Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Transceiver and Companion Recovery Training

Snow dependant 
Cost is £45 per person excluding a lift pass. Group size is 6 max. Best if you have your own kit as that is what you need to practise with. Training contact time is 6.5 hours on 09.00 to 16.00 day. Some loan kit from Ortovox is available on request. We use Glencoe's excellent beacon training park and do search and recovery scenarios on ski, so at times it’s fairly mobile training. The thrust of the training is in the context of avalanche avoidance with these search and recovery tools being required when decisions and planning have gone awry. Meet at 11am at the Beacon park next to the lowest “T” Bar below the plateaux CafĂ©.  

Topics:

·                     Gear Check
Essential items and tools and how you carry and deploy them. Pre trip checks

·                     The Forecast
Hazard Evaluation: Interpretation of the weather forecast, SAIS avalanche forecast and local observations

·                     The Big Picture
Terrain: Anchors, Angle, Aspect, Altitude - Complexity, Commitment and Consequences

·                     Beacon Search Training
Phases of a search, search patterns, signal spikes, antenna orientation and smart antenna technology, micro Search Strips, mark/flag pitfalls and problems. Probing and shovelling.

·                     Victim recovery  
Immediate (basic) first aid of the recovered victim

·                     Staying out of harms way
Group discussion, Summary and Debrief

Learn how to interpret the days SAIS forecast and some basic snowcraft

Learn how to use your transceiver effectively

Learn how to find, digout and take care of an avalanche victim



My Five Favourite Hard Rock Routes in Glencoe

Me on "The Screen" 1976.  No runners just head down with "The Terrors" until the rope stops
Plenty of time on my hands at the moment and it's so dry, so I got to thinking about rock routes that inspired me or made an impact on my climbing be it good or bad.  There are quite a lot to sift through and many of the most enjoyable routes have been notable not just by epics or grades but by the people I have shared them with.  I also confess that I have always loved climbing in the Lakes and the Peak.  I have done a lot also in North Wales but as someone from a gaelic culture always struggled with the attitude of some of the locals as it was so out of keeping with what I was used to.  An example being deliberately speaking to friends in a language they new they couldn't understand.  I have never come across that here even in tight knit Island communities where hospitality and courtesy is seen as normal. I have to say that I liked Cloggy though but always shat it at Gogarth above the sea!

There just isn't space here to cover every route that made an impact so I will stick with the ones I literally grew up on before expanding my ambitions a bit more to the Ben, Shelterstone and further affield. Some routes especially when I was a young man, were notable because of the psychological barriers they presented.  That was often because myth and and an aura impregnability surrounded them or in one case because I had been on two fatal rescues on the route when leaders had fallen, and yet it was a classic I wanted to tick (Big Top "E" Buttress).  It took me 10 years after the last rescue there to have the courage to climb it.  An absolutely stunning big mountain rock climb in outstanding situations and technically not too hard at all.  I even managed the pitch that had claimed leaders in a heavy drizzle. The sense of elation at finally laying that itch to rest was pretty heady.  Trapeze, Big Top and Hee Haw as a triple in a late afternoon sunset gives the very best of Glencoe rock.

The harder rock routes of Glencoe for me all had an aura and were shrouded in legend.  The name Smith, Marshall, Cunningham and Whillans were all in there, as was Haston (although Turnspit and Kneepad hardly do him credit) and also home grown hero's such as Thomson and Hardy (Kingpin). My top five to bag in the graded lists were:
  • Big Ride
  • Gallows
  • Carnivore
  • Yo Yo
  • Shibboleth
There are others that are also memorable. Bloody Crack or Ravens in summer (a hard little number!) Marshalls Wall or Valkyrie, or maybe Lechers/Superstition which is a fantastic combo. These five above though had the biggest aura so I will work through them although not by chronological order.  I have worked from Glen Etive to down Glencoe as per guidebook. Kingpin came when I was much older and wiser and less overawed by who had done what, and is one of the best routes in Scotland.  That came 15 years later!

The Big Ride. Haston fell off the big ride many times before giving up and producing an inferior line with a tensioned rope traverse.  He finaly went back and straightened it out to give "The Big Ride" aptly named for the scalps it claimed pre sticky rubber.  Alan Fyffe took on a bet that he would shave off half his beard if he fell off it when doing what may have been the second ascent. Sure enough he peeled off the crux going for a big 100ft slide and removing a lot of skin and had to comply with the bet. Alan was and remains one of Scotland best mountaineers.  Still graded at E3 6a this route still requires some bottle.  I did it on the 5th May 1983 with Wall Thomson and Mary Anne his daughter with me leading all the pitches so Wall could look after Mary Anne who was just 15 and also take pictures.  I still remember the knack of reading the slab for tiny indents and gently rubbing off any loose grains as the crack of a granite grain under your rock shoe would have you off.  The crux is at about 100ft out with no gear up a thin flange where the slab steepens by a few degrees and if you are very careful you can get a micro nut behind it before committing to the last 50 ft.  So 150ft one runner and a 6a move takes you to the belay.  A mental game!
At the pier Glen Etive sometime in the 70's I had long hair!
Gallows. I had been climbing with "Wall" on the Buachaille and we were wandering about doing various routes as you can there.  I think we had come up from Central Buttress doing a route over there that might have been "Iron Cross" which I don't know is recorded but it was Squirrel club little test piece, then we did Engineers Crack and a route thats called "The Widow" I think.  We then went accross and did Brevity, and a couple of other HVS routes when John Anderson walked across and suggested I should cut my teeth on Gallows.  I hadn't really thought of it -  but why not!  Although quite short the first few crux moves are about 5c and take you out on a rising traverse for about 50ft before the first bit of gear.  So Gallows is a test of bottle and thankfully as well warmed up, and with an audience of Creag Dubh who had come to gloat should I fall I managed to piss up it and make a bit of a  name for myself.  This was in 1982 so forgive me for being chuffed as I daresay its regarded as easy these days.  We did a route on the middle of the top tier after, up a thin crack line well right of the corner and it was harder!

Carnivore.  I was beaten to this by Fiona my wife. We climbed very many routes together and she was a pretty able climber.  Sadly removal of the lymph glands on one side from breast cancer has scupperd that now!  We lived in Duror when first married and I worked as a woodcutter.  To say I was fit and strong would be an understatement.  George Reid my regular climbing partner phoned me up to see if I would take the afternoon off and go climb "The Villains Finish" with him.  I was away up the wood out of contact so Fiona offered to hold the rope.  The back rope on the first traverese pitch jammed so they climbed the entire route on a single 9mm which is pretty necky.  The Villains finish had a fairly big reputation for being brutal so good effort.  To say I was pissed off would be an understatement.  The monsoons came and winter and I had to wait until the following year to work off my frustration.  I was in a hurry to get it done and I press ganged a young instructor at the Glencoe outdoor centre to be my rope man.  So mid March in a snowstorm I stormed the first pitch. Linked the second two in a one'r and prepared for the overhanging crack that gives the direct finish.  Good rock, but hanging out over big space it's an  up out and right move with a stiff 5c pull onto the wall above where its a  gearless runout to the top at a steady 5a. All in a blizzard.  Kev Howett and Dave Cuthbertson were on the crag that day dropping a rope and cleaning what is now a tunnel wall bolt classic.  Kev snapped a photo of me which I have always wanted to see.  I knew Don Whillans quite well as I played darts against him and Joe Brown at the Padarn on trips to Wales, and he was well known by Hamish.  I never climbed with Don but I did climb with Joe who was a fairly regular visitor to Glencoe at that time.
Carnivore first pitch
Yo Yo.  As I worked as a woodcutter accidents were sadly common.  The first 12 years of being married I worked the wood.  Fiona eventually persuaded me to use my brain and I left then went and studied pharmacology, human physiology and went on to become the first person in Scottish MR to be a paramedic who was also registered by the state. This was before the NHS even got organised.  One of my early courses was Scotlands first ATLS course at the Victoria in Glasgow in 1992.  Anyway I digress - working in the wood was dangerous and two folk had been killed near me the year I did Yo Yo and I also slipped and chainsawed my achillies.  Lots of stitches in the Belford by Dr Sen and a few weeks recovery and I was gagging to get a route in.  Loads of holes from the stitches just out didn't deter me from persuading Duncan the lad I did Carnivore with to come and do Yo Yo. So on a hot July afternoon we made our way up the scramble to the bottom.  That whole N. Face intimidates me having been rescued off it at 16 and taken a fall late at night in winter on it and getting pretty badly ripped up.  So there was an edge to just getting to Yo Yo.  I though my foot would trouble me but it was fine.  The first pitch is supposed to be hard and wet but it was  just a bit necky and damp and easy.  I found the middle pitch hard and thrutchy. The last pitch was in late afternoon sun  and the climbing was superb.  Steady and interesting with a huge atmosphere it finished all too soon on "unpleasant terrace".  Getting off the terrace is interesting so worth keeping on the rope.  What a great route.  Quite thuggy but nothing too bad and what a place.  Ed's route the Clearances next door is also one of Glencoe's best but a tad harder and a bit more serious.  Not one to do with a buggered achillies heel!

Shibboleth. Of these routes this one was a bigger breakthrough than all the others combined. This route was Robin Smiths finest in Glencoe and while maybe not technically the hardest route of it's time, it was the neckiest.  I know the routes history fairly well as I new folk that had had climbed with Smith. He made several attempts at it, one resulting in a broken leg for Al Frazer and a huge impromptu rescue operation from the combined forces of Squirrels and Creag Dubh.  Al Frazer had broken his leg badly and was pulled up onto N. Buttress, along above Ravens and out onto the Buachaille summit ridge and then literally carried down to the bottom.  Smith soloed off the route to the side to go summon help. Bold and necky. The rescue itself a huge physical task.  Al Frazer later worked in Raigmore with a climbing friend of mine Bill Amos.

My early interest in the route came from the infamous graded list in the red colored guidebook I had covering Buachaille Etive Mor and Glen Etive. This guide listed Agags Groove as suitable route of decent from Rannoch Wall (Ian Nicholson is the only person I know who used it as this).  With various friends and later Fiona I had been working my way up the graded list and only Shibboleth was left. Many routes at the bottom deserved a place at the top.  I had looked across at the route from various angles doing routes on either side and watched another party from the SMC (Graham MacDonald) on it while I was doing Bludgers/Revelation with George Reid. I even had John MacLean (The Great White Hope was Johns nickname after Smith got chopped) regaling me with the tale of the 2nd ascent he did when he was "looking for that fucker Wheechs peg" while rolling a fag while I was on the crux of "Pete's Wall" at Huntly's Cave. "Wheech" being Smiths nickname.
Gearing up for Shibboleth with George aka "The Mole"
1982 was a washout summer and despite getting a lot of routes done in the Lakes, Derbyshire etc it was very much a poor Scottish rock season until in late August the weather finally cleared and we had a few dry days and sun.  So one Saturday in early September, George  and I  arrived at the foot of Ravens and looked up the black groove of the 5c second pitch. The SMC party who  had been on the route while we were doing Bludgers were back doing the Bludgers/Revelation combo themselves which was a co incidence.  Fiona came up to take a few pictures but had to leave as she was later guiding a group up Gear Aonach as she was the senior instructor at an outdoor centre.

I can still remember stepping onto the first pitch, up past a block with no gear until just before the winking black groove.  I was pretty nervous.  The black groove was wet necky and hard with a cold welded nut hammered into the crack.  The 3rd pitch up to below Revelation flake is a joy but with a sting in the tail pulling onto the belay ledge. The best pitch is up the wall to the right of Revelation flake.  A long pitch of steady successive 5b moves on little rough holds on a plumb vertical wall, then a pull over a small overhang then up the wall to the belay.  With one runner!  All with the gaping maw of Great Gully below, and Ravens winking from the shadows. Absorbing climbing.  The final two 45m pitches to N. Buttress are great 5a climbing up steep walls, or go back as we all do one day and do the route again but traverse right across the cave and do "The True Finish" which Smith added later. The Hard Rock book version is the 5a finishing pitches which really are great.  The cave is just truly spectacular! On finishing we went across and did Yamay, Yam, Happy Valley and May crack in the company of the now sadly late Tam Macaully and Dave "Paraffin" who were well impressed we had done Shibboleth, especially as the crux groove was so wet.

We went to "The Ferry Bar" later that night  (under the bridge at Ballachulish) which was "the" climbers pub at that time.   Ian Nicholson and several others shook our hands saying well done lads, and for the next week we had folk saying I hear you guys did Shib well done! I don't think many routes had that reputation credibilty and aura in Glencoe.  It was nice for once to feel the equal of the legends. I can't think off many mountain routes since that were such a turning point in confidence.  Winter perhaps doing the point in the early 1970's was still something, even though Ian had soloed it in an hour.  Rock climbing probably doing Cenotaph Corner in a pair of big boots might come close!

