Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Certainty and Avalanches

Recco Training at Glencoe Mountain
 Nevis Range and Glencoe Professional Ski Patrols

Forecasting and local avalanche risk assessment is about prediction based on past and future weather forecasts, therefore it will always be uncertain and a game of probability, especially when an area forecast is to be applied more locally. Local topographic effects and slight weather variations will make a difference. As a local example there may be a difference between the Glencoe Mountain ski area weather and snowpack at the East end of Glencoe, and the Ballachulish Horseshoe circuit at the West end. Interpretation and application of forecast information to a trip will always be a process of increasing or decreasing uncertainty. Its never certain. That's why a degree of flexibility in decisions and dynamic risk assessment is essential during a day out in the mountains. Conditions might be quite different to what you thought and plans need revised. Mountaineers and skiers who reach pensionable age have become good observer's of small and subtle weather and snow pack detail and possess a spatial awareness while being very respectful of the mountains journeying among them. Its not required to achieve an objective some days, and quite enough to listen to what the mountains are saying to you. This may be go home, or it might be todays the day, so get the rope/ski's on and fill your boots.

For skiers, if you couple big uncertainty with risk homeostasis from airbags, carrying the three avalanche rescue essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and thinking that's enough then have a ponder that its a recipe for feeding the white room spin cycle if you don't stop and think.



The top graphic is pretty obvious. Its pretty certain 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 also maybe falsely 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 for sure. Descending 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" 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 into 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 that occur for long periods.  And yet that 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. The more times you roll the dice in the orange/considerable risk zone then the more chance you won't be needing your old age pension. 50/50 isn't odds, its worse than Russian Roulette!

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 even if smaller and its above a terrain trap.

Green well either its the best of Scottish neve and you should be climbing with the tools in 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 next time it snows as there's could to be something growing on the top surface like hoar or faceting that will give a higher risk when it snows next.

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 by a slide is pretty close if you want to ride the powder days on higher angled slopes.  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 an 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 wind slab/storm slab the one that kills the most folk should be "Extra Caution". But, if you think about it you can work out in advance: 

  • 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 
  • Altitude, and what the precipitation is and its likely rate of deposition 
  • 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
















Powerful wet snow glide avalanche that takes everything in its path. Buachaille Etive above Lagangarbh. You don't want to be in here if its raining during a thaw and after a big snowfall.

Persistent slab, skier triggered slab March 30th 2013 Glencoe Mountain Ski Area - Fatal

Avalanche Avoidance and Companion Rescue Practice. There are up to eight independent beacons that transmit a signal at the international standard for avalanche transceivers of 457kHz are  buried in up to 4m of snow at Glencoe Mountain ski resort, conditions permitting

Phillip Rankin, Dr Ian Maclaren, Peter Weir and Paul Moors at the opening of Glencoe Mountain Transceiver training park.
Hamish MacInnes who officially opened the park
In collaboration with Anatom who supplied a wired starter training system to get things going in 2011. Glencoe Mountain Resort provided a piece of snow sure land, help from the staff and some financial help to start the training park 4 years ago.  The original park was opened by Hamish MacInnes the famous mountaineer and rescuer. Winter 2015 money raised by Clachaig Inn at their annual winter series of mountain safety lectures at the hotel provided funding for the new wireless avalanche search training system in place this winter. The hotels owner is a member of Glencoe Mountain Rescue and a friend of both his and Davy Gunn’s (Chris Bell) was lost in an avalanche in Glencoe in 2013 where 4 people lost their lives in one avalanche. The original wired system is now in use at a training park at Glenshee ski centre and it’s hoped to raise funds to get a similar and more effective wireless system in place there. As at Glencoe, the one at Glenshee provides an accessible training venue for local mountain rescue teams, mountaineering groups and off piste and touring skiers.

