Thursday, 22 February 2018

Avalanche Awareness Training

I have been getting a lot of folk asking for training. My apologies folks. I think I did my bit for the moment but might well re visit it if it becomes practically viable another season. But not this one. Here's a bit of history and all in I think its done its job. A special thanks to Keith and Christine of Glencoe Ski Patrol for helping out over the years and as said in my previous post on an avalanche, go speak to the ski patrol for advice. Not getting in an avalanche is the goal.

All the pictures will appear full size on your browser if clicked:

Hamish MacInnes opened the training park

Legends Phillip Rankin, Dr Ian MacLaren, Peter Weir and SAIS Paul Moores at the opening of the glencoe mountain transceiver park
Ten years ago I saw an increase in folk going off piste and touring and many near misses locally. Folk have explored off piste in Scotland since way back before I was around. Many of the classic local tours and off the back of the Glencoe mountain descents were done by ski patrol or regular Coe skiers. Same at Nevis Range "over the back" and "off the side" were done by early ski school instructors and local legends many of whom are still about.  A lot of these folks had a mountaineering back ground or were local mountain rescue, or were just "Chancers" if you don't mind the pun (it's an in joke).

The new explorers were, and often still are boarders or freeride tourers or hike and drop skiers many whom didn't have a broad range of mountain skills and were not avalanche aware. I thought maybe I could do something to help. Anatom and BCA gave me a rudimentary wired transceiver training system which we had put in next to the lower T bar Glencoe and also we had some money donated for signs and banners. Anatom were an early sponsor and Gordon and the guys superb support with BCA kit for students to borrow

The early wired system waiting to be laid out
A few signs to help 
All of the above worked well increasing folks ability to test transceiver search skills. This was only possible because Andy Meldrum, Staff and Glencoe Ski patrol all bought into the concept and set aside some land and caretaked the park. It also allowed me to run each year for five years up to ten basic level 1 avalanche awareness courses or transceiver and search and recovery workshops. During this time the Mill Cottage Trust also donated money and bought a portable Ortovox STS system which can be used when snow levels are low but its not possible to get up a mountain. This system is available to any instructor or guide working locally providing an avalanche education course, on loan. Despite offering it out so far no one else other than myself has used it. Please borrow it if you need it!

For three years Clachaig hotel gathered some money from mountain safety lectures which I took part in giving talks on Avalanche Awareness. This raised over £2,500 for the replacement of the old system with a new top of the range wireless training system and some more upgrade to the Glencoe training park. This season there are 3 of the possible 8 remote beacons out.

Last year was a poor snow year and there was no demand for training. The previous season every weekend course I had booked had to be cancelled due to wind/weather (I prefer to get folk up the hill on ski's and make it real rather than at the base). That and lack of place to do the introductory lecture made it problematic. I don't see many folk in the transceiver park these days. Maybe the transceiver parks have had their day and its job done. 
Ski Patrol and Course Students learning that survival depends on shovel skills
Students taking a break during a level 1 course

SAIS snowsports Scotland avalanche course instructor George Reid in the park

Scottish Freeride organisers and legends getting in some practice at the park

Boot Hill

Killin MRT getting some transceiver work done at the park
Unlike ten years ago when no one else was providing off piste safety and avalanche awareness training, now Glenmore Lodge, Avy Geeks. Off Piste Performance and many others are providing quality training. That's great for mountain safety. I would recommend these providers to you, or a local IFGM guide.

If you buy avalanche safety equipment from me I am more than happy to give some free tuition up at the ski areas that doesn't take up too much of your ticket ski time, but I will not be doing anymore of the courses as in the past at Glencoe. I ski a bit more at Nevis Range these days as its where a lot of local freeride skiers seem to go, and where many of my customers are as "over the back" skiers, so often up there as well as Glencoe. Grab me any time if you want advice on equipment or a quick run through on your transceiver. But not on a powder day as I might be another of the Chancers.

If you need any kit then this is the stuff you want


Davy Gunn

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

It's all about TERRAIN

When it all comes together all the thinking and planning means you get a lifetime of fun and a pension. To enlarge images click on them.
A few thoughts on slope assessment. At a basic level its all about TERRAIN. Firstly you need to look ahead, consult the avalanche forecast and plan ahead making decisions to avoid avalanche terrain. 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 a forecast and not cast in stone that its right!) and importantly what you observe, stop and do snow stabilty 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.  Before making a drop in 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 its 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!

Fail to plan and think it through and it's never pretty. A ski tourer who was avalanched

Monday, 19 February 2018

A trip to the white room

Friday was pretty poor vis for skiing with stashes of fresh to be found also quite a hard windpack and some sastrugi in places. The day before, storm force Southerlies were moving a lot snow and Friday the winds were a bit more South West. Lots of wind loading on North East aspects and the ski patrol triggered some decent slabs on test slopes. Ski patrol will test some short slopes with good runouts facing the same aspect as dangerous ones to use as indicators of stability, and also if they threaten a piste inbounds. Some slopes it would be madness to ski cut as the risks would be too high. It's a question of balancing mishap probability against mishap consequence.

Ski patrols and resort staff close off runs when the probability and risk to the public is too high. No one can stop someone sking a danger area under their own steam but should they be lift served and have a ski pass the resort staff would have every right to remove a pass as not only are they endangering their own lives, but putting tracks in encourages others to follow. The tracks become a cognitive trap as the less experienced think it must be safe if others have gone that way before. So it's not just about individual choice its about endangering others.

The lower crown wall visible and the top one far above less so. The skier was behind the rock on the upper right. To enlarge images click on them.
I was up skiing Glencoe Friday. I am not often up ski patrolling these days prefering to ski or I am up doing some work with customers who have bought avalanche safety gear from me. I do make myself available to help out, so I let the ski patrol know when I am up and when there is a bigger incident I am more than happy to help out and it also keeps my hand in. Both Nevis and Glencoe have a very competent professional ski patrol team and I am happy to be a humper, skiing the sledge across or helping out at a big incident.  Friday there was one of these when a lone skier, who had not even told his partner he was going skiing triggered a big avalanche over East at Glencoe. He had cut into "The Spring Paper" which takes you out onto a wind loaded slope and triggered a cat 3 size avalanche which remotely triggered an adjacent slope as well. The crown wall was about half a meter high at an angle of 40° and there was a second crown wall of about 40cm some 90m lower down on easier angled terrain of about 30°. To get there the skier had to duck the ropes and ignore the warning signs.  He was very lucky as the avalanche hung him up on a small rock shelf and flowed to the side and so he was only buried up to his neck and not under. The debris had flowed out onto the moor, and at the bottom of the bowl a classic terrain trap it was very deep indeed.

The above slope faces NE

After 40 mins burial he was able to get out his phone with one hand and phone a friend who alerted ski patrol. While speaking to him he was cut off and we thought taken by a second slide. A possy of us went across and  started a transceiver search of the large debris pile picking up a signal at 55m but we still couldn't see him. The piste team also arrived by machine so we had a good shovel party. Eventually he shouted and another patroller was able to ski across to him and we could walk up. He was well hidden with only his head showing and probably would have been drifted over in a couple of hours as it was blowing some.
Airway, Breathing, Camera. I just had to take a quick picture!

Half an hour of digging and getting his ski's released (they were Freeride ski's pinned under him with DIN set to 14+ and so they didn't come off so he was well anchored). Thankfully he didn't have his pole straps on and we never managed to find and dig out his poles. If he had them on then no phone access and possibly he would have been pulled under and/or had his arms pinned. So a couple of learning points there regarding DIN and poles. My off piste poles have no straps and my DIN is set to normal parameters for my weight and ability. I have seen the results in an avalanche when they don't release and the bi-lateral femur fractures. It's not pretty.

No one gave him a hard time. We were all pretty chuffed he wasn't injured as a previous avalanche incident in similar circumstances over at the same place a colleague suffered a serious spinal injury. He was badly shaken and a bit cold and he skied off down to get warm. I daresay he would have shed a tear or two and a feel a bit emotional later as it hit home how lucky he was.