Tuesday, 13 January 2015

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
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 confirms 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   BCA Snow Safety & Mammut Snow Safety

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. Learn to know what you don't know! (The Dunning Kreuger Effect)

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 and any browse of excellent news sites like piste hors will tell you that even folk dug out very quickly with advanced life support don't often survive. (Triple "H" syndrome is Hypoxia, Hypercapnia 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). 15m as often shown in survival graphs is quite optimistic. You need to search faster and dig faster which means practise more!

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.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Avalanche Courses

Hi Folks. The weather is playing havoc with this years avy courses. The lack of snow and shallow hard pack makes digging and profiles a challenge and Saturdays seem dogged by strong winds. Being winded off isn't a problem if we have snow to the bottom of the hill, but so far its scarce.

Hopefully it will come good and we can re schedule. A lot of the new dates will be weekdays but the bonus is quieter lift ques and cheaper tickets.

Dates for courses:
  • Friday 6th Feb Places available
  • Friday 20th Feb Places available
Meet point is the ski school hut at the top of the highest car park. Cost is £40.  Best if you have your own kit as that is what you need to practice with, but I have demo veacons from ARVA, Ortovox and BCA as well as probes and shovels I can loan out for the day. Make sure you have a 3 antenna beacon if possible.  At a push a Tracker 1 dual antenna is ok as we can help you learn the quirks of null points. Any other dual antenna or analogue you can give to a museum.  Alu shovel and 240m or longer quick draw probes are a must, but as mentioned I can loan them for the day (or sell you a good one).

We will use Glencoe' excellent new beacon training park and do search and recovery scenarios on ski so its at times a fairly mobile course. However, the thrust of the training is avalanche avoidance and good decision making and the search and recovery is for when you fecked up somewhere in the pre planning or ignored or failed at a crtical decision point.

While there won't be a lot of free skiing, we will be skiing about during scenarios and there is the chance of a quick blast at lunch and at the end of the hill training before meeting to debrief at the Cafe Ossian. This is an avalanche avoidance course with beacon training following the teaching format of BCA's 101 system.

  • Weather
  • Avalanche release
  • Victim triggered avalanche: Snap, Crackle and Pop
  • SAIS Avalanche Forecast Interpretation and Orientation of a Map
  • Pre trip planning and pre depart Beacon checks
  • 4 "A"'s  of planning and slope assessment
  • Slope assessment the 3 "C"s before you drop in 
  • Beacon Searching 101: Three phases of a search, including signal spike, antenna orientation and smart antenna technology, Micro Search Strips/3 circle, Mark/Flagging Pitfalls and Problems
  • Probing 101: Including radial probing during pinpoint
  • Digging 101: Strategic shoveling and conveyor shoveling
  • Victim recovery:  Triple "H" and basic first aid for the victim

Monday, 5 January 2015

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

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Transcivers, Age and Reliabity

Glencoe Mountain Beacon Training Park
One of the upsides of avalanche education is the positive take you can give on back country skiing. You are giving folks practical and thinking tools to enjoy earning their turns and getting into it. It's really just a question of making decisions based on forecasting, being observant  and also being flexible and willing to change plans. 

For example, take time to evaluate the local avalanche forecast with your friends or partners and try an apply it to the area you want to ski. Use all your senses while in the mountains and look around for snow movement and where its blowing to, feel what the snow is like under your feet. Have open honest group discussions to reach a consensus on go/no go before dropping in and getting committed. Have a rescue plan and be sure you have practised rescue drills.

I have the luck to be able to train folk on a mountain with a good beacon park for practising rescue drills and its great to see folk pop in and practise. Some of the transmitters are very deep and its interesting to observe even quite experienced folks getting thrown out by deep burials. It's also interesting to observe the use of the multitude of different avalanche beacons and their various features.

In the current range of modern digital beacons there are no bad ones. Some however are faster than others due to a faster processor. Sometimes this is because the beacon has fewer features so its not tied up with digital compass's or processing signal suppression.  Often times its slower because the operator is going too fast for the processor to update. Regardless, all the current three antenna beacons are effective and speed differences are only apparent in a side to side comparison. 