Practising digging effectively, a crucial 
and often overlooked part of avalanche rescue
The general public has free access to use the training systems which stays out all winter. All they have to do is check in with the Glencoe Mountain staff or  ski patrol to see if it’s already in use that day. Each of the eight buried beacons also has a RECCO reflector inside so that mountain rescue and ski patrol can practise using this alternative search system as well as transceivers. 

Organised rescue teams use RECCO which is harmonic radar that can also be used from a helicopter. RECCO is a standard search tool by mountain rescue in Europe. Three Scottish mountain rescue teams, and threes ski patrol's use it. No search and rescue helicopters have adopted it in the UK for avalanche rescue to date but the hand held can be used from a helicopter with an adaptor system from a 3rd party manufacturer. I have one here in Glencoe as I am also the UK trainer for Recco.

The training park beacons are buried deeply in the snow so that searching for them proves difficult, simulating searching a real avalanche for a victim.  As it’s wireless there are no wires to degrade or get cut by shovels as folk dig, and different avalanche burial scenarios can be created from single to multiple victim burials by alternating which buried beacons are transmitting from a control box. When a victim/beacon is found by a searcher, contact with the buried beacon by a snow probe sends a signal back to the control box confirming a success.
I sell avalanche safety equipment. The 3+ is an excellent choice for skiers and also has a Recco strip inside. A discount and some free training to local skiers and climbers who purchase from me. £220 for a 3+ for info email crankitupgear@aol.com


Every skier going off piste or touring in the mountains should carry three essential items. A transceiver to be located or locate a buried companion, a collapsible snow probe to confirm the victim’s location and a strong aluminium shovel to dig them out quickly. I sell Ortovox shovels and probes and can recommend the Alu240 and Beast shovel to complement the 3+ transceiver or for a pro user the pro alu III shovel and 280 carbon probe. email for details 
crankitupgear@aol.com

Glencoe ski patrol practising in the park
Recovery of buried companions in an avalanche is time critical with a 90% survival if victims are located and dug out within less than 15 minutes. After this time survival is very poor, therefore practise in locating and digging is critical. One of the training beacons is inside a resuscitation mannequin so that digging it out is like excavating a real victim and some care is required. The park importantly provides an opportunity for ski patrol to talk to those practising and emphasise the importance of avoiding avalanche terrain by interpreting the area avalanche forecast and local weather effects and therefore make wise and safe choices avoiding avalanche terrain for the day.

The enthusiasm and support by Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and his staff by providing snow sure land, tending to the park and investing in its upkeep is tremendous. A particular mention of thanks to Glencoe Ski Patroller Keith Hill who is always on hand to give sound advice to skiers and boarders and who maintains the park.

Killin Mountain Rescue and a group of Freeride skiers using the training park


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 a few tragic avalanche incidents where trauma has 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 data from coronial studies in Scotland to support the Trauma versus Triple H debate. See a previous blog on this http://crankitupgear.blogspot.com/2016/12/triple-h-or-trauma-in-scottish.html

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, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT's) and Glencoe and Nevis Range Ski Patrol. 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 like a mobile phone 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 readily 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.
Burnett - 22 hours Buried.  Pic courtesy of Hamish MacInnes
A really good summary of this pretty miraculous survival on this web site 


I sell these reflectors for £25 each. If you have an Ortovox Transceiver then since 2018 one is already built into the beacon as a backup

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 transceiver, 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. Recco reflectors may be particularly useful to mountaineers who do not generally carry an avalanche transceiver

I would recommend two reflectors to mountaineers, One front top and one back bottom in a pocket. Recco detection is here in Scotland and its great to see the take up by enlightened Scottish rescuers adopting alpine best practice. I have both the helmet and ski reflectors and very small ones to put in a pocket for sale at crankitupgear@aol.com

How does a Recco Reflector work?

  • Professional rescuers can quickly pinpoint a buried reflector-equipped person’s precise location using harmonic radar. Often quicker than a transceiver.
  • This two-part system consists of a RECCO R9 detector used by professional rescue groups, and RECCO reflectors that are attached to clothing, helmets, protection gear, and boots worn by skiers, mountaineers and riders and other outdoor users.

  • When used in conjunction with a RECCO Detector, the reflector's diode mixer acts as a harmonic generator to produce multiples of the frequencies received from the detectors.

  • The returned signal is translated into an audio tone whose volume is proportional to the returned signal, and by means of volume control, a trained rescue operator can literally go straight to the buried reflector once a signal is detected.

  • It is a non-powered device meaning that it never needs to be switched on, will never lose signal strength and needs no batteries to function. It is maintenance free and has a virtually unlimited life.

  • In total more than 900+ search & rescue organizations in the world endorse it.

The Recco Rescue System is different from Avalanche Transceivers because its a small band-aid size sticky transponder which is not powered, the reflector can be applied to your boots or helmet, the Recco detector does not contain any antennas and cannot be picked up by an avalanche beacon, the Recco detector has a range of over 200 metres which professional mountain rescue teams can pick up in the case of an avalanche.

Due to it not being a passive device the reflector will not lose signal strength and no battery to malfunction. 



The hand held R9  Recco detector is the size and weight of a hard back book and easy for rescuers to get to the scene and to search with.

The underslung Recco SAR pod picture right. Searches 200x200m in a minute and the above Austrian crew had just recovered a victim found with it. Based at these sites:

  • Switzerland – Zermatt, Sion
  • Italy – Aosta, Bozen, Trento
  • Austria  – Hohenems, Innsbruck, Linz, Graz
  • Norway – Alesund, Hastad, 
  • Sweden – Ostersund 
  • Canada – Snohomish Helicopter Rescue Team, Snohomish, WA
  • United States – Alpine Helicopters, Canmore AB

Live recovery of a victim located by her Recco reflector
 
Glencoe Ski Patrol doing a precautionary combined 457mhz transceiver search and Recco harmonic search on the "Fly Paper". The R9 detector searches both, and at close range can find many other harmonic devices such as mobile phones.




Tuesday, 20 October 2020

Winter is Coming. Are you Prepared?

I have been selling avalanche safety gear for ten years now. Discounts to professionals and rescue teams/ski patrol, and local free skiers/tourers and mountaineers.  I also provide Recco training as UK trainer for Recco and sell Recco reflectors. If you buy a beacon off me I am quite happy to give you some free tuition up at Glencoe Mountains Beacon training park, a bonus you will not get online. Give me a call or email/PM me for a quote if you need any avalanche safety equipment.

A few thoughts on slope assessment, avalanches and safety gear. First thing to mention is try not to get avalanched by pre depart planning and research and ongoing dynamic risk assessment during your day. We live in an uncertain world never more so than now with Covid-19. The only certainty is that we live with uncertainty and those of us who have spent our lives in the mountains accept this is just how it is on winter mountains. Sadly this uncertainty means we have all been caught out, despite making what we thought were good decisions. Me included. I count myself very fortunate having seen so many folk who didn't survive. The gear I sell is all very high quality Austrian manufactured "Ortovox" which have a long history of developing reliable technology that will not let you down. As a bonus all their transceivers also have a Recco reflector built in. We live with uncertainty, but our objective is to reduce that as much as possible. Look ahead, consult the avalanche forecast and plan ahead making decisions to avoid avalanche terrain. The mountains will be there another day so allow them to tell you to go home as well.

Winter 20/21 is predicted to be growth year in Free Touring as sales are 4 x last year. With number restrictions at ski areas and Covid, new folk will be entering terrain with avalanche risk. They need the knowledge and gear to do this safely

During travel look around you and observe what's happening under your feet and listen to the snow. Look for red flags such as avalanche activity, wind drifted snow, recent snowfall, whumping and cracking and also be wary during rapid rises in temperature as wet snow slides and cornice collapse can trigger huge slides such as occur in Observatory Gully and Lagangarbh Corrie to name but two. Based on the avy forecast (it's an area forecast and not cast in stone that its right!) and importantly what you observe, stop and do snow stability tests. ECT or shovel shear and compression.  This is to confirm what you should spatially be aware of.  Stopping and doing these tests is also an opportunity to talk and air views (and concerns) and make the critical decisions of whether your about to bet with your life or that of others. Its a fact that groups that are not hierarchical and communicate well perform better and have less catastrophic events than ones who allow experts to lead without question, or suffer peer pressure and are not equal in allowing a voice to raise concerns.    

