Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Know Before You Go at Glencoe

Winter is a great time to be in Lochaber. We are blessed with two ski areas both of which offer vastly different views and an experience both on and away from marked trails. Mountaineers also flock to the area as Scottish winter mountaineering is legendary requiring a toughness and resilience in often adverse weather, but amply rewarded by unique rime and ice formation or snow ice if you persevere.

If you’re a skier, then its “freshies” which are the holy grail. These first few tracks down a pristine slope with six inches or more of new snow are what it’s all about. Scottish powder snow is less Champagne and a bit more Sauternes but equally nice to float the wide skis down in big carving arcs of sweetness.

Whether mountaineer or skier, when the fresh snow comes its usually got wind behind it and somewhere on a lee slope the build-up of snow will be deep.  Avalanches tend to occur on slopes of an angle of about 30 to 50 degrees where this snow lays, and are most often triggered by the additional load of the victims. Sadly, many Scottish Corries have streams and gulches/gullies at the bottom and these trap the victim and so bury them deeply.

Folk need to “Know Before You Go”  

Get the gear and carry an avalanche beacon so you can be located, and which will also search for your friends. Three essentials including the Beacon also includes: Carrying a snow probe so a victim can be precisely located, and having a good alu shovel so you can dig someone out. Also, consider adding two Recco reflectors so your more searchable. Mountaineers shun the three essentials but Recco reflectors might at least give them a chance
Get some training on how to understand how avalanches occur, common cognitive mistakes and thinking traps that make us ignore obvious danger signs, and conditions. This will include how to interpret the weather and avalanche forecast and some basic understanding of snow crystals and how strong and weak layers’ form within a snow pack, also on how to search and dig out a victim and look after them. Glencoe Mountain has a state of the art training park for folks to practice with their avalanche beacons and digging and the ski patrol are always happy to give advice. I run some avalanche training up at Glencoe so please contact me via my web site for more information.

Get the forecast. Never go out without reviewing the weather for the day ahead and always look at the Scottish avalanche service forecast (SAIS) and take heed of the risk level and the forecasters observations. The bulk of avalanche incidents do not happen when the risk level is high but when its lower as folk assume it’s safe. Always bear in mind there is never no risk, just a lower risk.

Get the big picture and become a good observer of the precipitation, wind loading and conditions around you and underfoot, and add that to the information from the avalanche forecast and be prepared to change your objectives. The avalanche forecast is an area forecast and a Corrie or mountain may well have very different avalanche risk from local wind and weather effects. Look for “Red Flag" signs of recent avalanches, cracking or collapsing snow, new snow and drifting snow, also rapid thaw conditions. If these are observed, then change your route to a safer one or cancel your day and retreat.

Stay out of harm’s way. With the big picture, you will be looking around you and adjusting your risk assessment constantly. If a mountaineer look above you as someone may trigger a cornice collapse which takes you out. You may commit yourself into enclosed terrain where, if an avalanche spontaneously triggers you have nowhere to run. A ski tourer might skin up into similar terrain and be trapped. Or, if dropping into a Corrie you could be taken into a terrain trap as mentioned before. If its misty or a whiteout you have no way of knowing who or what is below you and if it does avalanche your friends cannot see you from above and may be unaware.

Terrain Trap - No where to go and buried deeply!

Important Considerations Before the Point of No Return, or Dropping In

Angle. Most avalanches are triggered on slopes roughly between 30 and 50 degrees. Below 30 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 40 ish 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 an 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 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.

Anchors. What is the snowpack connected to? Have you been following the weather and avalanche 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, graupel 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. Ask yourself what the slope you are on is linked into from the underlying snowpack. Unstable snowpacks 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" i.e. which way it faces, 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. Some phone apps can help with this and even give you the area forecast 

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

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 it’s often unsafe as there are too many unknowns. Learn to know what you don't know!

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 bail out options, i.e. having nowhere to go.  If you look at the pros 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 it’s an amber light's on in your head so you’re 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.

Micro terrain can have macro consequences 
So, as a final thought. Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, get the big picture, and stay out of harm’s way. 

Davy Gunn
Avalanche Educator and Instructor

Monday, 14 November 2016

Avalanched. Getting Located Quickly

Time to get Recco aboard the new SAR Helo's
In Scotland there is a growing trend towards ski touring or free ride off piste and adventure skiing. Its pleasing to note that avalanche education is often talked about and is having an impact. This ultimately is what saves lives.  Good decisions are worth more than a shed load of gear. That's not to say that gear is not important and airbags are now more common and with a clean run out give you a better chance of staying on the surface and therefore surviving.  If you get to pulling the trigger in anger then somewhere along the line the decision process was flawed though. Part of being human and hopefully you live to not make the same mistake again. For those of you who are not on a big salary as airbags are not cheap then apart from the cheapest form of staying alive in avalanche terrain which is education and good decisions, then the triad of probe, shovel and beacon is your best hope. The prices have dropped quite a bit on this kit and its possible to get all three items (with three antenna beacon) for under £220. That's a pretty good investment on saving your life or that of a friend. 
At "the gate" below summit gully Glencoe.  RAF searcher finds a victim with  two 3m probes joined together.  Probing is slow!
Copyright Davy Gunn - crankitupgear Glencoe
Where are the mountaineers in this? Winter mountaineering in Scotland has never had the same ethos as winter alpine off piste skiing where carrying shovel, probe and beacon is essential.  One Scottish ski patrol and some mountain rescue teams now have a Recco detector. A lot has been said about Recco being a body recovery tool.  Mostly by people who have never used the system and who are quite ignorant of its effectiveness. Sure its part of organised rescue, and we all know that in the continuum from no rescue needed to organised rescue then organised rescue has poorer survival probability. This is because "triple H syndrome" (hypoxia, hypercapnia and hypothermia) are time critical. Modern clothing prevents or reduces any protective effect of hypothermia as its often just too good an insulator.  That's not to say long term survival isn't possible or Burnett would never have survived his 22 hours. With SPOT technology, mobile phones and ski patrol being nearby, or MRT's  maybe already deployed and re routed to a critical incident, then Recco mow has its place. It does work and has saved many lives. Reflectors are cheap and its good to have a few about your person. They don't have to be sewn into your clothing.  There are adhesive ones for boots or ones that will slip into a jacket pocket the size of a wee sweetie. While no substitute for an avalanche beacon they will get you found (only if the searchers have a Recco receiver). Recco searching is even more effective from the air by helicopter (the helo needs a £200 adapter kit) and with the new guuchi SAR helicopters being satellite broadband enabled then surely for mountain SAR they should have a Recco facility?
Recco is a World wide SAR network

The two-part system consists of a RECCO® detector used by organized rescue groups and RECCO® reflectors that are integrated into outerwear, helmets, protection gear and boots from hundreds of top outdoor brands. The reflector is permanently attached, requires no training and no batteries to function. It is always “on” and ready.

RECCO® reflectors do not prevent avalanches nor do they guarantee location or survival in the event of a burial, but they enable organized rescue teams to pinpoint the person’s precise location. The RECCO® history started on December 30, 1973 with a tragic avalanche accident in Åre, Sweden. Magnus Granhed, founder of RECCO® was riding the ski lift to the Mörvikshummeln when he heard a tremendous roar. An avalanche had ripped down the very steep slopes of Svartberget.

The result was chaos. Nobody knew how many people, or who, had been swept away in its path. “We started to search with our ski poles,” recalls Magnus. Later, probes and avalanche rescue dogs arrived, but in those days that was the only help available. Magnus remembers feeling “utterly helpless poking a ski pole into the snow” in an area the size of two soccer fields. By the time they found the two buried skiers the search had gone on for hours and both skiers had died. Right then he decided there had to be a better way to find people.
The accident in Åre set him thinking about the possibility of an electronic locating device to locate buried people. Granhed had just graduated with a Master of Science degree, and turned to Professor Bengt Enander, Department of Electromagnetic Theory at the Royal Institute of Technology in StockholmAfter some testing they saw that thermal imaging did not work, and transceivers were too limited so they tried to equip the skiers with a passive reflector. It took Enander’s team another two years, but the team’s work resulted in a PhD and the basis for the RECCO® System.
The problem was solved with harmonic radar. Just as is the case today, the reflector consisted of a diode that generates a harmonic when it is hit by the radar signal from the search equipment. The return signal, however, is much weaker than the search signal, and that was the great challenge for the project.  The challenge became how to filter out the strong search signal so that the weak signal from the reflector would be noticeable. At first, the range in air was only 5 meters, but today the RECCO® System manages more than 200 meters. The research team constructed and tested the first prototype in the winter of 1980-81 and RECCO® introduced its first commercial detector in 1983. It weighed all of 16 kg while today’s model weighs less than one kilogram. The first live rescue of an avalanche victim using the RECCO® System took place in 1987 in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.

Despite the early success of RECCO®, it was not until the 1990s when RECCO® gained acceptance by rescuers, and the mobile telephone industry helped. By the mid to late 1990s the huge demand for cell phones resulted in smaller and cheaper components. These improvements also resulted in much smaller and lighter RECCO® detectors that were easier for rescuers to handle. 

Following the lead of the increasing number of ski areas that have acquired RECCO® detectors – at present more than 700 ski areas and rescue teams worldwide – more than 200 manufacturers of outerwear, ski and snowboard boots, protection gear and helmets incorporate reflectors in their products. And it is not only the search equipment that has been continuously developed and improved, having progressed through nine generations since the start; the reflectors have also gone through major developmental stages. Thirty years of work lie behind today’s small reflectors.

Scottish RECCO trainer Davy Gunn