Aborted McClellan Butte Hike, Unstable Snow

Erin and I attempted a quick run up McClellan Butte as an opportunity to get some time in the mountains. With forecasted temperatures in the 50s and rain/snow falling in the mountains earlier in the week, we were slightly concerned about avalanche risk. We planned to stay in the trees and follow the summer trail checking the snow for stability as we passed the chutes.

Around 3,200’ we stopped at the edge of a lightly forested gully for a snack and noticed that the top few inches of snow was very slushy and heavy. The last couple of minutes I had noticed that some of my freshly kicked steps were collapsing as I weighted them – and I was slightly concerned about the potential avalanche risk above.

Erin noticed a team of two people glissading down the gully: I first saw the table-sized chunks of snow that where being trundled down the slope as they glissaded. They reported low visibility, fresh avalanche debris a few hundred feet above us at the base of the summit chutes, and even less stable snow.

Out of idle curiosity I dug a pit:

  • 4” – 5” top layer of very heavy, very slushy, wet snow on top of a relatively firm crust
  • A few dirty layers within 2’ section of slushy, wet snow
  • A very hard icy layer
  • About 1’ of consolidated snow above the soil

For fun, I gave the block a tug – and the top 4” – 5” of heavy, slushy, wet snow slide off along a the first firm boundary. Sluuussssshhhhhh. That explained why my kicked steps kept collapsing. Everything below that layer was stable.

We decided to turn around: unstable snow in the trees, reports of less stable snow above with fresh avalanche debris, and limited visibility. Too much risk for a training hike.


With our new found free time, we buried the avalanche beacons in the debris from the pit and played a few rounds of ‘find the beacon’ for some practice. I’m still amazed at how quick and accurate the Barryvox beacon is in search mode.

Our decision to turn around was validated on the descend, as we kicked off very large, building snowballs with gentle plunge steps on gentle slopes. Traversing across the steeper chutes (25 – 30 degrees) set off every larger snowballs and spontaneous snowballing.

A trip report posted for yesterday on Turns All Years reported a 8” to 10” of new snow near Alpental with “highly reactive snow”. Highly reactive, indeed.


About Shawn Murphy

I’m a Program Manager working on social networking features for Microsoft Zune in Seattle, WA. Outside of Zune, you’ll find me hiking, climbing, playing in the outdoors, and taking photos. Although I work at Microsoft, I’m not a Microsoft spokesperson. Anything I write on my blog or comments that I leave reflect my personal opinions and do not reflect the opinions, plans or desires of Microsoft.

Posted on April 28, 2012, in Trip Report. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: