Saturday, 24 December 2011

Auto Revert - Pain or Life Saver?

A short clip from the Glencoe Anatom/BCA park when covered with snow.  A group of well trained guys in the park when I skied in to see how they were doing.  They seemed to have a problem locating one of the sending units which was 2m down.  As there are 8 other beacons buried its quite a challenge if more than 3 are on.  However the problem was apparent after a while as one of the Pulse beacons had auto reverted to send which is its default setting.  The Trackers default is no auto revert unless you press SP mode when switching on.  There is a good reason for this.  The tip itself is often the safest place to be, and the T2 has a big button you can just bump of yourself to get back into transmit.  False signals from auto revert is a major issue at avalanche sites and costs time and lives. Another issue here because of the problem is that some of the group had "marked" either the beacon on auto revert or the buried one so there was some confusion.  The T2's simplicity showed it's worth being so accurate down to cm's.  That's why these beacon parks are so good as real situations occur and have to be sorted out and its a learning experience for all concerned especially me!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

BCA Training Park Glencoe

Awesome snow cover up at Glencoe. Possibly the best early conditions in decades.  Wide complete cover all the way from the summit back to the car.  A few medium slabs were triggered this morning by ski patrol but overall conditions are tremendous.  I installed the BCA training park today.  Some pictures of what greeted me below.  Next year I will take the kit home for maintenance as the weather has taken its tole on the wires and the control box and it really needs a bit of care.  Take care if using the park as although I have buried the beacons 50/100cm down into the snowpack I was unable to get the wires down below 12cm due to a hard crust and being knackered from all the digging.  I believe an MRT will be using the site tomorrow and many folk came to me wanting advice and future training today.
2m of snow over the park

The tin probe strike covers dug out

100m of wire to unravel!

Two kite boarders who had a ball!

All buried and ready to be used - me? knackered!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Avalanche Danger Scale Re Post

As it's near the ski season I will re post some stuff  just to give a heads up for folk on interpreting the forecast.  This post was from when the SAIS forecast first changed to the wheel type view and was to help folk understand how it related to the European scale which is identical to the one below now.

Click for a larger size

The new scale is the result of collaboration between avalanche professionals in Canada, the USA and Europe. It is a North American Danger Scale with Icons standardized internationally (recognizable by Europeans visiting Noth America.)

Key changes:
  • The danger levels have been reversed — Extreme is now on top.
  • Extreme and High have been grouped as backcountry travel is not reccommended at either level.
  • Icons have been added to give an at-a-glance indication of the risk of travel.
  • Travel advice is given for each danger level.
  • The likelyhood of avalanches information has been retained from the previous scale.
  • The last column gives the potential size and extent of avalanches.
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 backcountry. 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.

Travel is generally safe. The snowpack 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.
This is the most difficult danger level for backcountry 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. Snowpack tests may help assess stability.

Conditions are generally favourable for travel providing routes are chosen carefully. The snowpack 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 snowpack 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.

Conditions have become much less favourable. The snowpack 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. Backcountry touring at this danger level requires good routefinding 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 talus fans at the bottom of gullies starts 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.

Conditions have become dangerous, most often as a result of significant amounts of new snow, snowfall accompanied by wind or the snowpack becoming isothermal and threatening wet-snow avalanches. The snowpack 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 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 backcountry 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.

Extreme danger levels are rare and usually the result of unusually large amounts of new snow. The snowpack 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 snowpack. Natural avalanches can release on slopes of less than 30°
Backcountry touring is not recommended and often impossible. Avoid all avalanche terrain and keep well away from avalanche path runouts.

As Lucky as you can get!

Here's a nice bit of filming that's still a bit disturbing to watch but well worth seeing through to the end.  They do say in the alps that there are two often used types of avalanche control "Gazex & "Swedex" this film being the Swedex.

Not sure what to take from this film.  Who rescues the last man if he takes a line that pops.  Its often long hard hoof back up if buddies go down which costs time.  Maybe someone had stayed on a safer line.  He obviously had a good air pocket otherwise he was panned!  Anyway watch it and learn.

Monday, 5 December 2011

A Guide to the SAIS Forecast Re Post

A re post from last year, pre the SAIS site update to help interpret the forecast.  Maybe not as good as the SAIS but another take on the subject to help lay persons get a handle on the forecast and look at it in more depth. Knowledge in depth as well as breadth.

