Avalanche Insight from Washington Avy Guru Scott Schell

Just below the summit of Mount Baker, Benj Wadsworth and Adam Justin look northwest into the rugged North Cascades.
Just below the summit of Mount Baker, Benj Wadsworth and Adam Justin look northwest into the rugged North Cascades. Scott Schell
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Scott Schell first dabbled in backcountry skiing back in high school—“on junky Ramer bindings and some sort of horrible ice climbing boots,” he says.“I’m surprised I stuck with it.”

But he did, notching two decades of guiding in Alaska, Canada, and Europe, and co-authoring the indispensable Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering, since then. Now a jack-of-all-trades at the Northwest Avalanche Center—which maintains 44 weather stations and provides crucial slide forecasts for the Olympics and Cascades (not to mention dozens of avy awareness classes)—Schell spends between 50 and 80 days in the field every year. Here, he discusses backcountry savvy, Cascade cement, and his latest discovery.

Just below the summit of Mount Baker, Benj Wadsworth and Adam Justin look northwest into the rugged North Cascades.
Just below the summit of Mount Baker, Benj Wadsworth and Adam Justin look northwest into the rugged North Cascades. Scott Schell

There are more and more people going into the backcountry these days. Is this a good thing?

The more people who get outside in this day and age, the better we all are. Way back when, the only people who went ski touring were seasoned outdoorspeople who used it primarily to access a summit or an ice climb. They were very serious and gave it a lot of thought. Now the equipment is so advanced that it allows a larger portion of skiers and riders to get into nooks and crannies inbounds at ski areas—which then pushes people out of the boundaries to get their own stash. And sometimes that includes people with very little mountain savvy. Their physical ability and their gear exceed their knowledge base.

So what’s the answer to that problem?

The solution is to get people to understand what the risks are and how to manage them. You can take all the avalanche classes you want, but you may still make bad decisions. Just read the accident reports, and you realize that we all have to manage our own personal behaviors and desires. Ideally, a Level 1 class should take 25 days, or a full week, but in reality, most people can’t do that. And you can only learn so much in one weekend. What’s missing is more time spent on human factors, on group dynamics. We need to manage being human. At NWAC, we recently started a program called Going Deep—it’s a series of six workshops at the Seattle REI that addresses this issue. We bring together experts like Martin Volken, pros like skier Ingrid Backstrom and snowboarder Lucas Debari, passionate recreationalists, snowshoers, snowmobilers—a range of people—and talk about backcountry decision making.

On the flanks of the Mazama Glacier with the summit of Mount Baker in the background.
On the flanks of the Mazama Glacier with the summit of Mount Baker in the background. Scott Schell

Speaking of backcountry decision making, what’s the deal with the snowpack in the PNW?

There are very generally three kinds of snowpack: continental, like in Colorado; intermountain, which is more like Utah; and maritime, which is what we have here. In the Northwest, more often we experience what are called direct-action avalanches, which occur during or soon after a storm cycle. (Colorado sees more delayed-action, when the snowpack rots over time, five days, two weeks, until it’s really dangerous.) In very basic avy 101 terms, thin snowpack plus cold temperatures will weaken the snowpack—and thick snowpack plus warm temperatures, like we have here, will strengthen it. What does that mean for a Northwest skier? At the least, you should be very conservative during and within a day or two of a storm.

So why do you love skiing around here?

We have amazing terrain—it’s a rugged, young mountain range, and there’s a lot of protected wilderness. And we have what I like to call a resilient snowpack. A lot of people give us [flak] for having heavy, nasty, wet snow, but you can ski some great stuff. You still need to know the right time in terms of safety, but I’d much rather be moving in the backcountry here than in a continental snowpack.

After summitting Mount Baker, Schell's group hands out at the Cockscomb—about to drop onto the Park Glacier.
After summitting Mount Baker, Schell's group hands out at the Cockscomb—about to drop onto the Park Glacier. Scott Schell

We won’t ask you to give away a secret stash, but what’s your favorite tour?

I like to run laps at Summit Central at Snoqualmie. [Laughs.] No, really, something I recently did, the Watson Traverse, has to be one of my favorites. You go up and over the summit of Mount Baker. You could do it in one burly day, but I think it’s an ideal two-day tour: You leave from Heliotrope Trailhead, go up the classic Coleman-Deming route, summit, and then ski down the Park Glacier. You end up at Mt. Baker Ski Area. It has it all, in my opinion: it’s ski mountaineering, it’s an amazing peak, and there’s a lot of horizontal, which I like. It feels like a crazy expedition, but it’s really attainable. You can find days and days of skiing up there.

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