1994. Looking up Coire na Tulaich and the main ascent descent route from the Buachaille. Three walkers under 10m+ of snow triggered from a party above.

Before making a drop in or committing to a slope up or down or across also consider these factors:

Angle. Most avalanches are triggered on slopes roughly between 32 and 45 degrees. Below 32 degrees victim triggered slab avalanches are less common and above this angle slopes purge more frequently. The "Sweet Spot" where most avalanches are triggered is about 40ish degrees with over 90% of victim triggered slides occurring in a 7 degree range bracketing that sweet spot. You can conclude from this that angle is a really important part of slope assessment and subtle changes of angle on a given slope can have major consequences, therefore route choice and awareness of slope angle is really important. Modern phone apps make judging the angle much easier.  Rule of thumb for me personally is that as the avalanche forecast risk for a given altitude and aspect goes up - then the angle and altitude of what you ski comes down. More recent research has shown convexity/concavity to be less important than angle.

Anchors. What is the snowpack connected to. Have you been following the weather and SAIS forecast. Are there weak layers within the snowpack. Tree's and rocks can hold a slope as your friend or can be weak spots as your enemy where sun heat or hoar frost has gathered. Subtle angle changes create trigger points at these places. Tree's are also natures cheese grater if you get taken into them. Also ask yourself what the slope you are on is linked into from the underlying snowpack. Unstable snowpack can often propagate a collapse into nearby slopes and draw an avalanche into lower angled terrain.

Aspect. Which compass direction does the slope you want to ski or travel face. Like angle, subtle changes in aspect can take you from a safe slope onto a loaded one. Carry a compass and learn about "slope aspect" as both a navigation and safe travel tool.  The SAIS forecast gives you the necessary hazard warning for compass direction but you need to apply it on the ground accurately. Again some phone apps can help with this, and even give you the area forecast. The new SAIS app is a must for Scotland.

Altitude. You can see by looking at the SAIS forecast that the hazard risk is most often greater with altitude, even in Scotland. The rate of snow deposition is higher with height, and the wind is also stronger increasing side loading of slopes. On dodgy days stay lower as well as skiing lower angled slopes.
Folk need to know how to apply the forecast to trip planning by learning to understand it

Apply safe travel methods when skinning up and keep spaced and avoid terrain traps when choosing your skin line.  A slide coming from above will have the full width, breadth and depth bearing down on you. Unless its a clear runout your pretty well fecked as any stream bed or features will trap you and allow the snow to build up deeply over you. Choose your line well and with some thought.

Complexity. As mentioned above. Be aware of subtle changes in angle and aspect and that localised instabilities are hidden and like a landmine can link one triggered mine to a chain reaction and a small slide gathering surrounding instabilities into a major avalanche event. Learn to read mapping for subtleties of terrain features and how snow may be affected, and think safety by pre imagining what could go wrong. If it's a complex route then its often unsafe as there are too many unknowns. 

Commitment. Always have a plan "B" so that if conditions change or are not what you expected you have another safer option.  Commitment to a slope can mean no bale out options, i.e having no where to go.  If you look at the pro's on youtube they choose their line so they can bale out onto a spine and have good runouts and that's where the next "C" comes into play - consequences.

Consequences. If an amber light's on in your head so your in a go/no go process, then add consequence into the thought mix.  Are there crags, hollows, stream beds, tree's or any other terrain features that could shred you or trap you if there is an avalanche. Transceiver, shovel, probe and/or airbag will not stop you getting your limbs ripped apart from tree's, your head humped like mince, or with an inflated airbag under a few hundred tons of snow. Airbags are good with a save rate of between 10 and 13  more people per hundred victims - but only if the runout is good.

