Ask Josh – November 2002

Ask Dr. Flake

My friends told me I should try the “hop turn” on steep terrain. But I see guys in ski movies making fine turns down steep stuff. Is the hop turn obsolete?
Greg Bailey, via the internet

While it’s true that recent changes in ski geometry have made jump turns less of a constant necessity in steep terrain, the technique is far from obsolete. Modern skis turn so efficiently you needn’t heave-ho to change direction, and fatter widths let you float above all but the heaviest chowder. But the technique still has its place when the soup gets so thick that hopping is easier than muscling. Plus, the heavy edge pressure of a jump turn can bring you to a near-total stop-useful when a crevasse is in your path. The technique reached its apotheosis in the skiing of Scot Schmidt. His version is known as the pedal turn: Instead of hopping off both feet, you push off with your uphill ski as you lift your downhill ski, rotating in the air. Just don’t practice by the T-bar.

I keep hearing the term “climax slide” in regard to avalanches in the Rockies (where I’ve recently relocated from the Cascades). How do climax slides differ from typical slab avalanches?
Steve Carroll, via the internet

Pesky characteristics of meteorology make the central and southern Rockies more insidiously avalanche-prone than the coastal ranges. Of the region’s “dry” slides, the climax avalanche is the most unpredictable.

Some definitions: A slab avalanche refers to one distinct layer of snow sliding all at once, while a climax avalanche is composed of multiple layers of snow that have accumulated over days, weeks, or even months. Such avalanches often clear the snowpack right down to rock and dirt. The phenomenon is less common in the Pacific Northwest, where snow typically falls at higher temperatures, with higher concentrations of water, leading it to either slide immediately or settle heavily in place. In the Rockies, with their many light snowfalls followed by extended cold, dry high-pressure weather patterns, snow builds up in light, frosty layers. As the snowpack on top gets progressively heavier and deeper, the lower layers get progressively weaker until, whoompf, the whole slope breaks loose. Its sudden and catastrophic character is one reason why nationwide Colorado and Utah claimed 38 percent of all avalanche fatalities from 1991 to 2001. Washington, Oregon, and California had only 13 percent. The short answer? Be three times as cautious in the Rockies as you were in the Cascades, and never think that clear skies guarantee safe conditions.