A season like no other!
So finally the winter has come and its starting to get deep out there. Way back in November, I was told by someone who had a friend who is a weather man, that the winter would be dry until the end of January and then it would snow big time!
With a poor long term forecast such as this, I went for the other rumour that I heard at around the same time, the one that stated that, ‘the mice were very busy and so that signified a big winter ahead’.
Unfortunately the mice were wrong and the weather man was right…
As most people are aware, it’s been a pretty heavy winter for avalanches. A shallow snowpack, weak crystallised layers, some dry conditions, the mildest November on record, soaring temperatures, a cold snap, lots of wind, some rain, some snow, some more rain, more wind…
Into December more melt freeze cycles, shallow snowpack, strong temperature gradients, weak layers, melt freeze layers, rising temps, crazily strong winds, cold snap, depth hoar, surface hoar, some snow, more wind, more rain, gale force wind, more rain…
Did anyone else lose track of what was happening to the snowpack under our feet?
And then it started, the season started and suddenly we’re out there trying to Ski and Snowboard, Tour and Climb as we always do…
Carrying on as if its a normal winter season…and its easy to just look at what is now and to quickly forget about what has been and we’re all wishing and hoping for the conditions to improve and those that have been waiting are chomping at the bit to get out there touring and to get out there in the Backcountry and to get on with all those projects, start working through those goals and hitting all those spots that we’ve been waiting to come into condition and thinking about throughout the Autumn?
We all know its not a normal season and yet we quickly forget this minor point as soon as the snow finally begins to fall and then as we head into january, the statistics are starting to tell us that things aren’t quite right underfoot.
By the end of January, the list of recorded Avalanches is getting very long and the number of Avalanche fatalities even longer…and then towards the end of January the real snow comes?
So what do we do now?
For the duration of the storm cycle, we are obviously restricted by the weather and by what is open in terms of lifts and what we can access from them.
The pisteurs patrol the mountain, they release the dangerous slabs and open the mountains and we ski and ride, our tracks spreading quickly outwards until every possible fresh turn has been taken.
We are riding Off Piste, not in the Backcountry as such, maybe a little Slackcountry, (Off Piste terrain that is harder to get to), but still not right out there in the Backcountry.
We might be scoring fresh turns, but we are riding on frequently travelled terrain and our passing, almost, pistes the snowpack, settling it, cutting it, releasing the tension and breaking down the layers, making it safe.
We gain confidence in the snowpack, if its safe here, maybe its safe over there, maybe its safe out there and the next cycle begins…
Someone puts a track in here, someone puts a track in there…and we’re off, but now we are heading outwards and we are heading to the Backcountry.
The Backcountry, where the snowpack hasn’t been ridden, it hasn’t been patrolled and it hasn’t been pisted…
I heard a crazy statistic about all the avalanches that have occurred so far this season.
Unlike most years, were there is a definite similarity between many of the slides, be it aspect (which way the slope faces) Altitude (what altitude the slope is at), wind loading, regional conditions, a temperature rise, or cold snap, first person skiing or overloading by a group…
The only thing that every avalanche this season has had in common is that the angle for each and every avalanche has been over 30 degrees…
The most common angles for avalanches are between 30 and 45 degrees so this isn’t an unusual statistic in itself, the unusually is that this is the ‘only common ground’ between them all.
Avalanches this season have occurred at every altitude on every aspect in every region…the main factor for every Avalanche this season has been weak layers in the snowpack, windslab and gradient…
Its Thursday the 29th of January, the snow has started to fall and as I start to write this, news confirming another Avalanche fatality from yesterday (Wednesday) hits my mail list…That makes 10 fatalities in the last week!
The same day, a guiding friend of mine, Miles Smart, has posted a video of a snowpack pressure test ‘that re confirms that the persistent weak layers are still present in the snowpack and its still fragile’…He has done this to check the conditions that will be hidden deep underfoot as of this latest storm.
So then the snow comes…and it falls and it falls and it falls…
It starts in the resort, we play and we ride on the familiar terrain, terrain that has been stabilized by our passing and by the Ski Patrol that look after the resort.
Soon this is tracked and we start to venture outwards…
Its maybe now be a few days after the storm, the snowpack from the latest snowfall has started to settle and stabilize…our confidence builds…
But deep beneath our feet the weak layer is waiting?
One of France’s leading Avalanche safety experts, Alain Duclos, warns us of the dangerous times ahead…his best advice when asked what we can do to play it safe?
‘Ski and ride on terrain below 30 degrees in gradient’
Is he joking?
Unfortunately he is deadly serious…
This is a season like no other, so what are we going to do?
My last blog post about the ‘changing times’ of Freeriding was very well received. If I’d known it was going to prove so popular and be read by so many, I might have taken a bit more time over it…(my normal blogs maybe get a couple of thousand views).
As it is, I’ve had emails, messages, comments, people coming up to me on the mountains, in the restaurant whilst I have lunch and phone calls, all by people that were touched by what I wrote…I had to go back and read it again, just incase someone had added to it, or the link I’d used took them somewhere else, maybe to a mountain experts blog?