More up to date North American stats also show that many more people die from two of the triple "H" than was thought. Hypoxia and Hypercapnia kill quickly, even folk dug out very fast getting advanced life support don't often survive.

Triple "H" syndrome is Hypoxia, Hypercapnia (i.e re breathing your own carbon dioxide) and Hypothermia. 

Hypothermia can have a protective effect in rapid cold water immersion, but in an avalanche cooling is slow, especially as modern clothing retains heat so well. In fact its not so much the lack of oxygen as the hypercapnia that makes survival so poor in a an avalanche, and this with hypoxia is also related to snow density). 15 minutes as often shown in survival graphs is quite optimistic. You need to search fast and dig faster (which means practise  these skills more) as time is not on the victims side.

When dropping in stay next to each others tracks, go one at a time well spaced and from a safe area to safe area. What's a safe area?  Good question as sometimes there are none, but basically its somewhere out of any slide path that you can identify. Consider that if its a big slide it could encroach on your safety island so pick your spot with care.

Be prepared to carry out a rescue. You are on your own as organised rescue will be too late. Talk this over before dropping in. You should all have done an avy course and so will have the gear, done the pre checks and discussed a plan - won't you?  If you have not done an an avy course then consider why the feck are you even doing this!
Ortovox 3+. Probably the most popular and affordable 3 antenna transceiver (avalanche beacon) with a mark feature and auto revert on the market, and winner of several awards.  Easy to use and fast this is the one for Scottish winter mountaineers and skiers pro or amateur. 
https://www.ortovox.com/uk-en/shop/categories/c35511-avalanche-transceivers

Ortovox S1+. This is the best beacon for ski patrol and MR pro use with its advanced multiple and deep burial modes and a visual "game" level display of each victim. Unlike most 3 antenna beacons it calculates a direct line to the victim. Very clever!



The average depth of a buried skier is 1.5 meters. You need a good shovel and a structured method to remove the snow fast and get the victim's airway cleared. Time to dig is "Triple H" the killer triad of Hypoxia, Hypercapnia (re breathing your own Co2) and Hypothermia.

Pro Alu III shovel. This also converts to a hoe which is really important when using the conveyor method to dig a victim out quickly as it speeds things up clearing behind the diggers on point conveyor shoveling. 


320 PFA Probe. As a pro user perhaps also working with Winter ML groups you need a longer probe for picking snow hole sites and also a longer one for the deep burials common to buried mountaineers in terrain traps




Ortovox 3+ Safety Set includes  Beacon, Badger Shovel and 240 alu Probe. This set saves a few £ over buying each item individually and a good option for free skiers. For those on a tight budget the "Zoom" beacon and safety set is adequate.

Mountaineers might also want to consider carrying Recco reflectors either as sewn in by the manufacturer or aftermarket. £50 gets your searchable with two reflectors. While this is not companion rescue it at least helps organised rescue such as MR find you as several MR teams and Scottish ski patrol have the Recco detector.












Avalanches, Beacons and Being Searchable

1. Learn How to Interpret the Avalanche Forecast. Don't get avalanched ......



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 favourable 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 persistent weak layer 30th March 2013
Fatal Avlx x 1 Skier Glencoe
Considerable
Conditions have become much less favourable. 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 recognising 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 traveller 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 colour 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.

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 occurred in the Cairngorms when two separate 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 position 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 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 beacon test and practise.



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!

2. Get a Beacon, Shovel and Probe. Some Transceiver Observations:

Some findings and observations from using these popular avalanche beacons on the last avalanche training courses in both shallow to very deep (3m+) burials. They are all adequate with the exception of the original tracker which although it might work is old. The newer version of the Tracker DTS/Tracker 1 is a bit better and still on sale. The T1 is a 2 antenna beacon and suffers from null points/signal spike unlike the excellent Tracker 2 (not being reviewed here) which is super fast. These 3 antenna beacons are all good purchases, but like all technology when used for scenarios that are not simple then their effectiveness is challenged and quirks come out. Only realistic practise with the beacon you own will make you the user aware of what these are, and work arounds.  What this means is practise and realistic scenarios to challenge you the searcher. That's what Beacon training parks are there to help you with. I have attempted to be non biased but declare a conflict of interest as I am an Ortovox retailer.

