The Guide’s Guide To Layering For Ski Touring, Part 1 of 3

Editor’s Note 1: This week, we’re starting a three-part series on how to layer for ski touring with OR’s own Professor Mark Allen. 

Editor’s Note 2: Mark Allen is not actually a professor. But he is an AMGA/IFMGA certified Guide. 

“I’m such a gaper!” 

You know you’ve done it. Your pack is full, and various outdoor garments hang from the outside resembling a gypsy wagon. You’ve miscalculated your attire, and now every photo taken of your ski tour eternally records your “not-dialed” status. Your friends exchange pained glances but still comfort you with moral support. You feel like you’ve embarrassed your more dialed partners. But what can you do? You must carry on, and later go home and think about where you went wrong.

You were either too hot, or really wet, and didn’t see it coming. Why? You probably missed making observations, tracking trends, and reacting to the forecasted weather. We all do it, often with a trip to a new and different mountain range or a new hemisphere. But next time you plan an out-of-venue ski tour, apply these freshman-level weather-watching techniques. And once you’ve mastered this course, check out my sophomore level class—outdoor textiles—tomorrow.

Weather and Snow Basics

Tune in to regional climate character. This is controlled by the phase of the season, geographical location relative to storm track, relative temperature of the jet stream, and proximity to large bodies of water. Think back to your first avalanche course and recall how regional climates affect snowpacks. Temperature, humidity, altitude and continental position all contribute to snow characteristics. They are also fantastic clues for choosing clothing for a winter tour.

Maritime regional geo-climates 

These areas are coastal and low elevation, with warm temperature regimes ranging from 15 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and swings in temperature with each given storm. Winter hovers close to freezing. Epic deep pow could be separated from the worst day of skiing in your life by less than 12 hours. A major benefit to the warm air is that it packs in the moisture, yielding heavy and frequent precipitation. A few examples of this type of maritime region are the Cascade Mountains, Sierra-Nevada Mountains, Chugach Mountains, Canadian Coast Mountains, Hokkaido Japan, and coastal Norway. General trends are warm and wet.

Continental Zones 

Continental zones are exactly what they sound like. They’re located in the interior of landmasses. The climate produces much colder temperatures and rarely rises above freezing all winter. The thermo-graphic trends hover in the low 20s with regular inversions in the valleys. Much less precipitation is typical since cold air holds less moisture and other ranges steal the moisture before the storm arrives. So why would anyone go there? This zone tends to hold the cold, skiable snow for much longer. Nearly all of the Rocky Mountains in Canada and U.S. and Alaska interior minus the higher ranges are examples of this climate. General trends are dry and cold.

Intermountain/Transitional Zones

These zones are slightly dryer and cooler than maritime zones and are located more inland than maritime zones. This zone is typically near a large lake or in the jet stream’s storm track. The cold is much more consistent. The precipitation starts slowly piling up and deepens the pack throughout the season. Summer starts like a continental pattern, by spring seems more like a maritime pattern. Teton Mountains, Wasatch Range, Selkirk Mountains,  inner-Chugach Mountains, and even the Eastern Cascade Range have this geo-climate character. Trends are a combination of those listed in maritime and continental.

Outdoor Research Brand Ambassador Mark Allen is a Washington native and a certified IFMGA Guide working as a ski guide in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Norway, and Western Europe. Mark’s personal interests are alpinism and ski mountaineering descents in areas that still need exploring. His academic background is BS in geology with an emphasis on the mountain building processes. A former ski patroller now a Level I&II AIARE avalanche instructor. On his days off he explores the undiscovered corners of his back yards— the North Cascades and San Juan Mountains. You can find out more at www.markallenalpine.com.