Ronnie Rodgers on the slabs with the sticky boots of the day! Ronnie and I were probably the only two local boys of the time to take up climbing.  Ronnie did Centurion with Jimmy Marshal and his first route on the slabs was a solo of Spartan slab with Ian Nicholson who said it was just an easy intro to the slabs.

Monday, 20 November 2017

"Triple H" or Trauma in Scottish Avalanche Accidents. Observations from 35 years

I thought I would set myself the task of looking at a map and trying to remember all the MRT avalanche accidents I had been at in Lochaber. It's a lot sadly and I am sure there are many others where injury occurred not recorded as avalanche incidents that the team attended. Some notable ones from the 50's to early 70's before my time I am aware of including one at "The V" above the end of the road at Clachaig (Fatal Asphyxia). Hamish and the team certainly dealt with many, and its fair to say the Glencoe MRT was one of the best prepared because Hamish had the team equipped with the first "Pieps" in the early 1970's. From its formation the team followed the best practise from alpine countries as can be seen in "The Mountain Rescue Handbook". Some involving the rescue team in the mid 1990's  were thought to be better forgotten as near misses. Three of these I was involved in. One on the BEM Coire na Tullaich, and two close ones in Great Gully which popped just after evacuating someone on a stretcher.

The incidents themselves remain as fresh as ever, as do the dilemmas and triage considerations. I wanted to dispel the myth that most Scottish avalanche victims are trauma victims. Although many are injured, many are potentially salvageable if found quickly and taken to the appropriate facility where potassium and biochemical markers can be taken and resuscitation continued. The fatal victims listed  are complete burials.  All other injured bar one stayed on surface. All this information is freely available via the SMC Journals from these years or SMR data and while there are personal notes of my own as reference, as an aside to these events no confidential data that is not already in the the public domain is listed. I make no pretence to being anything other than a witness as a youth or being just another shoveller. Cursed with a very good memory though. This changed when I did college and uni as a very late starter doing physiology and pharmacology wanting to be a doctor but getting told I was too old and wouldn't get a grant, so became one of the first Paramedics in the UK, a full BASICS member and also one of the founders of the Faculty of Pre Hospital Care RcS(Ed) and contributed on trauma in a mountain environment as well as to ICAR's early data on avalanche resuscitation