SAIS Forecasters "Spring Run" Glencoe
First questions I would ask most folk generally who own a Transceiver/Beacon is: do you regard yourself as "situationaly aware" ie, do you observe the weather and what's around you and what the snows doing under your feet. Do you read the SAIS area forecast and understand it and can you relate it to the part of the area and slope aspects you will ski. If the answer is yes to all of these, then a beacon is a vital part of your overall approach to ski safety and practice is vital. Also, a Beacon is no use if you can't pinpoint a victim so you need a probe, and a shovel, as without a good shovel for you to dig them out the victim is royally screwed. First things first - avoid getting avalanched, it isn't pretty so have a look at this and feel scared:
It aint pretty so don't kid yourself you can breath out your arse
Avalanche Risk Scale
Old Forecast for Glencoe

You will see on the snow pit data below a lot of information from the name of the observer to the OS Grid that you can apply on a map to the aspect and elevation.  The is also a code on the bottom corner.  The first figure is any observed avalanche activity that day and the first figure is 5 which shows 5 avalanches were observed. The others relate to wind and overhead conditions. These are entered into a computer model.
F = crystal type - the classifications are:

E = grain size in mm
R = hardness - a symbolic representation of the F, 4f... scale.

e = the water content. The number of vertical lines goes from 0 to 4 as the snow wetness goes through dry, moist, wet, very wet and slush.

Each shaded block represents the hardness of a separate layer of the snowpack

The SAIS forecast covers an area. To be more specific we need to lots of smaller tests as we go to test aspects within the forecast area. These are easy compression and shear tests. Remember that they are only valid for where they have been done - 10m away it might be different and for that reason use your eyes and look around you, and make judgements using all the information your senses bring you.  If it looks iffy, feels iffy then its probably staring you in the face that its a good day to go somewhere else and ski something less risky.
Test compression & shear by pulling on a column
Shear tests can be quick and easy to interpret for where you have done one and work for most kinds of weak layers given the caveat about there usefulness above. 

Start by isolating a column about the same size as the blade of your shovel, in other words, about one foot by one foot (30 x 30 cm). Be sure to completely isolate the column. Then take the blade of the shovel and lay it flat on top. Finally start tapping progressively harder on the shovel blade until the column fails. Start with ten taps by articulating from your wrist, then ten more taps by articulating from your elbow, then ten more from your shoulder using the full weight of your arm. Don’t push your arm into the snow, but let it fall with its own weight. In this way, the test is somewhat quantifiable. In other words it doesn't depend on “feel” or the opinion of the tester, but it has a reproducible number which is more or less same for most people and can easily be communicated to others. For instance, it failed on an easy tap from the elbow, or it failed on a moderate tap from the elbow or perhaps a hard tap from the shoulder. Since snow stability is dependent on the size of the trigger required to make it fail, this test is especially easy to interpret. Of course, if you have an unusually light arm or an unusually heavy one, you need to take that into account.
Green zone does not mean NO RISK it just means less risk
Practice - Duncan Gunn, in case he needs to rescue his Dad

Weight Training Doesn't Make You Faster on a Bike

Gym work doesn't help but looks better

A study from Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia shows that adding resistance leg weight training does not help competitive bicycle racers to race faster (1).

The cyclists were divided into two groups: one that continued their bicycling training, while the other group did the same cycling training but added a six-week undulating, periodized resistance training program (3/wk). Before and after the six-week training period, the cyclists completed a maximal graded exercise test, a 30-km dynamic cycling test with three intermittent 250-m and 1-km sprints, and a 1 repetition maximum (1RM) squat test for the assessment of lower-limb strength. The weight lifters became stronger and improved their one- repetition maximum squat, but they failed to improve any aspect of cycling. Surprisingly, their final sprint in their 1- km time trials were significantly slower than their previous times.A study from Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia shows that adding resistance leg weight training does not help competitive bicycle racers to race faster (1).

Cycling is a power sport. Those with the strongest legs are the fastest sprinters. Yet lifting weights made them slower sprinters. Lifting weights with their legs left them too sore to train most intensely on their more intense cycling days, and the faster you ride on your intense days in training, the faster you usually ride in races. Further studies in the future may change the way we think now, but most research show that resistance leg training with weights does not help experienced and well trained, long distance cyclists to race faster.
On the other hand, strength training may help some runners run faster. Research shows that strengthening the leg muscles of runners allows them to run faster because they stay closer to the ground and do not waste energy by bobbing up and down as much with each stride (2,3,4).
1. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, November 2009, 23(8):2280-6.
2. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2006;20(4):947-954. 
3. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2003;89:1-7.
4. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2003;17(1):60-67).

