Air: Planning for Optimal Weather
Posted by Joseph Anderson
Air: Planning for Optimal Weather
In late July 1996 I found myself sitting on a Glacier at around 6,000 feet in the middle of the Alaska Range accessible only by ski plane, hoping, but extremely doubtful, that we were going to get picked up by our plane scheduled for that day. This was an expensive trip into the Pika Glacier, one of the coolest alpine rock climbing places on earth. We spent 12 of the 14 days in a near constant drizzle and rain with at best, a 30 foot visibility into a monotonous white gloom. We didn’t do any climbing of course, just read a lot, dug snow caves and hoped that we would get picked up before our food ran out. Down glacier from us there was a group that had run out of food 6 days ago. You see, the planes need complete visibility to land on these remote and wild glaciers. If it’s too obscured they risk disaster.
The reason I am bringing this up is not because it is an entertaining story but there is absolutely something to learn from this that I want to share. This lamo weather situation we were in was actually a mistake on our part due to poor planning. On maybe the 8th or 9th day of our ordeal I remember reading the weather and climate section of one of our guide books on the area. It read “Every year, at elevations of 10, 000 feet and below in the Alaska Range, the weather pattern changes around the beginning to middle of July. A steady and consistent rain becomes the normal pattern in this region and lasts until the beginning to middle of September.” There you go. All of our planning prior to flying onto the glacier had consisted of drooling over the super cool route topo maps of the jagged turret like peaks that surrounded the glacier, but nobody in our six person party considered the fact that mid to late summer in the Alaska Range = very dependable shit weather.
Now almost 20 years later my main occupation in life both personally and professionally is to plan the right trip at the right time in the right place. What I have learned is that planning for the optimal conditions boils down to three key stages that when considered while planning for a trip will put you on the right track for increasing the odds of great conditions.
Determine the correct season to schedule your big trip. Although this seems like the most obvious no-brainer that is in fact what makes people get it so wrong. Assumptions are commonly made without researching. So do your homework and figure out what the correct season is when you’re planning your trip in advance.
Most common mistake: Making assumptions
Example: A group of us found ourselves in the middle of the AK Range in reliably bogus conditions because we assumed that the weather would be perfect as it was midsummer. Across the board midsummer is the most common season for the uninitiated to find themselves smack in the middle of the wrong season.
(1) Research online as well as guide books. The most obvious and the easiest so make sure you do it.
(2) Call local outdoor retail gear shops. Take this with care though, you may be speaking with someone who wants to sound knowledgeable but is not. Usually local specialty shops that have been around for awhile are a safer bet than big name mega stores like REI.
(3) Consult local guide services. Make sure you are talking to someone who actually works in the field. Whether you are hiring a guide or not these are the people most likely to have year in year out experience in your chosen venue. Don’t hesitate to ask how long this person has been working in the area you are researching.
(4) Consult other local services before hiring them. Example: If I would have called the plane shuttle service we were using in Alaska and mentioned we were looking for the best time of year to fly in they would have probably told us May to early July.
(5) Know that some locations have an ideal “in” season while other locations are notorious crap shoots. Example: Getting anything done in the central Coast Range of British Columbia requires lots of luck, while just a bit south in the Southern Coast Range they experience fairly reliable stable conditions every July and August.
This type of planning considers the upcoming trends in weather throughout a given season which becomes increasingly important for certain regions and activities. For example: Back Country Skiing is very condition dependant, therefore during the winter in the North west we experience more last minute bookings than for any other program.
Most Common Mistakes: Not planning for wiggle room and contingencies.
What I find is that when people have set plans (without contingency days) and they see weather on the forecast they cancel the whole trip. If you are planning a trip to partake in a very condition dependent activity, plan a few or more days of wiggle room. Not putting that into your plan may be guaranteeing its demise from the get go.
(1) Use 10 day forecasts to make and fine tune plans, not cancel all. Example: I was traveling through Oregon on my way back home from an extended trip last month. Smith Rock is on average way too hot for rock climbing in mid June but as we were deciding where to go the long range forecast showed a cold front passing through the area. The result of a plan that was hashed 2 weeks prior was perfect climbing weather for 4 consecutive days which was forecasted a week ahead of time.
(2) Check in with climate prediction centers for a look at upcoming trends for 1 month and 2 months here: www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.
(3) Make your long range Macro plans with a bit of flexibility for moving your trip forward or backward.
(4) Accept that some of the best laid plans just refuse to work.
This type of preparation is for the short trips you plan and execute on a day to day basis as well as the day to day planning and decision making on the big expeditions that you’ve put together way in advance.
Most Common Mistake: Reacting to emotions.
People are emotional by nature. This has profound effects on your wallet, your success and your safety. Beginner to advanced, nobody is spared from this time tested fact. Plan in advance. You know that it will snow and the sun will shine therefore prepare ahead of time instead of reacting in the moment.
(1) Snow tire sales are at their highest during the first snow storm of a season. Sales for climbing gear is at its highest once the weather turns warm and sunny. Ski sales are highest when the snow is good.
(2) Rock Climbing areas are most crowded when it’s too hot to climb.
(3) Back Country skiing is most dangerous when the snow quality is best.
On that fateful adventure to the Alaska Range we did end up getting picked up on time. That is because we were lucky as the skies cleared on our pick up date. In the end we only paid with our wallets while our friends down glacier, even with our help paid with several days of starvation. The fact is I was lucky to be there with friends who refused to go climbing in the gloomy weather. I wanted to go climbing. I had put a lot of hard work into saving and preparing for this trip and I was prepared to risk it. A macro planning mistake was close to turning into a micro planning mistake.
To get the most out of these basic guidelines of planning, I recommend that you reflect on some of your past trips. What worked in your preparations and what did not work and how did these tools fit in? What could have been planned differently? How much of the success was dumb luck?