Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Pre Season Avalanche Avoidance Advice

1. Learn How to Interpret the Avalanche Forecast




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.
Understanding the SAIS forecast and acting on it could save your life
Low
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.

Moderate
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.

29th March 2013 SAIS Graphic
Persistant Weak Layer March 2013

Click pics to enlarge

Large Slab Triggered off persistant weak layer 30th March 2013
Fatal Avlx x 1 Skier
Considerable
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.

Reports such as the above showing circles or areas of "considerable" risk within a moderate NW to E is the sort of thing that it's easy to become complacment about as its a common feature of the Scottish winter. You might very obviously if you have any sense stay well clear of the West to South East apsects but wander into a high risk situation on descent on the NW to East aspects.  The majority of avalanche incidents in Europe occur in these moderate to considerable forecast days as they occur most frequently in the season and folk become complacent (the familiarity heuristic) and that's why route choice approaching a climb and thinking about descent options prior to leaving and during a trip as wind and weather change should become part of your thinking.

High
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
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.

2.  Avoid Groupthink
In psychology "Groupthink" or "Risky Shift" behaviour is well known in groups and most of us will be aware that we have given in to it or even encouraged it. I strongly believe that in avalanche incidents in Scotland this groupthink or risky shift has become the biggest education issue and maybe why we see large group incidents or group events as occured in the Cairngorms when two seperate groups were avalanched last winter. Much has been made of the quick response from folk training in the corrie who helped.  And good on them. What I am about to say is not a reflection on these helper folks choices, as I am sure they stayed in safe terrain.  The  "however" bit though is that just by being there and numbers increase with lots of MRT's training, and groups under instruction, then a larger "Groupthink" takes place. Groups less experienced or not under instruction maybe feel safe, what McCammon labels  as Social Facilitation.  I would call this a  "risky shift". It's often this way in the climbing and skiing honey pots such as the Northern Corries where folk gather. Aonach Mor or ScRL in Glencoe are other places. Even if the waggon wheel of death shows Red on these slope aspects, they are still the places to be seen by the instructor masses who are now at the height of their annual gatherings with paying students. These are the places instructors are familiar with, and therefore where less experienced folk feel safer with an apparent safety in numbers. They maybe went there when they were on a course. Group thinking on a large scale perhaps.

Better minds than mine have already written about risky shift and here's an excellent article on it The Risky Shift Phenomenon and Avalanches. This kind of stuff has been getting applied to avalanche instructor training for a while by AAA.  Do current winter mountain training schemes  include enough if anything on this sort of thing?  I put this as a question, as I am certainly not in a postion to know, and maybe it is already covered. What I do know is that there is nothing that can change the pretty piss poor odds if buried and that pretty universally all of us involved in avalanche education are trying to jump forward and get to "no rescue".

No matter what we do, mountains and people are unpredictable. As a a keen off the piste skier I have to accept that luck is also in there as well, as on good snow days I am first in the que and having gone through the forecasts, stability tests you are only left with how the snow feels under you ski's and gut instincts. Sometimes it's a very subtle thing where in the morning it feels wrong, and by afternoon the snow "feels" safe.  I don't know how the feck that would stand up in court! I also know its taken 40 years and I still can't always be sure it all won't go tits up one day. I also know that it pays to voice your opinion when in a group, and make your own choice, not getting swept along by the group and it's most vocal leader. Beware Risky Shift!



"Destiny is a good thing to accept when it's going your way. When it isn't, don't call it destiny; call it injustice, treachery, or simple bad luck"   Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

3. 




For backcountry travel,side stash/off piste, or indeed anything out of ski area and uncontrolled, always carry the three essentials of transceiver, shovel and probe and do a pre depart group test and practice.



If you need an airbag you have fucked up but might survive. If you need your transceiver you have fucked up and probably won't!

video

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Glencoe Mountain Transceiver Training Park Success

Avalanche Avoidance and Companion Rescue
The most up to date training system in use at Glencoe Scotland

Eight independent beacons that transmit a signal at the international standard for avalanche transceivers of 457kHz are permanently buried in up to 4m of snow at Glencoe Mountain ski resort. They are looked after by Glencoe Mountain staff, Ski Patrol and Davy Gunn who runs avalanche education training on Glencoe Mountain

Hamish at the 2011 opening
In collaboration with Anatom who supplied a wired starter training system to get things going in 2011. Glencoe Mountain Resort provided a piece of snow sure land, help from the staff and some financial help to start the training park 4 years ago.  The original park was opened by Hamish MacInnes the famous mountaineer and rescuer. Winter 2015 money raised by Clachaig Inn at their annual winter series of mountain safety lectures at the hotel provided funding for the new wireless avalanche search training system in place this winter. The hotels owner is a member of Glencoe Mountain Rescue and a friend of both his and Davy Gunn’s (Chris Bell) was lost in an avalanche in Glencoe in 2013 where 4 people lost their lives in one avalanche. The original wired system is now in use at a training park at Glenshee ski centre and it’s hoped to raise funds to get a similar and more effective wireless system in place there. As at Glencoe, the one at Glenshee provides an accessible training venue for local mountain rescue teams, mountaineering groups and off piste and touring skiers.

