It’s been yet another cold and sunny week in the N French Alps. A tenacious high pressure weather system has firmly installed itself, and another dry, sunny week lies ahead. Temperatures, however, will be getting a lot milder as the week goes on. This will be great news for mountain restaurants with sunny terraces, but not so great for the quality of the natural snow.
Skiing conditions will remain good on the groomed pistes, though.
Meteo France image of off-piste snow depths for the Haute Tarentaise area of Savoie on 11th Feb
By doing a bit of ski touring it’s still possible to find a few decent off-piste conditions, e.g. on a few shaded N’ish facing slopes above 2400 m and in gulleys where snow may have blown in off other slopes. Options are limited though, and it’s a real mixed bag of conditions, disappointing for ‘powder hounds’ but always worth the adventure, especially if you like the ‘pisted off-piste’. Sun and wind are hardening the snow and causing a crust, especially first thing in the morning, and icy conditions are now coming into play too.
Up to now cold temperatures have kept a grippy feel to the natural snow, which has vastly helped on things like long traverses. With rising temperatures this week, however, many traverses on ski tours are going to become a lot icier as the snow melts and then refreezes. Ski crampons (‘couteaux’) will be highly recommended.
Current Danger Ratings for the Northern French Alps
The avalanche danger rating across the French Alps is a ‘moderate’ 2 out of 5, just as it’s been for the last 2 weeks. We expect this situation to continue all week, even going down to a ‘low’ danger rating of 1 as the snowpack diminishes.
We’ve been mentioning a persistent weak layer in the snowpack. This will cause severe problems if any significant fresh snowfall falls on top of it. For now though, with nothing but wall to wall sunshine expected, it’s only really a potential problem on colder slopes above 2200 m, where a few areas of windslab have formed on top of that weak layer. There’s a chance that an unstable slab can be triggered on a steep slope by a group of skiers passing by (as the definition of a rating 2 suggests).
Avalanche Danger Ratings – A discussion
In last week’s Off-Piste Snow Report we talked about Avalanche Danger ratings, particularly Level 2, since that’s where it’s been for the last 2 to 3 weeks. Although Level 2 is described as ‘moderate’ in English and ‘limité’ in French, it’s a mistake to underplay the potential danger off-piste or ski touring even at that ‘moderate’ danger level. Sadly, the same day we published our Report, a fatal accident occurred among a group of ski tourers in an Avalanche Danger Level 2. See this report on the Data Avalanche website.
The Danger Rating Scale discussion: Over the last few few years, I’ve noticed that there’s a misconception held by many people that when the Danger Level goes down from a Level 4 to a 3, things are then ‘OK’. I’ve even heard very experienced people express this belief, which is just not the case! A ‘High’ Danger Level 4 to the top end of ‘Considerable’ Level 3 is still potentially an extremely critical situation. Several serious accidents have happened over the last 2 seasons on the first day the local rating went from 4 to 3.
Maybe the issue is that Level 3 covers such a broad range of danger. As Jamie Napier commented to us after last week’s Report ‘It is difficult for the recreational skier to assess with confidence whether it is ‘high risk 3′, medium risk 3 or lower risk 3’.
We’ve previously mentioned people’s tendency to think that ‘Considerable’ Risk 3 is an ‘OK’ type of risk because it’s perceived to be in the middle of a Scale of 5, so therefore ‘average’. Yet Level 3 is where the highest percentage of avalanche fatalities have occurred in France between 2008-18. Figures from ANENA, the French Avalanche Association show Low (1) : 0.40 %, Moderate (2) : 14.20 %, Considerable (3) : 54.50 %, High (4) : 16,30 %, Very high (5) : 0.4%, In times of no rating (out of season, etc): 14.2 %.
The European Avalanche Warning Services (official European avalanche safety body) has put forward the idea that there are different levels of danger for each danger rating level. See this graph below, taken from their site.
EAWS avalanche danger level scale consists of five levels. See the following link for more info https://www.avalanches.org/education/
For years it’s been suggested that Danger Level 5 rating should be allocated solely to a sort of ‘special emergency situation’ type scenario, in order to make the scale actually more like a four level scale. You can see how they’re trying to achieve this on the graph by ‘squeezing’ the 5.
A vocal group of experts on both sides of the Atlantic have been advocating this four level scale and I think this is how the official bodies are trying to accommodate them, at the same time not having to change the whole scale
To me, from what I see on the practical and theoretical side of things, this makes sense. But I think one has to accept from the beginning that the Avalanche Danger Level Scale is a very useful, but also an imperfect tool on its own. It is an important point, but only one of several key prevention points, that need to be applied in order for things to be acceptably safe (see my comments in the Tip of the Week below).
Weather forecast 13th to 20th Feb
A mild and sunny week ahead in the N French Alps
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 13th
A mild day for the time of season, with sunshine and light southerly wind. 0° C above 3000 m.
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 14th to FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 17th
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 18th
Maybe a little cloudier.
SUNDAY & MONDAY:
Back to being sunny and mild for the time of season.
Tip of the Week
I’ve been reflecting on the concept of what is ‘dangerous’ (above and beyond our base definition that it is anything more than our everyday activities, like driving a car for an hour or so a day). I think it all really depends on how we manage the danger.
Asking the question ‘Is it safe?’ is really the same as asking ‘Is it dangerous?’ The same answer can be given to both questions. The answer is that “It depends on you” and how you manage the situation at hand, based on the facts, evidence and mostly the terrain.
The Avalanche Danger Rating gives us a general guide from the forecasters, and is a very useful pointer in our decision making process. However, it’s not the only pointer. Whether or not it’s safe or dangerous ‘depends on us’ and how we apply not just the Avalanche Danger Ratings but ALL the prevention points in the context of conditions on the particular day we’re out skiing e.g. like avoiding steep slopes above ‘Terrain Traps’, skiing all bunched together…
You can find all the prevention points in our Accident Prevention Framework henrysavalanchetalk.com/off-piste-quick-reference, and our Accident Prevention Card that includes the points and will be available soon via the website.
“Safety is freedom”