Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Long Road Home

Angus "Angie" Gunn my Father
My father as well as many local men from North Argyll and Oban fought with the Argylls and the Norfolks at the rear guard action of St Valery which sacrificed thousands of men so that Dunkirk was a success. This sacrifice was not acknowledged until 50 years later. Possibly because it was contentious and an embarrassment to Churchill. The privations of "the long walk" both to the salt mines and logging camps in Silesia, then escaping the Russians back west at the wars end cost many Highlanders lives.

Audio Interview With the Three Escapee's

The three men in this story showed remarkable initiative and this story is worthy of any Hollywood movie.  As a wee boy I remember "the blood" telling the tale at a Glencoe Village Hall Celeidh and also my Dad and "Ginger" talking about the war up at the Elliots where we would go at New Year. From what I gathered in conversation I don't think it was as easy as this understated interview leads you to suspect, and I am not sure that there wasn't a few who were less helpful, or  enemy who didnt walk away.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Recco. Why it should have a place

Don't get buried! But if you do you want to be searchable 
and found FAST!
Recco is another important part of the organised rescue strategy. Education and avalanche avoidance is primary, being found early by companions if it goes wrong is vital and prior practice makes this work. Organised rescue requires a triple response: Dogs, Recco and Probe Lines. Until now Scotland has only been able to apply two of the three unlike alpine rescue avalanche search where for years all three have been used. Survival is time critical. Much has been made of trauma being the main factor in poor survival in Scottish avalanches. Largely based on recent tragic avalanche incidents where trauma has clearly been the dominant factor.

These anecdotal observations and opinions make easy it to forget the victims where triple "H" syndrome has been the killer of which there have been many over the last decades. Anecdote though is not enough, and there is no recent data set from necropsy studies in Scotland, (if there is its not readily available). One thing is sure, being searchable and getting found quickly increases survival. Some Scottish MR teams already have Recco as part of their search strategy (Tayside, Lochaber, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT's) and Glencoe Ski Patrol. A good thing. I can imagine nothing worse than a victim recovery delayed because a search team did not have a detector and the victim is found to have either a Recco reflector or a harmonic on them. Recco is of course for "organised rescue". Everyone including Recco and the clothing manufacturers endorse the view that not getting avalanched through education and training is better than needing any search devices which may be too late. However, in the real world shit still happens and unless someone is "searchable" a rescuer cannot find them readilly even if the poor victim has bottomed out of the survival curve. We should not forget Robert Burnett's remarkable 22 hour survival in the Southern Cairngorms. All victims surely deserve the benefit of the doubt and rescuers throwing all resources at an attempt for a live recovery.
Small sticky reflectors that can be attached to boots or helmets
As "off piste" and "Backcountry" skiing grows in popularity there is every reason to imagine that being more searchable can save lives.  Nothing can replace education and prevention, or fast effective companion rescue with beacon, shovel and probe, but as ski patrols and MR teams take up Recco and the reflectors can be bought and carried then the chance of getting found alive by organised rescue if on scene quickly increases. I would recommend two reflectors to mountaineers, One front top and one back bottom.

Sewn in reflector

So Recco is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by enlightened Scottish rescuers adopting alpine best practice. Who knows when Recco will save a life, but if it does it's job then its been donation money well spent.
Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector  10 days ago.
Glencoe Ski Patrol doing a precautionary combined 457mhz transceiver search and Recco harmonic search last Monday. The R9 detector searches both, and at close range can find many other harmonic devices such as mobile phones.

POC Helmets have Recco
The reflector for Harmonic Radar or RECCO

Monday, 7 December 2015

Uncertainty and Avalanches

Folk are trying to grapple with another past (2015) season of serious incidents on both sides of the pond especially Europe, and understand why the majority of these occur in days of medium risk. The key maybe simply uncertainty. Forecasting and avalanche risk assessment is about predicting based on past and future weather and therefore will always be uncertain and a game of probability. Past history may be accurate but weather forecasts are not. Couple this uncertainty with risk homeostasis from ABS and carrying avalanche rescue tools and folk then feel safer. Add GoPro Hero culture to the cocktail then the recipe for feeding the white room spin cycle is complete.