I wrote my last blog post because I feel that what is happening at the moment is not truly just a sign of our times, its not just a law of averages…I wrote my last blog because, although the mountain environment is an unpredictable place to play, our actions and the way we are progressing just seemed to be getting out of sync with our environment.
The technical level of most adventure or extreme sports these days is hard to believe.
You look at what the top professionals can do on a Motorcross bike, a BMX, a skateboard…the list is endless…but what they don’t have to deal with is the constant unpredictability of the terrain under their feet…
The ‘Extreme Freeride’ end mountain sports have this cutting edge technical ability going on…and yet there is the added danger of the terrain and the snowpack on which the sport takes place…
Obviously in certain instances the challenge of the terrain is part of the appeal with the challenge of riding steep faces and gnarly lines…
But there is a time and a place for this, and in most instances those at the top of the game have the time, the patience and the knowledge to wait and see…and hopefully they know that ‘this is a season like no other’ and they will wait.
The top end of our sport is progressing so fast and it effects us all.
Top end performance trickles down, the average ability goes up and more and more of us are peering out beyond the ropes that mark the limit of the patrolled mountain, the ‘safe zone’…looking to follow in the tracks of our hero’s…
And as we look out there we can see tracks to follow…
And so it begins…
So how do I follow up my last blog?
Well, I’m out on the mountain pretty much everyday, my job is to Guide my clients and keep them safe.
They want to Splitboard tour, they want to Freeride in the Backcountry, they want to score fresh tracks everyday and it is part of my job to help them achieve these goals…
But it is mostly my job to give them a ‘great time’ a ‘great ride’ and to ‘keep them safe’!
So with all this knowledge of the unknown beneath our feet, I ask myself how am I doing this?
How am I going to do this in days to come?
In weeks to come?
What are my priorities when I am guiding my groups?
These are questions that I ask myself everyday, every ride, every run…
So how am I going about it?
And by answering this question here, can I help others also play it safe during this fragile winter?
We’ve probably all heard of or read about the red flags or key signs to look out for, when it comes to Avalanche safety?
Jeremy Jones, the undisputed leader of all things Backcountry Snowboarding has them posted on every Board, Backpack, T shirt etc that he sells…
The red flags as according to Jeremy are…
1. collapsing or cracking in the snowpack…These are 2 indications of serious avalanche risk and together, they are a definite indication that it is time to turn around…Collapsing snowpack or whumping as it sometimes called is very scary and is an indication of fragile layers under foot. If you hear whumping on steep terrain you’re probably getting avalanched, if it is on the low angled approach and the climb looks to hold similar conditions then you’ve been lucky, unless there’s a definite safe line to follow, count your lucky stars and get out of there.
Cracking in the snowpack underfoot is a sign that you’re walking on dangerous snow slab, again if the terrain is getting steep or you’re heading to the steeps, its time to turn things around.
2. New snow…Most Avalanches occur either during or shortly after fresh snowfall due to the added mass of fresh snow adding pressure on top of the existing snowpack. New snow falling from steep ground or rocks can also act as a trigger, releasing slopes below.
3. Rapid rise in temperature…A rapid rise in temperature puts moisture into the snowpack increasing its mass from the surface down. Again, more pressure to the snowpack and the fragile layers underneath increases the risk of them collapsing and sliding.
4. Recent sign of avalanche activity…Avalanche activity is a sure sign that things are unstable, this goes for both naturally triggered slides and skier/snowboarder related remote trigger slides. Roller balls from temperature increases, snow falling from trees etc are all signs that things are changing.
5. Strong winds and drifting snow…Wind transports and deposits snow on sheltered slopes adding mass in a dense tightly bonded slab. (Wind breaks down the snow crystals into tiny grains that bond together quickly to form a dense snow slab). Wind effect is constant in the mountains and snow slab can build up anytime the wind blows even if it hasn’t snowed for days or weeks.
Out of the 2 most common types of Avalanche, the ‘Loose Snow Avalanche’ and the ‘Slab Avalanche’, the Slab avalanche poses by far the greatest risk to the Backcountry enthusiast.
I’m not going to go into the details of these two different types of avalanche here, but if you want to know more (and I suggest you do) do some research or read my article on these two types of avalanche in the mcnabsnowboarding.com library here.
Keeping up on your awareness of the 5 red flags is key to assessing avalanche risk when you are both planning a ride or already out on the mountain.
These 5 points are the basic points by which you should plan your day, but they are by no means the be all and end all.
On top of these 5 points you can add the effect of the sun. Solar radiation plays a big part in both the settling and unsettling of a snowpack and is often linked in with temperature.
Altitude and aspect…these two can also be linked to temperature, the higher you go the colder it gets and the more North facing a slope is the less sun, solar radiation and changing temperature effect it gets.
Cold dry conditions create facetting or crystallisation in the snowpack or on top of the snowpack, which can create a weakness buried deep underfoot.
