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Avalanches, Snow Conditions, Weather and the unpredictable cocktail they cause...

 Poster: A snowHead
Poster: A snowHead
There are a few misapprehensions about avalanche risk and its predictability and I think that all members of this forum are sensible enough and competent enough (actually or potentially) to want to be aware of their responsibilities on and off the mountain. Particularly with regard to avalanche safety.

2 small tales to begin: The leading avalanche expert in France, a UIAGM Mountain Guide and lecturer at the university of Grenoble was asked to come to Alpe d'Huez to assess the potential risk to the hill road by a slope high above that had an unusual weight of snow on it. The aspect of the slope was off windward so there should have been no lee slope hazard but the temperature fluctuations had caused the snow to be more adhesive than usual, meaning there was more snow lying than usual. The expert assessed that it was safe to approach the area beneath the danger area to look at aspects and make a general, informed, decision. The group were peering up the hill when the slab detached and swept down the hill, covering 1000m of vertical drop before wiping out the spectators, who did not have time to move. I believe that 5 people were killed including the expert.

An American avalanche researcher replaced him - a keen ski mountaineer - and published a number of books outlining the danger signs and how to protect oneself, what to look for and what to expect to see. While researching his latest book he was carried off down the hill and had his pelvis broken for him. He did, however, survive.

What is my point? I think, simply this. The elements will conspire against us whenever they can. Last week saw some freak weather patterns - deep freezing conditions (-34 on the Mont Fort, -47 on the Aiguille du Midi, -25 in Vallorcine), heavy snowfall, then heavy rainfall and a rise in the temperatures to +5, followed by another metre of snow and freezing conditions again. All that this is conspiring to do is make it more confusing for us that want to get into the deep stuff. A cross section of the snow pack was more indicative of the end of season in the Himalaya than the Alps in late December.

Some rough guidlelines:

If the avalanche risk is 5 stay at home, if the risk is 4 do not go off piste without serious thought, correct equipment and lots of local knowledge and experience.

If the risk is 3 then plan where you are intending to go, take the correct equipment, look at the weather patterns over the previous period - which way was the wind blowing during the last fall, what were the temperatures before, during and after, over what length of time did snow fall and how much, what base has it fallen onto (this is vital information), what gradient are you intending to ski? - and be honest about your ability to make these assessments. If you are not sure why any of these points are relevant then consider having a lesson in off-piste safety and avalanche awareness, or cut your losses and hire a guide.

If the risk is 2 or 1 then just be sensible and always keep an eye on what is happening above you - that is where the danger will come from. If you wear a helmet remember that you lose a high percentage of your spatial awareness by reducing what you can hear - your most powerful emergency sense in the mountains (how many guides wear a hard hat??). The risk may be low but there is still a risk.

What equipment should you carry? It is encouraging to hear that many of you are carrying a transceiver, shovel and probe. Ensure that you know how to use them! A transceiver is a complicated device that does not simply home in on a straight bearing and it is disconcerting when it appears to veer away from what you thought was a consistent direction... Understanding the theory will help you to use it efficiently. A body buried upright - head first or feet first - is a very small target to hit with a probe, probing discipline is another skill that is misinterpreted. Consider carrying a first aid kit, space blanket, spare layer and emergency phone numbers. Do you carry a map and can you give a grid reference if required? I was avalanched in Scotland 4 years ago and lost (temporarily) 6 members of my group. On calling the Mountain Rescue they refused to believe my grid reference until I was able to convince them that as an MIC and helicopter pilot I was certain that I knew my way round a map as well as they did! Only later did I realise that they had thought that the area we were in was not able to slide so were sceptical of the co-ordinates.

Do you speak the local language? If the pisteur/doctor/mountain rescue arrives on the scene and needs information, can you give it to him?

The cause of an avalanche comprises many elements. Understanding how they conspire to trigger a slide is not an exact science. At the end of a one week advanced avalanche course in the Rockies a few years ago the instructor (a boffin whose life work was the crystalline composition of snow flakes) said to us: "The only predictable avalanche prediction is that it will be unpredictable." How right he is...

Despite the doom and gloom it is worth the effort of understanding and therefore minimising the risk because skiing off-piste should be the goal of every skier (IMH!)

Happy Sliding - and Happy New Year, it's set to be a good one! snowHead snowHead
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 Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Obviously A snowHead isn't a real person
Good post - the more I see of avalanches - the more I realise just how much there is to learn - and then some. I've seen a couple, one cornice collapse was pretty close up and even a small slide has a lot of power. Be careful out there!!!
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 Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Well, the person's real but it's just a made up name, see?
Excellent bit of advice, thanks for that it might just make someone think and save their life.
Scarpa, once had a small slag heap avalanche just behind my uncle's cottage in Wrexham, 50 years ago. Shocked it was also internally on fire too.
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 You need to Login to know who's really who.
You need to Login to know who's really who.
Dypcdiver, Nasty - there are a lot of slag heaps around this area. Imagine writing out the insurance claim for that - my house got avalanched and then burnt down????
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