Auto revert or random transmit from rubber-neckers is the curse of the avalanche search. Be aware of it when on a long search, and be aware if its preset on or you have to activate it as part of the pre trip beacon check.

These beacons were used at the Glencoe BCA beacon training park and on scenarios created on ski 's and off piste in the ski area while searching for an analog Ortovox F1, analog SOSF1ND (re boxed F1), old Tracker 1's and 2's and a Tracker 3. All students were taught the primary basic search patterns of searching in series, in parallel, and micro grid, and only after lots of practise was marking used, and then only in the context of relying on a basic reliable search method should marking fail. All the three antenna beacons looked at here that show multiple burial icons did at varying times show multiple victims when only one was present and most often in deep burials. After group auto revert and radio/phone checks this still occurred when only one beacon was transmitting. This was from the very long pulse cycle of the old F1's getting the processor confused, but it also occurred in the deep burials with newer beacons and I wondered if each side of the deep beacon flux line was seen as a separate signal. Solving these issues is why we all need to practice.

I do a special offer of the pro level Ortovox S1+ to SMR and Ski Patrol. For professionals I recommend folk wanting an upgrade to consider this very advanced Beacon with its unique visual games type display. It takes you straight to the victim, has a very reliable "mark" feature and a host of other built in pro features such as actually displaying visually where each victim is with distance, a longer range (55m) than other digital beacons (most are 25m) and of course the smart antenna that gets you found faster. It has lots of programmable extras and via the menu in extremis the 3 mark feature can be overridden to 4+>. Also incorporated is a Recco reflector inside as back up and the smart antenna to get you found. In testing the unique "deep burial" mode solved the conundrum that less experienced users find in the Glencoe BCA park when some of the units are 1.5m+ buried. I have to teach the BCA "pinpoint in a line" and other advanced techniques to solve these usually, but the S1+ does them very well. If you are a pro or take groups this has other features that are useful, not least the partner check. https://www.ortovox.com/uk/shop/avalanche-emergency-equipment/avalanche-transceivers/s1-/
Ortovox 3+
I  sell a lot of these to ski patrollers and some MRT's (Killin MRT have 30). Very simple to use and reliable. The marking function on the 3+ is reliable but of course like all beacons marking gets problematic beyond marking 3 beacons.  The 3+ on deep burials suffered occasionally from null points and a signal was then re-acquired after switching back to transmit briefly, then back into search so easily solved. Students like its speed, simplicity and very clear display. Default auto revert is ON.  This would be my beacon of choice as value for money for most folk. It has the right balance of speed, ease of use and simple but reliable features including smart antenna orientation helping a victim be found more easily and a built in Recco strip so the victim is more searchable from a longer distance by the Recco system on organised rescue.  