Areas that stay cold for a long time will keep these ‘persistant weak layers’ in the snowpack the longest, until eventually the ambient temperature increases and melts them out and the snowpack stabilises in a melt freeze cycle.
Probably most important however is gradient, most avalanches occur on slopes of 30 degrees to 45 degrees in angle. Risk can be greatly reduced by observing shape and gradients of slopes and acting on perceived risk.
This is basic and common knowledge and again if you want to know more do some research, its all out there.
Knowing some of these key points is essential if you’re looking at dropping in to the Backcountry arena.
Learn to study the snowpack, dig assessment pits and compression test…get involved, the more information you have at your disposal the better prepared you can be.
Study the signs and check the avalanche bulletin regularly.
The mountains are constantly giving us signs to work with and it is up to us to notice them, take the knowledge on board and make constant updates to our ‘Risk Management’.
‘Risk Management’ and ‘Exposure Limitation’ are my two key points to work with when I am out in the mountains.
‘Risk Management’ is all about noticing the signs and working with them.
‘Exposure Limitation’ is all about analysing the terrain that surrounds you.
After assessing risk based upon what I see and know, ‘Exposure Limitation’ is crucial to where I go and what I do.
Limiting exposure is about looking at the shape of the terrain and assessing its stability in terms of shape, flow and support.
I imagine that every slope is dangerous to some degree and then I look at the effect of gravity upon the snowpack.
I look at ‘what is holding the snowpack in place’.
I look at ‘what the snowpack is holding in place’, (ie) is it offering support to slopes above.
I look at where the snowpack would go if gravity got its way.
I add my ‘red flag’ Risk Management assessment to what I see…what do I know about the snowpack structure, the effect of the weather conditions, wind, aspect etc…
I read the shape of the terrain and first I look for the safest zones, high points, crests etc…zones without danger from above or below.
I look at how these zones can be linked or if they can be linked and I look at the risk involved in linking them.
I notice the zones of highest risk, the steepest gradients, convex or steepening gradients, zones with the least support and gravities strongest pull and also I look for the easier angled zones that offer crucial support to steeper zones above…
I look at the risks involved if any of these high risk zones were to slide…where would the snow go, is it channeled, does it drop off anything with ‘secondary exposure’, does it enter a terrain trap such as a bowl or gully?
I look at the size of the exposure, is it manageable, is the steep zone small enough to exit easily, how much exposure is involved.
I have to assess the exposure for both me and my team. I have to be sure that everyone in my team has the skill and understanding to avoid any areas that I predict to have too much exposure risk.
If I can’t ensure their safe passage, then this whole line is out of bounds.
I look at escape routes to safe zones and I calculate the risks posed by the terrain and the descent.
If there is a safe line I map it out in my mind.
Now I can bring in my risk management knowledge and assess what I think I know about the snowpack. I can now add areas of calculated exposure to the descent if I feel it is safe to do so.
I might, for example, now link a short steep zone, with an easy exit to a safe zone, into the descent. I might leave a few options open so that I can make decisions as I ride based upon what I feel and learn.
I will take what I see, what I know, what I think I know and balance it against what I can’t see, what I think I don’t know and what I know I don’t know and I will build a dozen scenarios all at the same time, based upon factors of risk and flow.
I want to create a flowing ride with a low and acceptable level of risk…
if I can’t find this line, then we aren’t going to ride here.
This analysis is ongoing all the time and it is also constantly changing as new information comes into play.
Through this constant assessment I am able to make informed decisions about where I go and when I go there.
In the past I came up with a mantra which went, ‘look up, look down, look all around‘.
This mantra reminds me to look for danger from above, including steep slopes, loaded slopes and also rock or ice fall from above.
It reminds me to look at the snowpack or terrain beneath my feet and all around me. What is supporting it? what is it supporting? what has created it?
It reminds me to look at what lies below me, secondary exposures, terrain traps, steep slopes, gullies. It makes me ask, what is holding the snowpack in place? What is supporting me right now?
Like all the UIAGM Guides that I know, my mind is a constant calculator of risk.
This is what we are trained to do.
The calculation is constant.
From the moment I wake I am adding information, assessing and processing what I see, what I know and what I can’t see and don’t know, and I am doing this all of the time.
It is instinct…
And so it begins, the snow is falling, this is ‘a season like no other’ and I ask myself the question…
So what am I going to do now?
I am going to assess risk, I am going to limit exposure and I am going to have fun riding in the mountains that I love.
Now is not the time to be searching for the steepest descent, Its not the time to be looking for the most exposed route, Its not the time to be looking to go where no one else has gone before. Right now it is about enjoying the ride, keeping safe and giving my clients the best experience I can give them…
The rest will come when the time is right…
I hope this makes some sense and gets some thoughts flowing…
Some of you will already know all of this and like I’ve said before, I’m no expert, I’m just going with what I know, what I think I know and balancing it against everything that I think I don’t know.
I look out of my window this morning and it is blue bird…clear skies and a meter of fresh up high…
Here we go…
Be safe…it is a season like no other!!