I often only recorded the events as an end of winter summary, although for injured patients I still have some trauma report forms from my Paramedic records. A person wanting to check this data's veracity will need to go the relevant SMC Journals or SMR records.
Avalanches also hurt - if they don't kill you!
  •  1974  Great Gully x 1 Fatal – Trauma
  •  1974 Gully right Broad Buttress BEM x 1 Fatal - Trauma
  •  1975 Crowberry Gully x 2 Injured
  •  1976  Below Carn Dearg Ben Nevis x 2 Fatal – Asphyxia
  •  1977 Great Gully x 1 Fatal - Trauma
  •  1978 Great Gully x 3 Injured
  •  1978 ScRL Twisting Gully x 2 Injured (Mal D on scene)
  •  1978 Lost Valley Rev Ted’s x 2 Injured
  •  1980 ScRL Twisting Gully x 1 Injured
  •  1982 Lost Valley x 1 injured
  •  1982 BEM Curved Ridge x 1 Injured #Leg
  •  1983 ScNB NW Gully x 2 Fatal – Trauma
  •  1983 ScNB NW Gully x 2 Fatal – Trauma
  •  1984 Sron a Creis – Cam Ghleann x 1 Injured (skiers)
  •  1984 No 6 Gully x 1 Injured #Femur
  •  1984 Easy Gully x 1 Fatal – Asphyxia/Hypothermia (Colin G)
  •  1984 Beinn Bhan (St Johns Church) x 1 Injured
  •  1984 Sron a Creise x 1 Fatal – Asphyxia
  •  1986 Central Gully Bidean x 1 Injured
  •  1988 Mamores Binnein More x 1 Injured
  •  1988 Lost Valley Rev Teds x 2 Injured
  •  1988 Aonach Dubh N. Face x 1 minor injury (Mick F after FA)
  •  1988 BEM Great Gully x 3 injured
  •  1991 Glas Bheinn Mhor South x 2 Injured
  •  1991 Gear Aonach Zig Zag – x 1 Injury (witnessed by Ronnie Rodgers and I)
  •  1991 Beinn Fhada L. Valley Boulder x 1 Fatal – Asphyxia/Trauma combo 
  •  1991 The Rognon x 3 injured Slab (witnessed Chalky, Pete and I)
  •  1991 ScRL x 1 Injured
  •  1993 ScNB NW Gully x 2 Fatal - Trauma
  •  1994 BEM West Face above Coire na Tullaich x 1 Fatal – Asphyxia
  •  1994 Water Slab x 1 Fatal – Trauma (Paul M and I)
  • 1995 BEM Coire na Tullaich x 3 Fatal -  Asphyxia x2 Hypothermia x 1
  • 1995 BEM Crowberry Gully x 1 Fatal – Trauma
  • 1995 BEM East Face/Ladies gully x 3 Fatal – Trauma
  • 1996 Coire na Tullaich Headwall x 3 Injured (Mark T Reported incident)
  • 1996 N Face Aonach Dubh/Dinner Time B x 1 Fatal – Trauma (Potter)
  • 1996 Central Gully Bidean x 1 Injured (JP Oban)
  • 1999 BEM Crowberry Basin x 2 Trauma (one deep burial dug out alive but with # Femur)
  • 2008 Crowberry Gully Basin x 2 Injured
  • 2009 BEM Coire na Tullaich x 3 Fatal -  Asphyxia
  • 2011 Cam Ghleann x 1 Fatal  - Asphyxia (ski)
1991 Above "The Rognon" near Hidden Gully x 3 injured Slab (witnessed Chalky, Pete and I)
Davy Gunn personal anecdotal observation from 69 victims and 26 Fatal Burials I attended is: 11 Asphyxia/Hypothermia (absence of any obvious fatal injury) and 15 Trauma so around 42% and 58% respectively. This does not pretend to be a scientific study only an observation based on my own experience from 1974 until leaving MR in 2009 and quite often as senior medic on scene. Much is made of the presence or absence of an air pocket and ice masks. I have not seen an ice mask and its nearly always very hard to determine if an air pocket is present. They are all alive unless there is an obvious fatal injury. "Not dead until warm and dead" as the old saying goes so resuscitate following the ICAR guideline and transport them all carefully as alive to the appropriate hospital.
42% Asphyxia/Hypothermia - 58% Trauma. Not science, very local but a start point for comment
I have over that time also attended many avalanche incidents as a ski patroller, some with full burials and some with injuries but due to early search, and companion rescue a much better outcome. Since 2009  I have attended quite a few incidents with ski patrol and these are on the increase as off piste and BackCountry/Free ride takes off.

So is it worth being searchable? It's certainly better than long burial. The "Old Fox" agree's

Hamish MacInnes author of "The International Mountain Rescue Handbook" on pic left

Sron a Creise 1984 Hamish on pic left
Post Script
The above is just a random project pondering 35 years of personal observation. Others may have very different observations. Combined with my own pondering, even if anecdotal, these form a hypothesis that others can take forward or rebut as they wish. I only put this out there because I am tired of reading or hearing that most folk die from trauma in Scottish avalanches as my observations locally are that this isn't totally accurate. The geography of other areas may be different, but Glencoe is pretty unforgiving terrain and if I have come across asphyxia/hypothermia victims here, then its not unreasonable to predict it might be similar elsewhere.

We are fortunate in having a local hospital where rewarming of avalanche victims has given them lots of experience in rewarming. The fact that they receive victims some of whom will have had ongoing resuscitation and try and rewarm them says that its not all trauma. I don't think so far anyone as met the criteria for onward transport to ECMO although I can think of some who would have in the past if ECMO had been around then. I think we need to be careful because up until now 99% of victims have been mountaineers. That's changing as folks escape the pistes into avalanche terrain and as a group companion rescue and consequence reduction decision making and tools such as ABS can give different outcomes and victims will be higher up the survival curve. 

I can't see it being possible to do any post mortem study on past avalanche events as my own experience is that even for local doctors its very difficult to get PM data. As a medic I had no legal right to access it, but on occasion at an FAI was privy to some information. Also all mountain deaths do not require a PM and so the data might not be there.

If folk are following the consensus guidelines then its easy to collate data as fatal injury will have been excluded and victims sent onward for rewarming either at a local hospital or from there to a rewarming centre. These are the "maybe alive" victims that deserve a chance. They are my 42%

In the end it's academic. I am pretty sure in all the main mountain areas where there have been avalanche victims there have been some who have died from asphyxia/hypothermia and if education and avoidance has failed then the future victims should get the same chance they had, or better using modern search tools, so the %  ratio doesn't really matter. My hypothesis stands that of the 40% or more some might be saved if searchable and found earlier. There are a few cases where all the stars nearly aligned and a remarkable outcome almost achieved, but medical confidentiality means I can't share them.

Worth a read:

March 2017 WEMSI New Guidance

http://www.wemjournal.org/article/S1080-6032(07)70258-2/abstract

http://www.issw2008.com/papers/P__8120.pdf

http://www.alpine-rescue.org/ikar-cisa/documents/2013/ikar20131013001087.pdf   (3.2. Trauma)

I am quite surprised at the interest this "back of a fag packet" process has stirred.  For me its just so I can stand and say that of 40% or so of folk if they were found earlier some might make it. It was just to stop the "whats the point of being searchable as it's the fall kills you" attitude, and seeing it creep into the Scottish skiing world. Mountaineers can do as they wish, but my main interest now is in keeping the skiers safe as education and companion rescue is more ingrained and positive in that sport and for climbing the key is seen as education and awareness. Education and awareness will not get you found if you happen to get it wrong. To err is human is the only reliable "human factor" in avalanche education.

Stay safe folks



Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Avalanche Training

Pre Season Deal on Ortovox Zoom+ and 3+ Transceiver - email, call or message me

Good to see on the Backcountry social media lots of posts from folk who are wanting to know about staying safe in the snowy mountains. What's good to me is that there are now many good folks out there providing structured training, many based on North American programmes to give folk that knowledge.

I started running  courses 7 years ago when there was no one else doing them in Scotland. At that time I had just left MR after another avy rescue with multiple victims that for me I didn't think went well and left me feeling let down by some folk who wouldn't confront the issues involved. I was getting back into skiing off piste and felt I needed to wise up as well. I was becoming complacent and had let my awareness slacken.  Even the gnarliest of Scottish MR person is not infrequently a first aider, labourer/undertaker with a shovel and the task at hand is a job of work. These stalwarts are the backbone and get the job done, but it doesn't make folk experts but perhaps more a witness to a tragic event, and I include myself in that category. A cognitive trap indeed; digging victims out only makes you an expert in digging - not on avalanches.

Getting back into it at a time when folk were venturing off the pistes and seeing some of the near misses while ski patrolling it seemed like whatever little I did know could be shared and I should also do some more personal development. With the support of many folk we got the Glencoe Transceiver park up and running and some courses underway. Sadly over the coming two seasons some more folk I new also got taken out (dead) by the big white wave. One because of lack of awareness or bad luck, one by sheer hubris, and one by familiarity - perhaps. These courses were never meant to make money, just to wake things up as no one was training. With the advent of other providers my job is largely done.  I will run an odd course on request and continue to work with Recco Sweden as a trainer, Ortovox Safety Academy and Back Country Access as an educator as well as staying an AAA pro member to keep in touch. This knowledge is vital for advising customers who want avalanche equipment.

So get the knowledge and get the training folks. Anyone that follows the AAA type of programme will see you right.  If you want an airbag, transceiver or any of the essentials then give me a call for a competitive price, and if your up Glencoe I will give you an hour of free training if you buy a transceiver from me.

Before the SAIS formation and when "The Avalanche Enigma" was the New Testament, some of us were lucky enough to be made avalanche aware each season by  professionals from Switzerland, or as above from Chekoslovakia. 40+ years to make the wheel come back full circle.  We had the first "pieps" as well. There really isn't much thats new, but like then you still needed to learn it. Willie Elliot,Wull Thompson, Alastair MacDonald and Milos Sverba in the picture while I am buried 3 feet down and while a SARDA dog of Cecil MacFarlanes is trying to eat me. Picture courtesy of legend Hamish MacInnes who saw us right and kept us safe by getting us trained by folk from out of our own wee Glen so we learned in breadth and depth.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Pre Season Avalanche Avoidance Advice