I sell three makes of beacon.  ARVA, Ortovox and BCA.  When at Joint Services Mountain Training I had a fleet of fifty four Mammut "Pulse" to keep updated and working. So I have used quite a few different models.  I can say hand on heart that if your buying a new beacon always get a digital three antenna model. The little bit extra for three antennas is worth every second of the time and oxygen it will save your friends.  

I see a lot of second hand transceivers for sale on forums at the moment. Ask yourself why these folks are selling them. I am sure most are out of warranty. Some are two antenna (thankfully no dangerous analog are being sold). Some of these two antenna beacons were state of the art in their day. And some are still quite fast and being sold from new stock. They require the user to be knowledgeable about signal spikes and practised in what that is and how to overcome it.  As I said above why are folk selling these?  I think because they know in their heart its slower and glitchy and requires more practise.  The best thing they could do is keep the old one and use to bury and find with their newer faster three antenna model.  I wouldn't sell you a two antenna one and I personally wouldn't advise buying one second hand or new.
A lonely ski found at the site of an avalanche burial in summer
So my conclusion is that a three antenna beacon is a must.  Two antennas are better than nothing but be prepared to train lots more with one, as if you don't then you won't find deep burials easily and will be probing a lot more to pinpoint a victim.  In training I have found that folk using a two antenna beacon are from one to five minutes slower depending on the buried beacon orientation and depth.

To the folk that sell their old ones I say keep them and use them for practise. To the folk buying second hand I say don't be a cheapskate over someone else's life as its not you that will be asphyxiating . However, if your that skint then any beacon is better than no beacon. 

BCA have produced a checklist for the Tracker DTS the first digital beacon.  If you have one then its worth a run through.  Tracker 1 Checklist  My advice would be upgrade to the superfast Tracker 2 or the excellent (in my view) Ortovox 3+ if you feel you can use its mark feature. The Mammut Pulse and Element and Pieps DSP Pro are also excellent but the T2 and 3+ are my favourites.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A New Road Taken

Quite a month December for change. A life of uncertainty for employment and income but certainty that it was right to take the track i/we are on having arrived at this fork in the road. Going from the security of a salary to being self employed with my bike mechanic skills and using what I know of the mountains to earn a living and with Fiona taking a well earned recuperation. Training in avalanche rescue skills and recovery and retraining has been interesting and good personal development. It's always good to learn from outside your own clan or peer group and pick up new things.  The "net" also plays its part, as while practical skills must be practiced, Skype, Facetime etc mean that (like video conferencing) you find yourself as part of groups training 5,000 miles away.
Avy 101 Glencoe Mountain. Pic by James Robertson

My time with JSMTC was a pause in life where as Fiona was with BASP we had a reliable income and stability to bring up a young family and be at home. They are now fledged (mostly) and both Fiona and I are now looking forward to this new phase. We never look too far ahead. This weeks milestones were her annual review with her surgeon as the big one, and my last meet with my old colleagues at JSMTC which was a nice social. I will miss them but the road JSMTC wanted me to travel came at a time when I couldn't go down it.

I have to get the new avalanche training park installed up at Glencoe before the first course on the 27th Dec. I have my R9 Recco to demo to Scottish MRT's as I am now a Recco trainer. Both Glencoe Ski Patrol and Glencoe Mountain Rescue have a Recco now.  Keith Hill did a great job of getting a Recco for the ski mountain and we had a good day over at Braemar with Peter Vieder of the Bergrettung but sadly not enough time. I am due to train GMRT on the use of Recco as its part of the contract, so maybe in the next couple of weeks we will get that done also.

A big thanks to Anatom Ltd for supplying demo transceivers for this winters avy courses. The reliable BCA Trackers are always good. A big thanks also to Noble custom and Ortovox for supporting the courses with safety academy kit. And biggest thanks of all to Andy Meldrum of Glencoe Mountain who backs the avalanche education all the way and the ski patrol and hill staff who's patience and help make it all happen.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost