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.


  1. Why do some skiers/boarders think that they are invincible and they think that a 'run closed' sign is not for their safety. This time this guy was lucky. Lok at Val D'Isere at the weekend when a father and daughter were lost to an avalanche after going through a 'run closed' sign. Any one caught should be banned from skiing.boarding in the country of the offence and charged with dangering life of themselves and others and taken through the courts.

  2. The only reason for the post was that out of something negative, something positive could be taken both in decisions and technical relating to ski's and poles. This poor chap was badly shaken and didn't need it rubbed in. I am not totally risk averse and know that off piste skiing is high risk and I have made many mistakes and somehow lived to tell the tale. That day I the risk was too high to contemplate for me. There but for the grace of god go all of us. Public humiliation was never the intent. Only that folk should respect run closed signs and rope, speak to ski patrol and learn a few salient points of off piste safety.

  3. That was an excellent article and one that I have learnt from thank you , I have dodged under barriers in the past but never below an overhang like that one ! I also witnessed the rescue at les Dues alps 3 years ago when the school kids got killed that was very sobering as that slope had been used a lot that day before that party got caught out and tragically died ,the teacher got a jail sentence I believe as he survived