1. Learn How to Interpret the Avalanche Forecast




The Avalanche Danger Scale uses five progressively increasing danger levels: Low, Moderate, Considerable,  High and Extreme. It indicates the likelihood of avalanches, how they might be triggered and recommended actions in the back country. However, the wording is very brief and does not include a meaningful indication of risk. Below is an explanation of each danger level, including the transitions between levels, signs of instability at each level and the implications of slope angle, aspect and elevation.
Understanding the SAIS forecast as acting on it could save your life
Low
Travel is generally safe. The snow pack is well bonded and natural avalanches will not be seen except for small sluffs on extremely steep slopes. Human-triggered avalanches are unlikely except in isolated locations in extreme terrain. The danger will usually be from wind-driven snow in gullies and chutes or deposited across very steep open slopes near ridge lines. Ski or board one by one as smoothly as possible without falling if you suspect the formation of wind slab. Be aware of shaded, north to east aspects where the danger may be transitioning to Moderate. There are few fatalities at this danger level.

Moderate
This is the most difficult danger level for back country skiers and boarders to assess snow stability. Many of the usual indicators such as cracks, settling, whumpfing and signs of recent avalanche are absent, especially at the lower end of the moderate level. Key indicators are any recent snowfall, and wind deposition. Snow pack tests may help assess stability.

Conditions are generally favorable for travel providing routes are chosen carefully. The snow  pack is only moderately bonded on some steep slopes. Areas of danger are usually restricted to certain types of terrain such as bowls and gullies. The altitude, aspect and type of terrain where danger can be expected are usually detailed in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering is unlikely, so you only need to be concerned about the steepness of nearby terrain features.

Human-triggered avalanches are possible. Ski or board carefully, one by one, in suspect terrain and avoid high loading of the snow pack by spreading people out on the uphill track. Carefully evaluate the stability of very steep slopes (steeper than 35°) and aspects identified as potentially dangerous in the Avalanche Forecast.

Be especially careful if the higher elevation band in the forecast, or the danger on other aspects, is Considerable. There is a significant difference in instability between Moderate and Considerable. Don’t get sucked onto higher, steeper and more dangerous slopes. Although naturally triggered avalanches are not expected, ice climbers should watch out for the sun warming steep collection zones above their climbs. If deep-slab instability due to a persistent weak layer is mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast, you need to pay careful attention to the terrain. Avalanches from such a layer are not only likely to be large and extensive, they are completely unpredictable. Unless you have specific local knowledge, keep off large open slopes at this danger level if the forecast warns of a persistent weak layer.

29th March 2013 using the older SAIS Graphic for localised considerable hazard
Persistent Weak Layer March 2013

Click pics to enlarge

Large Slab Triggered off persistant weak layer 30th March 2013
Fatal Avlx x 1 Skier Glencoe
Considerable
Conditions have become much less favorable. The snow pack is only moderately or poorly bonded over a much larger area of the terrain. Human triggering is possible by a single skier on steep slopes and aspects mentioned in the Avalanche Forecast. Remote triggering of avalanches is possible, so the maximum steepness of the slope above you should be used when deciding if you want to continue.

Instability indicators mentioned in Moderate danger above will likely be present. Back country touring at this danger level requires good route finding skills, and experience in recognizing dangerous terrain and evaluating slope stability. Keep to slopes of less than 35°, especially slopes at the altitude and aspect indicated in the Avalanche Forecast. Remember that remote triggering is possible. Typically the scree fans at the bottom of gullies start out at around 30° and the slope steepens as it gets higher. Keep off such slopes at this hazard level. The remarks about persistent weak layers in the previous section on Moderate danger level also apply to this danger level.
New SAIS graphic as stripes for localised "considerable"

Reports such as the above showing stripes as areas of  localised "considerable" risk  to North and South within a moderate NW to SW aspect and considerable risk NE to SE. This is the sort of thing that it's easy to become complacent about as its a common feature of the Scottish winter. You might very obviously if you have any sense, stay well clear of the NE to SE aspects but wander into a high risk situation on descent on the N to S aspects.  The majority of avalanche incidents in Europe occur in these moderate to considerable forecast days as they occur most frequently in the season and folk become complacent (the familiarity heuristic) and that's why route choice approaching a climb and thinking about descent options prior to leaving and during a trip as wind and weather change should become part of your thinking.

High
Conditions have become dangerous, most often as a result of significant amounts of new snow, snowfall accompanied by wind or the snow pack becoming isothermal and threatening wet-snow avalanches. The snow pack is poorly bonded over large areas and human triggering is likely on steep slopes (steeper than 30°). Remote triggering is likely and large natural avalanches are to be expected.

