Monday, April 29, 2019

When Will Snowbird Close?

My focus on Alpine adventures has distracted me from exploring Utah's snow and snowpack for sometime.  I know it has been a good (possibly great?) ski season since I left, but now lets turn our attention to the spring melt.  To make this post a little easier, however, let's ask a simple question.  When will we see the end of snow cover at the Snowbird SNOTEL (9640 ft near the Mid-Gad Restaurant)?  This is probably a reasonable approximation of Snowbird's closing date.

This year has been above the median over the past 30 years, with a peak snowpack water equivalent of about 58.1 inches on April 19 and 20 (blue line).  This is about 35% greater than the median peak of 43.1 inches (magenta line), although peak median occurs somewhat later on 1 May.  There has been a decline in snowpack water equivalent over the past week indicating that the snowpack is "ripe", meaning that it has warmed to the melting point through depth and energy input can lead to meltwater. 

There is, of course, a chance for recovery if the pattern changes, but I think a gain of several inches of snowpack water equivalent is unlikely with the pending storm. Later in May we'll have to see as discussed later. 

Also plotted are two recently big water years, 2005 (light blue) and 2011 (red).  One can see that those years were exceptional both in peak snowpack water equivalent (about 75 inches), but also the timing of the maximum.  This is especially true for 2011, which peaked several times at 75.1 inches, the last being on 1 June, the first day of meteorological summer.  In fact, that season we were getting freshies up through Memorial Day weekend. 

Yours truly getting some Memorial Day pow, May 31, 2011.  Photo: T. Cruickshank.
All of this is to illustrate that how late that Wasatch snowpack persists and Snowbird can operate is a function of both how fat the snowpack is, but also the weather that comes during spring, especially May.  If you want a July closing date, you need a deep snowpack, but also a cold pattern to maintain that snowpack late into very late May. 

Somewhat paradoxically, the later you can maintain a deep snowpack, the faster it melts.  This is because energy input into the snowpack late in the spring can be much larger than it is early in the spring due to the higher angle sun, longer day, and higher temperatures.  As a result, both 2005 and 2011 saw rapid snowpack loss once snowmelt began.  In 2011, 75 inches of snowpack water equivalent melted in 39 days.  In 2005, it took 48.  The former represents a loss of almost 2 inches a day, which is what you see on the warmest, sunniest days in late spring and early summer. 

Notice that the line for last year (green line) has a slower decline.  The energy input into the snowpack in April is lower, so even though the snowpack is thinner, its melt rate is lower. Thus, the rate of snowpack loss is a function of time of year more than it is the maximum depth of the snowpack.  This can also be inferred from the spaghetti plot of snowpack water equivalent over the last 30 years at Snowbird. 

Source: CBRFC
A wildcard is how dusty and dirty the snowpack is, which results in greater absorption of solar radiation.  That, however, is not well documented over the past 30 years, so it's something I can't evaluate. 

To conclude, snow cover at the Snowbird SNOTEL depends strongly on the weather in May.  A hot, dry May could still produce the end of snow cover before the end of May.  A cool, snowy May could extend the snow-cover season into mid June (later is not impossible, but quite unlikely).  Snowbird's closing date will depend strongly on the weather that comes in the next month, as well as their motivation to continue operations. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Scenes from the Südtirol

The Italian province immediately across the Brenner Pass and Alpine Divide from Austria's State of Tirol is widely known as South Tyrol in English and indicated in red below. 

Source: Wikipedia
However, to make it complicated, three major languages are spoken in the province, and thus it has three names: Autonome Provinz Bozen – Südtirol in German, Provincia autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige in Italian, and Provinzia autonoma de Bulson – Südtirol in Ladin.  Most people I know are German or English speaking, so Südtirol or South Tyrol are what I hear it called most frequently.  I've gotten used to the German spelling "Tirol" while here, and so I will incorrectly refer to the region as South Tirol here to add more confusion.

Tirol and South Tirol and some other parts of the surrounding area have be divided, united, and under various parties for a long time.  The history is fascinating but complicated, so I won't go into details here.  I will just say that today there is considerable transnational cooperation between Tirol, South Tirol, and Trentino a but further south.  For example, the three states and provinces publish a multilingual avalanche report.
I have been through the South Tirol a few times on train, but have never visited there.  We decided to go down on Saturday for a day trip to provinces largest city, Bolzano, which one can get to from Innsbruck by train. 

There are many beautiful castles, fortresses, and other old-school structures in Bolzano and the South Tirol.  We spent a short time at Runkelstein Castle pictured below. 

