Saturday, 12 April 2014

The begining of the end - of winter!

Well the weather is truly shite for Spring with mild temps and the snow retreating up the hills and down the rivers but little sunshine. Not much good for road bike training but OK on the trails for the mountain bike.  I met up with Gordon Fraser from Anatom Ltd mid week and we had a good chat about BCA kit and the excellent new Tracker 3 and how I found it. I also met up on Friday with one of the legends of mountain rescue Dave (Heavy) Whalley to discuss past avalanches that I had been at, and to get more details of them for statistics he is collating. It's quite interesting opening the lid of these old emotional boxes and shedding some fresh light on past events.

As winter passes off I have a few random closing thoughts on the season past. There is a big growth of interest in snow science, and snow pit data collection, both from the occasional skier or mountaineer to the professional. My own take has always been that snow safety is a must know part and snow science only a nice to know. Pre trip planning and dynamic assessment by using your eyes and observational skills and noting what's going on around you and actually interpreting what the avalanche forecast (and it is just a forecast, so not set in stone) and the narrative that the forecaster has put down is the most important part. And being flexible and prepared to back off!  It's all remarkably simple, as is the beacon and victim recovery training for when you err, as sadly we all can.
Fundementals - Good planning and being spatially aware. Then rescue drills for when we err
As more folk get a handle on the snow science then they seem become instant experts in this, and to many folk this is a the key to avalanche avoidance. I don't buy into that, and see it merely as trying to churn out pseudo avalanche forecasters. I am not saying its not useful, but only that an understanding of the basics of snow structure is necessary and this can be done in a two hour lesson on an avalanche awareness day if your lucky enough to have an interesting snow pit. Beyond knowing that snow melts and refreezes, crystals re grow or get rounder, and that there are weaker and stronger denser layers within a a snow pack, and that gravity and therefore angle is critical in relation to additional load - then I am not sure any more is relevant. You can do this in a good pit or on the back of an envelope if your clients are sharp. I have had clients ask me for an "advanced" avalanche course seem disappointed when I tell them there is no such thing and like first aid its the basics done well that matters, but that I can add in a little bit of basic geography and physics in an extra couple of hours, not days.

I sell avalanche equipment and this season snow study equipment is going well. I have this picture in my mind of all these folk running about like Antwerp diamond dealer looking for the minutiae of crystals instead of lifting their head and seeing the HD big screen picture. I guess though it gives the folk teaching it more money as they can stretch out the length of an avalanche course - and they produce more snow experts. Trouble is though I have seen experts get avalanched this winter, even after a pit has been dug. In summary I suppose what I am saying is that there is nothing that needs to be labelled advanced or that needs many days to learn. It's all really basic geography, physics and mark one eyeball stuff.
Snow science. Nice to know - but you don't need it in depth (no pun intended)

"There's beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that's harder than others"

Friday, 21 February 2014

Avalanche Danger

Access path to BEM. Photo Courtesy of SAIS Glencoe
Current high avalanche risk and the big avalanche today on BEM made me think a reminder of of the Danger Scale might be worth posting.
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.

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.

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 favorable 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.

Conditions have become much less favorable. 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 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 scree 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 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 traveler 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.

Glencoe 19th March 2013
These circles in the avalanche forecast. My take is to think of them as landmines blown by the wind, lurking in eddies from cross loading when the wind blows across as well as down or over a slope, the color 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 "considerable" risk.  A lethal combo of detonator in red -  and explosive on orange making for events that will take lives if you don't tread warily.

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.

Friday, 31 January 2014

"Let's Face The Music And Dance" ..............

Better to avoid having to get the search tools out in anger!
A lucky escape in a slide yesterday and from a localised hot spot as well forecasted on NE aspects by the local SAIS observer. The snow pit profile shows faceting under the icy crust. Things are setting up for longer lasting instability both from deep faceting under the crust and also the continuing snowfalls driven by strong winds on top of crust. While yesterdays slide had no consequences as it was a clean run out and the victim stayed on the surface, the victim was on their own. At the time of the slide he triggered there was poor flat light. When it cleared it was easy to see the pillows of localised danger as the snow was denser and reflected light less. Further around the mountain at a mid point on the NE facing piste overlooking Creis there was a West facing pillow of excellent snow running from the piste slightly due west overlooking the Cam Glen. Folk were nibbling at the edges getting half a dozen turns in each cut moving further down and round West not realising that the aspect had changed and the angle crept up. Very risky behaviour as its loaded and tips in at 32 deg and has a fucking great hole at the bottom if it unzips. The obvious risk was where the avalanche occurred and although it could have been worse was at least a clean line.There is nothing clean about the Cam Glen gulch. It's a high consequence line even in a small slide. Remember my post from a while back on 4 "A"'s and 3 "C"'s   >>>> CONSEQUENCES!

There may be trouble ahead 
But while there's music and moonlight and love and romance 
Before the fiddlers have fled 
Before they ask us to pay the bill and while we still have the chance 
Soon we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune and then 
There may be teardrops to shed 
Make sure there are no teardrops by reading the SAIS forecast and thinking about what's going on. 
I will have the first Tracker 3 in Europe by next week

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Avalanches, Education and a Good Month

January has sure "come in like a Lamb - gone out like a Lion" as the old saying goes. Currently the mountains above 600m are loaded with snow. The rapid rise and falls in temperature above the summits has at times stablised the snow pack with water penetration, but like to today its often followed by hail/graupel and then drops in temperature. Snow being cold water, is dense and sticky when wet, dry and fluffy (powder) when dry. Wet on top of dry, thing's can go awry - dry on top of wet the ski's are a good bet. Wind, wetness and the wet grain size in a rounding phase can be just as dangerous as the faceting in a growth phase. It's all part of the Jenga of a snow pit with layers of different density and weight and why we are in a high risk phase and need to take care.I am not a snow scientist but we are very lucky in Scotland that we have the SAIS to give us area forecasts with a really good narrative which folk often fail to read. Read the forecast and think about what its telling you and have a plan A and B. 
Getting stuck in with the shovel at Glencoe Mountain
January has been a good month on the avalanche education front.  Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and the staff on the hill at Glencoe have been tremendously supportive. I have run five courses so far for Freeskiers, Ski Tourers, Split boarders/boarders and some mountaineers. Last course is 31st Jan but more will follow if there is demand. These courses have been supported by Anatom who import BCA and follows the BCA 101 teaching format. Each student from now on will get a copy of the BCA DVD "Take Charge - Leading a Companion Rescue. I have also had help from Ortovox with safety academy booklets for students providing an easy reference text for folk to take away. The beacon park at Glencoe is a great training aid and the protable Ortovox STS training system I have gives flexibilty with an 8 transmitter portable wireless system. The course is very much about planning and avoiding trouble using four A's & 3C's as a thinking tool. Good habits, group psychology and thinking yourself out of trouble not into it are the basic concept. The fundamental principle is that we should all carry a beacon, shovel and probe (and maybe if you have the money an airbag) but your decisions should not be influenced by them, as if you need them your have made a bad decission somewhere. Being human shit happens. Students on the course have had a variety of beacons and its always interesting to compare performances. All the digital beacons are good and effective and the best one is the one you know and practice with. One of the things that hits home the hardest on the rescue side of the course is how hard the digging is and how much time it takes. Survival of your friends comes down to how organised and practiced you are at digging, and the quality of shovel you have. So far we have produced some excellent diggers on our courses!
Avalanche Divas show how it's done