Stay on slopes that are flatter than 30° for any part of the slope and be aware of the potential for avalanches from slopes above. If you do decide to walk ski or board on less steep slopes, be very aware of the surrounding terrain to avoid inadvertently crossing the bottom of steeper slopes or cutting down a steep convex rollover.

Usually this level of hazard is only present for a few days at a time. The smart back country traveler will stay in simple terrain until conditions improve. If you are caught out on a multi-day trip you may have to dig in and wait for travel conditions to improve and the avalanche danger to lessen.


These stripes in the avalanche forecast. My take is to think of them as landmine strips blown by the wind, lurking in eddies from cross loading when the wind blows across as well as down or over a slope, the color of them is the sensitivity of the pressure plate to you the trigger. If there are enough of them the explosion will propagate setting of others, or if the surrounding slope is weak enough then it will slide with it. As you can see there are areas of High on slopes with a localised "considerable" and a"considerable" risk to the South.  A lethal combo of  narrow safe travel options making for events that will take lives if you don't tread warily and navigate with extreme care.

Extreme
Extreme danger levels are rare in Scotland as usually this level is associated with buildings and roads or alpine villages under threat, and usually the result of unusually large amounts of new snow. The snow pack is weakly bonded and unstable. Numerous large avalanches are likely. The weight of the new snow can trigger avalanches on layers buried deep in the snow pack. Natural avalanches can release on slopes of less than 30° Back country touring is not recommended and often impossible. Avoid all avalanche terrain and keep well away from avalanche path run outs.

2.  Avoid Groupthink
In psychology "Groupthink" or "Risky Shift" behaviour is well known in groups and most of us will be aware that we have given in to it or even encouraged it. I strongly believe that in avalanche incidents in Scotland this groupthink or risky shift has become the biggest education issue and maybe why we see large group incidents or group events as occured in the Cairngorms when two seperate groups were avalanched last winter. Much has been made of the quick response from folk training in the corrie who helped.  And good on them. What I am about to say is not a reflection on these helper folks choices, as I am sure they stayed in safe terrain.  The  "however" bit though is that just by being there and numbers increase with lots of MRT's training, and groups under instruction, then a larger "Groupthink" takes place. Groups less experienced or not under instruction maybe feel safe, what McCammon labels  as Social Facilitation.  I would call this a  "risky shift". It's often this way in the climbing and skiing honey pots such as the Northern Corries where folk gather. Aonach Mor or ScRL in Glencoe are other places. Even if the waggon wheel of death shows Red on these slope aspects, they are still the places to be seen by the instructor masses who are now at the height of their annual gatherings with paying students. These are the places instructors are familiar with, and therefore where less experienced folk feel safer with an apparent safety in numbers. They maybe went there when they were on a course. Group thinking on a large scale perhaps.

Better minds than mine have already written about risky shift and here's an excellent article on it The Risky Shift Phenomenon and Avalanches. This kind of stuff has been getting applied to avalanche instructor training for a while by AAA.  Do current winter mountain training schemes  include enough if anything on this sort of thing?  I put this as a question, as I am certainly not in a postion to know, and maybe it is already covered. What I do know is that there is nothing that can change the pretty piss poor odds if buried and that pretty universally all of us involved in avalanche education are trying to jump forward and get to "no rescue".

No matter what we do, mountains and people are unpredictable. As a a keen off the piste skier I have to accept that luck is also in there as well, as on good snow days I am first in the que and having gone through the forecasts, stability tests you are only left with how the snow feels under you ski's and gut instincts. Sometimes it's a very subtle thing where in the morning it feels wrong, and by afternoon the snow "feels" safe.  I don't know how the feck that would stand up in court! I also know its taken 40 years and I still can't always be sure it all won't go tits up one day. I also know that it pays to voice your opinion when in a group, and make your own choice, not getting swept along by the group and it's most vocal leader. Beware Risky Shift!



"Destiny is a good thing to accept when it's going your way. When it isn't, don't call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck"   Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

For backcountry travel, side stash/off piste, or indeed anything out of ski area and uncontrolled, always carry the three essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and do a pre depart group test and practice.



If you need an airbag you have fucked up but might survive. If you need your transceiver you have fucked up and probably won't!