of precipitation, and relative humidity.  You can learn alot from this chart as a backcountry traveler.  By reviewing the data from the previous 10 hours, you can learn about what the conditions are looking like in your prospective area of travel.

The Northwest Avalanche Center hosts NWAC.US, which provides the coast ranges (The Cascades and Olympics) of Washington and Oregon a resource for backcountry snow conditions.  Throughout winter and into early spring, NWAC.US provides a comprehensive forecast for the stability of the snowpack and avalanche danger for the region.  This should be a mandatory stop in planning any winter excursion.  Make sure to read the forecast discussion as well as checking the charts.  While the Northwest Avalanche Center is an authority dedicated to providing awareness and accurate forecasting, it is no substitute for practical knowledge.  Anyone taking trips into the backcountry in the winter should have avalanche awareness training.
If you are looking for user-based data on the Cascades, is a great website.  The trip reports usually provide great pictures and conditions updates and can give you a good idea of what you should be expecting out there. is also a great summer resource, and it has provided me with inspiration to get out to some of the little-known areas of the Cascades.  Check it out!

Turns All Year is a skiing-based website similar to in that it is largely user-based info.  They have a great trip report section, but the best part of is the access data on the site.  Access to areas in the Cascades changes frequently due to road closures and heavy winter snows, so I consider this another mandatory stop in your planning.

Warning: Nerding out on the forcasts can lead to this... (Photo: A. Stephen)

Other Resources
I always check the weather at NOAA first, but then I will balance their forecast with one from another forecasting website.  I commonly use as this second opinion.  Mountain-forecast is also a great website for checking specific areas, but their database is still under development, and may not include all areas of the Cascades.

These are some great resources to help give you some confidence into traveling into the Cascades in winter. It is important to remember that these are resources that need to be paired with knowledge and experience.  Don't bite off more than you can chew!  As always, the American Alpine Institute is available to provide knowledge and professional instruction.  Learn more about our winter programs here!

--Andy Stephen, Instructor and Guidce

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