Mount Washington’s summit was in the clouds, 36F degrees, with a 55mph West wind at 10:15AM.
On the drive up Base Station Road, I could see bare rocks in Central Ammonoosuc Ravine that had been covered with ice only two days earlier, and what appeared to be open water in Clay Brook and Mount Pleasant Brook. When I arrived at the trailhead, where it was 41F, I met Jeremiah of Coos Cycling Club. He had just descended the Cog from the Summit, and reported poor skiing conditions, coming down, especially below Waumbek Tank, due to snowboarders postholing in the soft snow. I revised my tour plan, and headed up Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail for some trail maintenance, and to inspect conditions at Monroe Brook. I took my time on the ART, not expecting Monroe Brook to be worth skiing.
I expected undermined snow and open water hazards, but when I got close enough to see MB, these had not become a problem yet. It was already mid-afternoon, and most of MB was already in shadows. Usually, that does not leave much time before the soft mashed-potatoes snow sets-up like concrete, but there was a silver-lining to this.
In this unprecedented February thaw, air temperatures were still in the low 40s below treeline, and the streambed’s Northwest aspect was sheltered from the West wind. I began to ascend in earnest, wondering what hazards lay ahead.
Huge “sunwheels”, (also called “pinwheels”, “roller balls”, or “snow rollers”), littered the entire length of Monroe Brook, as I ascended.
I always avoid traveling under the ice-covered ledges on climbers-right. The old skin track went right through the debris field of roller balls and sunwheels, below the ledges. I switched back to climbers-left here.
I was looking for potential Wet-Loose Avalanches and/or Wet Slab Avalanches. The recent pinwheels and roller balls are red-flag observations. I kept my head up and eyes open, listening to every sound. However, all natural activity had stopped – nothing was rolling down this late in the day, as the shadows lengthened.
Many of these sunwheels weighed upwards of a hundred pounds. Monroe Brook’s start zones and the slopes below had been thoroughly tracked up and bombed by sunwheels weighing more than a human trigger. Some of the biggest had left trenches in their wake, and craters a foot deep where they came to rest.
My stability assessment was that the risk of wet slab or loose-wet snow avalanches was lower now, than earlier in the day. However, there were still isolated patches of untracked wet snow in the sunlight, high on climbers-left, with the potential to trigger an avalanche. The likelihood was Low, but the consequences could be bad, and I was alone on the mountain, so I avoided that terrain. There also appeared to be old ski tracks traversing the upper start zones, but they may have been ski-cuts, or old crown lines, but I stayed far away – too far tell.
The sunwheels had not refrozen, and I was able to skin up and side-step over them, breaking them up and flattening them out during my ascent, to improve the snow surface for my later descent.
I skied from 4600′ elevation, starting in the snowfields next to Monroe Brook, down what I affectionately call the “lower entrance”. The first 12 turns were a skiers dream, like an inch of cream-cheese on a firm base. As I descended lower into the main gully, the pitch was steeper, and the snow much softer, but I had rubbed a nice layer of wax on my bases after pulling the climbing skins off, and that kept me gliding, not sticking, most of the run. Descending steep pitches, the slough from my ski turns occasionally set off three or four rollers at a time, which had to be avoided. The skiing exceeded all my expectations – I did not fall once, and I linked dozens of turns between breaks to catch my breath and wait for any snow around me to stop rolling.
After a Woodstock 4000 Footer IPA at the trailhead, I stopped at the Cannonball Pub for a Cannon Ale, and great music by Steve “Cat” Cataldo’s duo,
and a beautiful sunset over Vermont…