The top graphic is pretty obvious.There is a certainty that natural and human triggered avalanches are predicted above 650m on N to SE aspects and a localised risk present below this altitude from NW through South. Most folk with a brain will avoid the areas above 500m (allow a bit of leeway!) as RED is the colour of danger (obvious!) and will choose to go to safer aspects which in the above is green which as a colour gives the assurance of greater certainty. Things become less certain on yellow and very uncertain at orange. This uncertainty is where the risks are, and things become even more uncertain when the risks are localised. Yellow the probability of getting caught is less but still uncertain, stick a localised considerable orange strip in there and you have a mine field of uncertainty lying in wait for you to cross. You can't see the mines but can guess using the wind direction and slope shape as as to where hot spots of weakness might be (a guess - all be it can be an intuitive one but still a guess!) but you have to be very uncertain as you just don't know. Decending on ski's from above and you will likely be going too fast and not see the danger until your in the spin cycle and it's too late.

How do you mange or minimise risk if you have to travel on these aspects or choose to ski them? Well you don't manage the risk with any degree of certainty as you just don't know for sure where weak spots are, and you will for sure not know the true propagation risk from a trigger. You can't minimise what you don't know - so uncertainty!  And yet graphically on the above for the inexperienced person there is a temptation to look at these localised hot spots in the rose and think "I can avoid them", as surely I will recognise these weak areas and can ski/walk/climb around them. 

So my take on why it is that most folk get whacked when the risk is considerable or localised, is that being outdoor optimists (as we all are), and perhaps having got knackered climbing up a mountain or skinning in to a valley, or maybe having a bluebird pow day folk get used to that risk level as it's used the most  representing the most common and therefore familiar conditions for long periods.  And yet this risk level has the most uncertainty and therefore is the most dangerous for the winter sports person. Make sense?

I suppose if you were to roughly put a % chance of probability on the European avalanche scale you could say that:

Black 100% chance of getting whacked while either minding your own business in Galtur or being suicidal in Tignes

Red   98% chance of getting whacked on an aspect with that high level of risk and the Scottish equivalent of Black sometimes(apart from Gaick Lodge our main roads and villages are not in avalanche run out zones so Black does not apply)

Orange  the big problem (to me) be it slices of tray bake sized considerable, or isolated hot spot. If the rose is all orange then in my view its just the same as red but less obvious. You have a very high chance of getting whacked. Stick some localised Orange risk in among yellow then it becomes 50/50 and that's still scary uncertainty as folk think they can recognise the danger hot spots and avoid them. Maybe they can, but then maybe not. A low angled slope day for me, well away from run out areas.

Yellow maybe a 40% of getting away with it, but victim triggered death is still very likely if you hit a hot spot and it propagates into something big or is above a terrain trap.

Green well either its the best of Scottish neve and you should be climbing with blue skies, or get the lawn mower out in February.  If its the best of Scottish neve and its a sunless aspect then watch out as next time it snows as there's bound to be something growing on the top surface that will give a high risk when it snows next.

Having a blue bird day, or up for it then the glass half full person will go for it. Sadly they might end up with the glass all empty and smashed. It's a bit of a gamble and the more times you roll the dice the more chance you won't be needing your old age pension. 50/50 isn't odds, its worse than Russian Roulette!

Piss or get off the pot
The above Americanism is pretty appropriate. Only one thing is for sure, we can only manage uncertainty up to a point. We live in a chaotic universe, bad things happen to good people and as mountain folks a lot of good things happen to good people as a reward for getting out there. I think we have to accept that the line between the best day skiing of your life and getting taken out is pretty close if you really want the powder days.  If you don't accept that then take up another sport.  We can reduce risk by managing uncertainty and reduce consequences by equipment and terrain choices, but in the end avalanche prediction and avoidance will never be 100% accurate. I am told knitting is pretty safe if you prefer a more sedate pastime with easier risk assessment.

Avalanche Types and Uncertainty
Some types of avalanche are more predictable i.e "certain" and some less so and some types of avalanche risk can be more easily seen in tests and observations. The ones that concern us the most are of course the least predictable with the greatest uncertainty so require extreme caution due to uncertainty. You might think Windslab/Stormslab the one that kills the most folk should be "Extra Caution".   But, if you think about it you can work out in advance the Aspects that might be affected from a weather forecast, and very importantly observed wind direction, Angle of slope based on contours, precipitation type and deposition based on Altitude, and what the slope is Anchored to based on summer knowledge of your ski patrol/local area, or previous avalanche forecasts that mention temperature rises and surface or deeper instabilities.
Wet snow release triggering a weakly anchored slope

Think: Angle, Aspect, Altitude, Anchors and Avoid

Powerful wet snow glide avalanche that takes everything in its path. BEM above Laganbarbh
Persistant slab, skier triggered March 30th 2013 Glencoe