BCA Tracker 3
The Tracker 3 is small, and can easily be carried in an inside pocket.  Its very fast processor is good, but the advertised range which is 40m is a little optimistic and I would say in most cases its only 30m necessitating a narrower search strip and a little more work from last seen point to signal pickup. The T2 is still faster IMHO and has a slightly longer range. The T3 doesn't mark a victim but will "suppress" one beacon in close proximity for 1 minute allowing the searcher to get away and lock onto another victim. I didn't always find this very reliable. However, it's "big picture" mode was useful in showing directions and distance to other beacons and did what it says, give a bigger picture but with the mark feature so much more reliable in newer beacons its just not as good as marking IMHO. Auto revert is default OFF.  Worth upgrading to Firmware 3.3 if you have one as it definitely improves the beacon. Its a great beacon for single searches or if you are better trained in avalanche searching. 
Mammut/Barryvox Element
The Element and its more expensive brother the Pulse are very popular beacons from Mammut with the internals from Barryvox a company with a long pedigree in avalanche beacons.  The one used had the latest software and had a very good range. The analog in the Pulse version is superb for an experienced searcher as the search distance increases to 60m (I got a signal at 67m on one). The Pulse in analog is also good acoustically as you can hear the pulse tones of different beacons.  The Element is purely digital and does not have the rescue send or unmark features of the Pulse. The Element like it's big brother suffered a lot from the "STOP" icon, requiring the user to stop and wait while the processor updated. On a couple of scenarios this got too long and only by switching from search back to transmit quickly and back to search was the signal eventually reacquired. Of the ones used here it seemed slower than previous models with the older software. Auto Revert Default ON
The original digital beacon, the Tracker DTS.  Plenty going 2nd hand as folk upgrade. These should be retired due to age IMHO. Save your dosh for a 3 antenna model. 
Tracker DTS 2nd edition. Also getting on a bit and only 2 antennas
The ubiquitous Tracker 1. Still on sale and probably the most common beacon carried for years.  It still works and is quite fast even if it only has two antenna's. I want to slag it off as we recommend that everyone these days has the more accurate 3 antenna beacons. However, the damn thing still works quite well. The additional training requirement of teaching how to overcome signal spikes is no big deal, most of the time. But, when it is it's time consuming. It is a lot less effective in deep burial scenarios and students must be taught to spiral probe, or probe in a grid to locate a deep victim, which takes a lot more time. Like its superior big brother the Tracker 2 the T1 has "SP" or spotlight mode which I have always liked as it narrows the search angle directionally and spotlights the next victim so you can then get away from the found victim, move to the next signal and allow it to lock onto it as it becomes the closest. Sometimes it's possible to jump from continuing with a micro grid search having used the SP mode and get a lock on the next victim. I tell my students get an upgrade to 3 antennas as its much better.  But, the T1 is still ok (only just - but consider an upgrade!) and it shows how far ahead of its time is was, but now there are better options IMHO. Auto revert default OFF
Tracker 2
Whats not to like. The Tracker 2 is a real workhorse. Reliable and easy to use. The first 3 antenna Beacon. If this had a "mark" feature it would be tremendous. Sadly it hasn't but, if you learn to search properly, along with using the SP mode you can be just as fast, therefore a slightly longer training requirement and its less out the box usable for multiple burial scenarios but is tremendous for a single victim search.


Mammut/BarryvoxS
This new transceiver looks excellent and hopefully I will have one to review at some point. Coming from a company that has a good track record this should be an excellent beacon. I will write it up after a test

Your money would be well spent on any of the ones listed apart from an old version T1 or old out of warranty Tracker DTS. Even the 2nd edition ones are not worth your money, even though there are lots 2nd hand. Most often its from folk upgrading to a 3 antenna one so why be cheapskate and buy one off them. Get a 3 antenna one. These are just some thoughts from trying lots of beacons on the market and this is just one review. There are no bad ones and they all have quirks, so get out and practise as its really important you are slick as someone is depending on you.

Note. If you use old analog beacons to practise you may find the multiple victim icon coming on intermittently. These old beacons have much longer signal pulse and digital beacons sometimes interprets this as two signals.

3. Get some Training and Practice Digging


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
Learn how to dig effectively as time is oxygen and your shovel is the key to living or dying. Can you resuscitate your friend or provide first aid if they are injured ?


4. Recco. Mountaineers are not Searchable - most of the time ...............

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 practise 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, Glencoe, Cairngorm MRT's) and Cairngorm, Glencoe and Nevis Range 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 readily 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 Cairngorm's. 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 practise. 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 from 3m burial
Glencoe Ski Patrol doing a precautionary combined 457mhz transceiver search and Recco harmonic search. The R9 detector searches both, and at close range can find many other harmonic devices such as mobile phones.

The reflector for Harmonic Radar or RECCO