We also strolled by the Maretsch Castle.

There are at least two cable cars that head up into the hills from the perimeter of Bolzano.  We elected to head up the  Fenuvia San Genesio, an ancient 20 passenger tram that takes you up to San Genesio Atesino Janesien (I guess that's the name of the town).  We then explored the town and went for a hike to get some views of the Dolomites and other ranges of the South Tirol. 

No visit to Bolzano is complete without a stop at the South Tirol Museum of Archaeology, which would be better named the South Tirol Museum of Ötzi since most of it is dedicated to the history and study of the 5000 year old mummified iceman that was found within 100 meters of the Tirol-South Tirol border in 1991.  I actually found the museum to be quite interesting and well worth a stop. 

We've found that mixing hiking and historical sightseeing make a good modus operandi for day trips from Innsbruck.  The high country is still covered in snow, so the best hiking is down low and one can almost always find someplace interesting to explore within walking distance or short bus/tram ride from a train station.  Mix in lunch at a hütte or gasthaus and an afternoon gelato stop and you have yourself a pretty good day.  We also have a discount card for half-price train tickets, which makes transit far cheaper than car rental. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Tirolian Battle of Airmasses

The Tyrol has long been an important strategic region due to the Brenner Pass south of Innsbruck being the lowest pass across the Alps.  The mountains themselves served as an important strategic defense for centuries against invaders from other regions, and today they still serve as major barriers to the penetration of cold airmasses into the Tirol.

Today provides a great example.  As of 1000 UTC (1200 CET), cold air has surged across the Alpine Foreland in southern Germany where surface stations (upper left of figure below) are reporting temperatures of 5–7˚C.

Map source: University of Innsbruck
This airmass, however, is fairly shallow.  A sounding collected four hours earlier in Hohenpeissenberg, the easternmost of the two sites shows shallow northwesterly flow with strong southwesterly flow aloft.  A strong inversion caps a shallow pool of cold air between about 875 and 825 mb.  Basically, there is a shallow layer of post-cold-frontal air capped by very warm air that is downsloping off the Alps.  Such downsloping flow is known as Föhn.

Source: University of Innsbruck
In contrast, temperatures at Innsbruck, which is still under the influence of the Föhn moving down the Wipp Valley, remain very mild (22˚C).  Similarly, temperatures at sites southeast of Innsbruck (within red circles above) are also very mild.

Nevertheless, the cold air is attempting to penetrate through low-elevation valleys and saddles in the terrain of the northern Alps.  For example, there is a saddle in the terrain near Seefeld (identified above) through which cold air is currently moving, resulting in temperatures of only 9˚C at Seefeld, which is only about 500 meters higher than Innsbruck (thus, this air is colder than one would expect solely from altitude effects in a well mixed airmass).  One can also see cold northerly flow in the Achen Valley northeast of Innsbruck.

To the east of Innsbruck, it is also clear that there is terrain channeled flow moving up the Inn Valley.  Time series below from Kufstein (top) and Jenbach (bottom) show the development of NE flow at Kufstein followed by Jenback as cooler air moves up the Inn Valley.  This air, however, is not as cold as that moving through the Seefeld saddle since it is from further east.  However, it is clearly cooler than the air at those sites yesterday.

Source: University of Innsbruck

Source: University of Innsbruck
One of the challenges forecasting for Innsbruck is predicting when the Föhn will weaken and whether or not cold air will reach the city from the Seefeld Saddle, the Inn Valley, or directly over the Nordette immediately north of the city.  In addition to the importance for the public, the timing of these wind transitions is absolutely critical for aviation into and out of the Innsbruck airport.  During Föhn, turbulence is high and planes typically fly very close to the southern slope of the Nordkette where the Föhn flow tends to move upslope and provide lift.  However, this is the last place you'd want an aircraft if the cold air pushes over the crest of the Nordkette and plunges down the south slope.  

Today, it appears we won't see cold air pushing over the Nordkette, but reaching Innsbruck through the Seefeld Saddle or up the Inn Valley.  

Lo' and behold, while I was writing this, we had frontal passage.  Note below the temperature drop and the wind shift (dotted line) from S or SW flow to something near W.  

Source: University of Innsbruck
That indicates the cold air got here first through the Seefeld Saddle.  Seefeld Saddle 1, Inn Valley 0.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Hahnenkamm

The Hahnenkamm is a mountain in Kitzbühel, Austria that is host to a series of World Cup Alpine ski races each winter.  The downhill, following a course called the Streif, is the Super Bowl of men's Alpine skiing.  Winning on the Streif requires great skill and huge risk taking.