Practising digging effectively, a crucial
and often overlooked part of avalanche rescue
The general public has free access to use the training systems which stays out all winter. All they have to do is check in with the Glencoe Mountain staff or  ski patrol to see if it’s already in use that day. Each of the eight buried beacons also has a RECCO reflector inside so that mountain rescue and ski patrol can practise using this alternative search system as well as transceivers. 

Organised rescue teams use RECCO which is harmonic radar that can also be used from a helicopter. RECCO is a standard search tool by mountain rescue in Europe. Three Scottish mountain rescue teams, and threes ski patrol's use it. No search and rescue helicopters have adopted it in the UK for avalanche rescue to date but the hand held can be used from a helicopter with an adaptor system from a 3rd party manufacturer. I have one here in Glencoe as I am also the UK trainer for Recco.

The training park beacons are buried deeply in the snow so that searching for them proves difficult, simulating searching a real avalanche for a victim.  As it’s wireless there are no wires to degrade or get cut by shovels as folk dig, and different avalanche burial scenarios can be created from single to multiple victim burials by alternating which buried beacons are transmitting from a control box. When a victim/beacon is found by a searcher, contact with the buried beacon by a snow probe sends a signal back to the control box confirming a success.
Ortovox 3+ a modern fast avalanche transceiver
Training is available from me in  avalanche awareness and transceiver searching

Every skier going off piste or touring in the mountains should carry three essential items. A transceiver to be located or locate a buried companion, a collapsible snow probe to confirm the victim’s location and a strong aluminium shovel to dig them out quickly.

Glencoe ski patrol practising in the park
Recovery of buried companions in an avalanche is time critical with a 90% survival if victims are located and dug out within less than 15 minutes. After this time survival is very poor, therefore practise in locating and digging is critical. One of the training beacons is inside a resuscitation mannequin so that digging it out is like excavating a real victim and some care is required. The park importantly provides an opportunity for ski patrol to talk to those practising and emphasise the importance of avoiding avalanche terrain by interpreting the area avalanche forecast and local weather effects and therefore make wise and safe choices avoiding avalanche terrain for the day.

The enthusiasm and support by Glencoe Mountain owner Andy Meldrum and his staff by providing snow sure land, tending to the park and investing in its upkeep is tremendous. A particular mention of thanks to Glencoe Ski Patroller Keith Hill who is always on hand to give sound advice to skiers and boarders and who maintains the park.
Killin Mountain Rescue and a group of Freeride skiers using the training park

Avalanche Training

Pre Season Deal on Ortovox Zoom+ and 3+ Transceiver - email, call or message me

Good to see on the Backcountry social media lots of posts from folk who are wanting to know about staying safe in the snowy mountains. What's good to me is that there are now many good folks out there providing structured training based on North American programmes to give folk that knowledge.

I started running some courses five years ago when there was no one else doing them in Scotland. At that time I had just left MR after another avy rescue with multiple victims that for me I didn't think went well and left me feeling let down by some folk who wouldn't confront the issues involved. I was getting back into skiing off piste and felt I needed to wise up as well. I was becoming complacent and had let my awareness slacken.  That's the trouble with MR, at times its easy to be deluded that you are an expert in something. In fact even the gnarliest of Scottish MR person is not infrequently just a first aider, labourer/undertaker with a shovel and the task at hand is a job of work. These stalwarts are the backbone and get the job done, but my point is, it doesn't make folk experts but perhaps more a witness, and I include myself.

Getting back into it at a time when folk were venturing off the pistes and seeing some of the near misses while ski patrolling it seemed like whatever I new could be shared. With the support of many folk we got the Glencoe Transceiver park up and running and some courses underway. Sadly over the coming two seasons some more folk I new also got taken out by the big white wave. One perhaps because of lack of awareness or bad luck, one by sheer hubris, and one by familiarity - perhaps. These courses were never meant to make money, just to wake things up. With the advent of these other providers my job is largely done.  I will run an odd course on request and continue to work with Recco Sweden as a trainer, Ortovox Safety Academy and Back Country Access as an educator as well as staying an AAA pro member to keep in touch, as this knowledge is vital for advising customers who want avalanche equipment.

Get the knowledge and get the training folks. Anyone that follows the AAA type of programme will see you right.  If you want an airbag, transceiver or any of the essentials then give me a call for a competitive price, and if your up Glencoe I will give you an hour of free training if you buy from me.

Long before the SAIS formation and when "The Avalanche Enigma" was the New Testament, some of us were lucky enough to be made avalanche aware each season by the proffessionals from Switzerland, or as above from Chekoslovakia. 40 years to make the wheel come back full circle.  We had the first "pieps" as well. There really isn't much thats new, but like then you still need to learn it. Willie Elliot,Wull Thompson, Alastair MacDonald and Milos Sverba in the picture while I am buried 3 feet down while and a SARDA dog of Cecil MacFarlanes is trying to eat me. Picture courtesy of legend Hamish MacInnes who saw us right and kept us safe by getting us trained by folk from out of our own wee Glen so we learned in breadth and depth.