Friday, 3 January 2014

Go Pro - Tracker Beacons & SP Mode

I posted this link of Go Pro footage of a slide on Crystal Mountain on my business Facebook page CrankitupGear Glencoe. It appears a shambles and it's very easy to criticise what went on, but if you have ever been in this situation, especially with skiers, when very quickly a large group can back up and either help or just be on scene rubber necking, you will know it's not an easy thing to manage a search, and neither is it easy doing a signal/coarse/fine search in deep powder.  I once found a victim well below the end of the tip of the slide they had been taken on having stayed on the surface but who had then submarined off the end under the deep powder for several metres. It's not easy searching in deep soft snow. However, there are a few points that I guess are worth going over, none of which are criticisms just observations and a look at the merits and uses of  Tracker beacons. 
T1 was the first digital beacon and is still very fast and easy to use but requires knowledge of signal spike at close proximity and how to get through it which is actually very simple and does not detract from performance when users have practised.
The guy with the Tracker 1 was filming with what was apparently a Go Pro camera. Without that we wouldn't even be dissecting the event. Cameras affect a beacon signal, especially chest mounted Go Pro's, so GO PRO when on beacon receive mode is a NO GO.  He had a "last seen point" and went for it with his T1 beacon. T1 is an older two antenna beacon but despite this it still beats the pants of many new three antenna beacons for speed.  You just have to be aware of the signal spike in the fine search phase and when you know what it (signal spike) looks like its an easy thing to work through and won't slow you down.  In the video there were a lot of folk perhaps still on "send" but the guy was getting a signal and was nearly on the money. The thing with a beacon like this is that it's easy to be going 180 deg in the wrong direction, so if the distance reading goes up but the direction is locked in, then you're walking away from the victim. Hard to walk away in chest deep powder in tree's! That's why a good coarse search, not too fast, will stop you over running the airfield before you land the plane and get onto the runway on the surface for the pinpoint search and probe hit. Trackers 1 and 2 have "SP" mode which might have been useful to narrow the search direction down as if it was multi victim burial (which it nearly was). Most folk I come across do not know how to use SP mode effectively.  

SP mode is a very handy feature. Many beacons "auto revert to send" as a default setting after four minutes of standing still, which is a useful safety feature but causes mayhem in a real search and why those not searching should be in an area off site and safety and either have beacons off, or all on receive. Trackers are auto revert default set as OFF unless the user switches it on by turning on the beacon with SP/Options pressed until AR appears on screen at start up. 

When searching for multiple victims the SP button will narrow the search strip from the 5 LED display at a roughly 180 deg arc to the middle 3 LED's and roughly 75 deg and it will show all signals in that narrow arc. This makes it more directional although your still on a flux line not a straight line. The beacon not the searcher is rotated until a signal is picked up and only then does the searcher turn in that direction then immediately  walks in the direction of the signal locking the beacon onto it then press SP  returning the beacon to it's normal search mode. Remember that this arc is also 75 deg behind you and its not until you get a decreasing distance reading that you know you are locked in and going the right way. Combined with the DAV "3 Circle Search" method, this is a powerful tool in multiple burials negating the need for a "mark" feature. I would recommend that even those with beacons that have a "mark/flag" feature also learn this search method as a fall back as marking in close proximity multiple burials can be problematic.
3 Circle Method
In mixed groups I find all makes of beacon carried and its pot luck that the guy with the "Pulse" beacon  is the one left on the surface able to run around marking. In training I cover all the search options from grid to 3 circle and the hazards in close proximity burials of signal overlap and marking. It's always worth reiterating fundamental questions such as how many in a group and how many on the surface so its just basic maths to know how many your looking for and how many signals to find.
Three antenna T2 is super fast, no signal spike and has a multi victim indicator.  The fastest beacon in all tests and super directional.  Advanced  or professional users must practise using the SP mode and be familiar with the DAV 3 circle search method.  Basic users get digging and switch the first found victims beacon off and then go to the next one unless you have lots of helpers and can continue searching for other victims.
In fact a multiple burial is only lots of single burials and if the shit hits the fan in a small group then its shovelling that's crucial and I would advocate digging out the first person located asap and switching off their beacon then starting another search. If you have lots of manpower then fair enough get through the debris and locate the other victims. As you will see in the video probing is really important to locate a victim and if there are lots of folk with probes doing nothing then get them poking around. Although the ski patroller in this clip wanted the site cleared as he wanted a dog in, then paradoxically the dog sometimes works better at a probed site as scent is released. The downside is that the victims air pocket had been trampled over. A bit of a no win situation.
Duncan Gunn practising with his Tracker 1 at the Glencoe Mountain Beacon Park
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