Pre-Trip Safety Information
This trip is unguided (unless separate specific arrangements have been made) and you are responsible for your own safety. In the case of an incident of some kind you may also find yourself responsible for a partners rescue/well-being. This is a long way in, an outside response will most likely be measured in days. A VHF radio will be available in the hut, as required by the ACC.
The two major concerns, both of which can be prepared for, are avalanches and crevasses. Another, and perhaps the largest, is poor visibility in the treeless alpine terrain.
It is advisable to have at least a basic avalanche safety class. Beacon, shovel, and probe should be considered essential along with knowledge of how to use them.
The snowpack in this area is "transitional" or "intermountain". In addition to new snow concerns there may be buried persistent weaknesses in the snowpack. This may be new to you if you are used to a maritime snowpack. Persistent weak layers, especially facets and surface hoar, can create conditions in which the stability of a particular slope or area cannot be accurately assessed. If such layers are present or believed to be present caution is urged and conservative terrain choices are recommended.
During the 1999 trip the snowpack was quite stable overall. Even so there was one incident involving the group sharing the hut with us in which one woman was buried in a small slide with soft debris. Two others were in the path or run-out area. This was a failure in terrain recognition and safe travel protocols, there was nothing tricky about the snowpack. There was also at least one case within our group of an inexperienced person setting a track across an avalanche slope even after being pointed in a safer direction. In another case there were two small natural slides which suddenly had a single ski track between them. After asking around it turned out to be a member of our group who had been alone at the time.
Bring your brain and some mountain sense. They are worth far more than most peoples snowpit analyses. Remember to keep sight of the big picture without getting too hung up on technicalities and stability tests which are indicative of only one point spatially. On the 2001 Blanket Glacier trip we had one person who had taken an avalanche class on Mt Hood as preparation for the trip. During the week there was constant discussion of the overall big picture of stability and very little emphasis on snowpits and formal tests. The book received as part of the course reinforced this. Finally, near the end of the week, this person asked in frustration "If all that snowpit stuff isn't the most important thing why did we spend our whole class on it?". This is an especially good question in a coastal snowpack, and instructors in such areas who spend a lot of time on snowpits often have no experience with persistent weaknesses which are common in continental and transitional climates.
There has not been an avalanche fatality out of this hut in at least ten years. I'm not sure about injuries. However, incidents do occur every season - some of which have included total or near total burial.
There is some terrain accessible without crossing glaciers, and a few excellent areas are not glaciated or not broken up very much.
The Granite glacier is very broken up in places. Guided parties generally rope up on it in these areas and probe for crevasses. Many tours involve traversing part of this glacier - Unicorn/Colossal (Unicol), Enterprise, and anything else in the Nobility group. And Pioneer Pass.
Continuing across Friendship Col onto the Gothics glacier also puts one in an area which is reported to be heavily crevassed, even though it does not appear to be in winter.
It is common on many glacier routes to ski unroped but to wear light harnesses with a locking biner on the front and to carry a rope and rescue items in case something does happen. In the event it does, a rescue/assistance effort will be greatly expedited with a harness on. The decision on whether to travel roped or unroped is up to each group to make as they travel, but undertaking any glacier travel without these basic precautions of wearing a light harness and carrying rescue gear within the group is strongly discouraged. Each travel party must make their own calls, and snow coverage will vary from year to year and with the time of the season.
Learn about basic crevasse rescue/extrication if you don't have that skill already. Remember that a crevasse fall can be a major problem, especially when unroped - there is more to handling it than just having set up a Z pulley once or twice.
This is perhaps the biggest safety concern, and it makes avalanche and crevasse problems more likely as well as other potential disasters. If there is low visibility it is best to stay in the trees or to use the "practice slopes" (which are quite nice) and a few slopes above on the way to Friendship Col where there are usually pre-existing tracks for visual reference. If there is a strong possibility of visibility changing for the worse tours of any length or distance from the hut above treeline should be considered carefully.
In 1999 we traversed the bench below the NW Ridge of Sentinel in order to meet the Friendship Col track near shoestring glacier - not an area too far astray or overly risky. Nonetheless, just above the track to/from the Col I fell through a soft snow cornice I couldn't even see, onto a steep wind-loaded slope which fortunately was short and didn't release.
On our winter Great Cairn trip we skied up Haworth Glacier and rounded Palisade towards the Sir Sandford Glacier in a whiteout. We skied from visible rocks to visible rocks. One guy picked up some speed and was going to overshoot the rocks to stop. He disappeared into a deep indiscernible depression between rocks, bent a ski, and twisted an ankle or knee. I took the next stretch (and the last before retreating) and thought I was traversing behind a cornice, which I was. The rock I was shooting for was an outcropping along a cliff band with steep slopes below it. Overshooting that one could have been serious or quite possibly fatal.
Based on these past experiences I have come to treat poor visibility as the greatest danger and highly recommend sticking to treed areas or previously tracked and known areas close to the hut when this occurs. This is one reason for choosing weeks a bit later, sometime into April. Our experiences in March have all included mostly flat light and low visibility. Not necessarily stormy weather, just a cap of clouds that hangs over the range and lingers indefinitely.