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Tales from the Battlefront

Ski Patrol Level 1 Course - Signal Search T2
At Glenmore Lodge on a BCA lecture, the subject of secondary avalanches came up and the general fact that these are uncommon, and often the safest place for companions/rescuers is on the initial tip. I mentioned that in organized rescue in Scotland secondary avalanches are a grave risk because often the initial slide is in high corrie’s surrounded by other gully’s or corniced scarp slopes and rapid increases in temperature cause spontaneous release as frontal systems move through.  These are natural terrain traps and the rescue leader cannot easily reduce the risk to rescuers if they have to search in such areas, they can only apply resources to mitigate the consequences to the rescuers of a secondary slide. So rather than risk reduction its consequence reduction. This topic is covered well in the book “Managing Risk in Extreme Environments” by Duncan Martin where the leader of the PHGM Chamonix and I contributed to the mountain rescue chapter. I mentioned the incident below as an example but didn’t go into detail. I was later asked about it so here goes for you folks who are interested:

A secondary slide nearly took out many members of a rescue party I was leading. I was the newly appointed deputy leader of Glencoe MRT in January1994 when we were called to an avalanche on Buachaille Etive Mor’s Lagangarbh Corrie to search for 3 walkers who had only just entered the mouth of the Corrie into the gulch at the bottom when a very big hard slab was triggered from 2,000ft above at the cornice by a descending climber.  All 3 were buried.  As we approached the debris pile in the gulch the temperature was going up and it was the dark.  One of the team, Steve Kennedy said he felt uneasy and shouted stop "listen" saying he could hear something. In no time little ice particle were visible in our head torch beams and someone shouted “avalanche”. A massive secondary slide had come off the West flank of the Corrie. I remember scrabbling up the steep rocks at the side of the gulch and moving right as the flow came up like a rising tide at our feet.  My vivid memory is of my colleagues head torches bobbing, hearing rasping breathing, and folk shouting until we were clear.  The gulch with the original debris pile would have had side walls of about 60ft when we were in it.  The gulch had filled in until it was level, the block debris was up to and beyond the path that runs above it at one point with a tip that extended 100m top to toe.We were lucky to all get out.

I don’t recall ever in my 35 years in MRT ever seeing then or since a group of experienced rescuers so shaken up.  It was clear that there was no hope for the survivors and despite 4 days of continuous digging and trenching we didn’t get anywhere near a probe strike. Only a couple of days later we were called to another 3 victim burial on the other side of the mountain and the team found all 3 victims by spot probe strike and all dead. Again sadly I was one of the first on scene.  At that time I was full time ski patroller at Glencoe Mountain (I worked some 8 seasons all in over the years as a profesional patroler) as well as the team’s deputy leader and only experienced medic. The winter before I had done a season working in the French Alps where Fiona was head of ski school in Pra Loup. The Alps felt much more predictable and a lot less dangerous than Scotland and after many more trips abroad I still feel this way! Anyway, I digress. The point is that every day for the next 2 months I drove past the mountain looking up and wondering when we would have to go back in there. This was not made any easier by the presence at a neighbors of the wife of one of the victims whose husband, son and prospective brother in law were the folk who were buried. She, understandably could not rest until we had recovered her family. I take my hat of to the then new team leader John Greive for whom I was deputy leader, for managing this difficult time. The months before these avalanches and after, were the busiest the team had ever had for trauma and avalanche up to that point, and there was huge world wide media attention with satellite dishes and media vans all over the place.  In that 12 month bracket I personally as team paramedic had attended to 16 fatal accidents 8 of whom were avalanche victims. The media pressure and safety considerations for John as team leader were considerable and way beyond what would normally be expected in MR, so “chapeu” as the French say.

Eventually early April of that year a party of RAF MR and Glencoe MRT including me went up into the corrie and managed to recover the victims.  One had been in a big natural air pocket near a small stream entrant below a crag. This I found most upsetting.  As a postscript to this story the lady who lost so much, eventually moved into the area and has become a very active member of the local community. The resilience of the human spirit in the face of  such overwhelming tragedy is remarkable.