Kitzbühel is one of the most famous ski resorts in the world and links with multiple other ski areas to provide a resort with 57 lifts, 230 km of pistes, and 41 km of additional marked ski routes.  Unlike the raw, big, imposing terrain of some Austrian resorts like St. Anton or Ischgl, the mountains around Kitzbühel are lower with less relief.  Kitzbühel itself sits at lowly 762 meters and most of the ski terrain lies below 2000 meters. 

Promotional materials claim a mean seasonal snowfall of 2.5 meters (100 inches) in the valley and 8 meters (314 inches) on the mountain.  I can't confirm that without more digging.  What I can say is that mean annual precipitation analyses for the greater Tirolean region show the advantages of the snowy Arlberg region near and north of St. Anton and the northern rim of the Alps in general.  The mountains south of the Inn Valley, from about Innsbruck west, are drier.  However, near Kitzbuhel, the precipitation is greater again.  For its altitude, it does well compared to the mountains south of Innsbruck.  Nevertheless, it isn't the Arlberg (which also has altitude advantages) and it certainly isn't the central Wasatch.

Precipitation analysis from the Hydrological Atlas of Switzerland
Andrea and I did not ski Kitzbühel this winter, but it is a short 70-minute train ride from Innsbruck, so we decided to head over for a look.  We trolled around the Hahnenkamm base area and went for a hike.  As noted previously, the mountains around Kitzbühel are not as imposing as in other areas of the Austrian Alps.  They are, however, beautiful in their own way.

Kitzbühler Horn from Schwartzsee
Kitzbühel area mountains from Schwarzsee

The Wilder Kaiser mountains to the north (pictured below), which top out at 2344 meters, are also quite picturesque.  The rock and snow made us think of a mini version of the Teton Range.

The Hahnenkamm itself is not all that impressive from town.  I took the photo below from the church cemetery though for added effect.  Look carefully and you can see the feared Hausberg Traverse, which has crushed the hopes of so many racers.  

Kitzbühel is staying open until May 1st, and they are doing their damndest to keep top to bottom skiing going on the Hahnenkamm.

It looked like something from late-season Vermont.  This was taken very near the base and the dude pictured appeared to piece together a nearly continuous run down the Hahnankamm slalom slope and its ribbon of snow on the right (Hausberg traverse on the left).  Still, it is alarming to see the mighty beast in such a weakened state.

There's a small park near the bottom of the Streif that is worth a few minutes if you are ever in the area.  It is appropriately named Legenden Park.

On the bib of the sculpture are the names of all the Olympic and World Championship medal winners from the Kitzbühler Ski Club.

Amongst the names is Kitzbühl native Tony Sailer, who won 11 Olympic and World Championship medals, including three golds in the 1956 Olympics.

Sailer was also voted the greatest Austrian athlete of the 20th century.  He starred in a 1950s ski film known as Der Schwarze Blitz (the black flash).

Here's an excerpt.

The name "World Cup" was first used in Kitzbühel.

Surprisingly, the actual finish area for the Streif is gated off and inaccessible.

We walked around for quite a while looking for an easy access route that wasn't signed "Privat Gründstuck", but never found one.  The sign below will have to do.

Finally, here's something to ponder the next time that you are stuck in traffic going up the Cottonwood Canyons.  There is a train station right next to the Hahnenkamm cable car.  I MEAN RIGHT NEXT TO IT.  30 meters away.

The Intercity (IC) train we took to Kitzbühel from Innsbruck doesn't stop here, but instead goes to the main train and bus station on the other side of town.  However, there are options that will plop you right here.

I'm now at 3 months and 1 week since I last drove a car.  You can go amazing places here by train and bus and enjoy the view along the way.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Tirolean Figln

It waited until the very end of the season, but I finally got to ski the Nordkette area above Innsbruck on Easter Sunday morning.

On paper, it's an appealing resort.  You can get to it by funicular from downtown Innsbruck.  It has two trams spanning 1400 vertical meters (4575 vertical feet).  And, it is steep, with some great freeride lines dropping back to the Inn Valley.

On the other hand, I don't think trails 2 and 3 are groomed and everything below the bottom of chair 1 is essentially backcountry.  Thus, one needs to ski it wisely (and today there was  no snow below the lowest chairlift).  Then, there's the issue of the south aspect, which means the snow is tortured quickly by the sun.

However, it's currently severe clear here in the Tirol and afternoon highs in Innsbruck have been around 24˚C.  I figured the Tirolean firn (what we call corn snow) would be great in the morning, so I headed up for a couple of hours of laps.

However, when I got on the tram, I was oddly the only person carrying alpine skis.  The tram was half filled with tourists, which is not unusual, but the other half were skiers carrying very short skis, often stuffed in their packs.

It turns out that "Figln", skiing on extremely short skis in corn snow, is extremely popular in some parts of the Tirol and strongly encouraged at Nordkette.  In fact, the entire month of April is Figl season at Nordkette.

You can even pick up a pair at the souvenir shop at the top of the tram.  Strap 'em on your feet and you are ready to go (I stuck with the Alpine planks).

Given my early start, my first hour of skiing I had the area pretty much to myself.  Unlike alpine skiing, figln is best when the snow is really soft.  I was literally the only alpine skier around for a while.  I kept wondering if I was breaking a code or something.

Eventually the figlers came out, and like the whos in whoville on Christmas day (yes, I know this is Easter, but let me go with it), they had a great time skiing down narrow gullies, holding hands, faceplanting, you name it.  Their laughter was everywhere.  It was enough to cause the grinch's heart to grow three sizes.

There's even extreme figln.  The Hafelekar tram to the Nordkette ridge serves up some serious skiing.  I've wanted to ski the line under the tram since I first visited the area one October and saw what a great run it would be.  Sadly, the run had been figled to death.

One might think you could ski across those figl trenches or even along them in a pair of Alpine skis, but let me tell you, going across them is like riding a bucking bronco and going down them is absolutely terrifying.  I elected to ski elsewhere.

Fortunately, a figler clued me into a run called the Directissima.  It's pictured below dropping toward the Inn Valley.

It's a great run, and today had some smooth skiing in some places and some figl damaged areas in others, but not so bad to throw you.  I foolishly never took a picture looking directly down it, but here's one looking up.

It reminded me a bit of skiing Mt. Superior, but the Directissima is potentially much longer.  I was a bit disappointed to have to make a hard right to get back to the chairlift rather than continuing down, but I would have eventually run out of snow, with a long walk to the bottom to follow. 

The views from the peak above the Hafelekar tram never disappoint.  The panoramas below are looking eastward along the Nordkette Range and down the Inn Valley (top) and southward toward Innsbruck and up the Wipp Valley (bottom).

Thank you to the figlers for letting me share the mountain.  Its worth reading a bit more about figln on the Tirol Blog.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Cinque Terre

The highlight of our adventures in Italy was a visit to Cinque Terre, a coastal area of northwest Italy that encompasses five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  Photos of these colorful villages perched in precarious locations along the Mediterranean Sea are iconic and well recognized.  Below is Vernazza where we stayed a couple of nights. 

The villages are connected by rail, boat, and an extensive network of hiking trails, enabling all kinds of trecking adventures.  It's about as much fun as you can have shouldering a pack in the morning and seeing where you end up.  

First the villages.  Colorful.  Beautiful.  Historical.  

Although it is possible to drive to near the villages, they are mainly devoid of cars.  The buildings are built and molded onto rugged terrain.  Village exploration involves canyoneering Italian style.  For the most part you are walking through narrow alleys and up and down steep stairs, looking for something to hold onto. 

To access our room, we ascended a long stairwell with a 45 degree incline to get to the front door.  After entering, we then ascended a 50 degree stairwell to get to the room.  We were grateful we travelled light and that our knees weren't cranky.  There's good money to be had by young studs who carry oversized luggage to and from rental properties in the area!

The stairs from the train station to the village of Corniglia is an Italian version of Walter's Wiggles in Zion National Park.  

The hiking in the region is really wonderful.  You can stick to coastal trails (mainly closed for repair while we were there except the route from Monterosso to Vernazza which we enjoyed) or venture into the hills, olive groves, and vineyards.  Below are a few photos of our route from Manarola to Corniglia via the mountain town of Volastra.

The landscape in the region has been transformed over hundreds of years to support agriculture, with heavy terracing.  

In modern times, there are monorail "trains" that workers use to ascend the landscape.  

We didn't take a video, but here's an example from YouTube.

We were fortunate to visit during the shoulder season as we've heard the high season is insane.  For our visit, mornings and evenings were relatively quiet in Vernazza, but venturing about, things got busy during the day.  

We are now back in Innsbruck working and recuperating, trying to figure out what to do next.  So many options, so little time...