Before this tragedy I had dug many folk out of avalanches as part of Glencoe MRT.  Since then as part of MR sadly very many more.  With Ski Patrol thankfully there are many survivals and positive outcomes. I suppose over the years I must have been involved in at least 70 avalanche incidents, some of which in MR took days and months to conclude. 27 of these have been fatal. As an MR no one I have been called to help who has been buried has been dug out alive. Those on the surface have all had trauma both physical and emotional.
Lost Valley 1989 Too Late Sadly
It’s been quite a journey from my first avalanche rescue way back in the early 1970’s. The first beacons or “Pieps” that Hamish MacInnes aquired and how hopeless we all were with these analog single antenna units yet we thought we were good when we were really crap!  The balloons we tried flying above us in horrendous conditions in Great Gully as well. The formation of the SAIS by Hamish and Eric Langmuir had a huge effect (I got offered an observer job in Glencoe but went to work in the Alps instead).  The SAIS has and continues to have a huge impact on the reduction of avalanche accidents. Over the years I have often enjoyed the company of the Glencoe SAIS observers, watching what they do, bagging the odd route along the way with them and developing my own interest in snow science and learning along the way from these guys.

I have always enjoyed skiing fresh tracks and as a ski patroller avalanche control is a huge part of the job. Many folk don’t realize that some Scottish patrols blast and ski cut slopes. Ski Patrol is very positive job. 2009 saw me leave MR after another 3 victim burial tragedy at the same place as the story above. The difference this time being that as a rescue many things went a bit awry in my view, buried victims being winched out of deep snow by the first on scene SAR crew by helo strop (what’s the other biggest killer of avlx victims? Trauma!) to walking up the hill alone with thankfully 4 other MRT lads deciding to follow me, then finding that someone was still missing  and the majority waiting for a SAR helo that eventually picked them up but couldn’t then fly them in due to bad weather so we were on our own.  Fate decreed that it would be my spot probe strike that would find the victim. We dug him out and gave him the best chance of survival possible. That was to be my last MR job.

I decided that I would stand back from MR and continue to develop the ski patrol avalanche modules and along with my small bike business try and do some avalanche education work. I should also mention that in addition to having the bike business which has 15 hire bikes and does sales and repairs which is very much a small family enterprise involving my three children and Fiona, I also work for Joint Services Mountain Training. These tri services centre’s specialize in training the high level services adventure training instructors. We have a ski centre in Bavaria and other basis for expeditions all over the world from Trailsend BC Canada to Nordic touring at Sjuschen in Norway.  Very professional instructors and IFMGA guides make this a fantastic and rewarding environment to work in.  Most of my work these days is not instructing but managing expedition equipment as well as the running of the Wing here with a Captain from APTC.

On the ski and avalanche side its fairly apparent that not very many folk have the experience (some of it from tragedy and bad experience I grant you) of avalanche prediction and prevention, avalanche control, organized rescue, companion rescue and avalanche education, and who are still at the sharp end when it’s a powder day. In 2005 I was invited to the FIPS international congress in Tignes France hosted by the Chef de Pistes Jean Louis Touaillon  ex president of AENA the French avalanche organization. They wanted me to give a keynote lecture – on avalanche rescue and trauma. Thankfully it went well.  The family and I had a fantastic week and lifelong friendships were forged.  Since then FIPS has been to Snowbird Utah, Are Sweden and last year it was to be Japan which I was all wired for, but a small matter of a nuclear meltdown after the Tsunami put paid to that.  So next year Jean Louis has stepped up again and the congress is in Chatel, so not too far a bus ride from Geneva!
FIPS ARE Sweden - Shoveling. Herman Brugger IKAR in Background

Over the years through work I have dealt with Pieps, Ortovox, Mammut and Arva. All are good makes and do the job.  But, and it’s quite a big but. The best educational and prevention work is done in the USA in my opinion. Training will always be an issue to both the lay user and voluntary rescuer, so for personal safety a beacon needs to be simple and reliable with  battle condition friendly interface i.e. BFG buttons and lights and idiot proof.

I am very lucky to have Anatom the importers of Back Country Access kit helping me promote avalanche avoidance and companion rescue. I went to them not because the other makes are not good, but because BCA educational backup is superb and continually developing new ideas. One such idea “Strategic Shoveling” has been incorporated by other brands (copying being the sincerest form of flattery but no one worries as it saves lives).  The T1 was good but the T2 is the only “real time” beacon that’s really easy to use. The BCA products from search and rescue kit to lightweight touring is all very well thought out and as much as anything, the BCA image is bright and positive which I think brings an appeal to the young freerider or tourer. It builds on positives and not dark Nordic tragedy.  At least that’s my take! So thanks to Anatom we in Scotland have more beacon training parks than some Alpine countries, a well supported SAIS, and a range of off piste safety and avalanche avoidance and rescue initiatives. Personally I find it one helluva lot more fulfilling preventing tragedy than picking up the pieces after it.  Should anyone wish to purchase a beacon or any back country touring kit please give us a call. Advice and help is free.
Ally - Fly Paper 20 mins under and OK!