Plenty of instability in the off-piste snowpack at the moment, particularly above 2200 m. The current situation is best explained by the images taken by off-piste guide Andreas Bjorklund and others, which feature in this snow report.
Despite this instability, it is possible to manage the risk and have a lot of fun, particularly by skiing on the more shallow-angled slopes, avoiding skiing above terrain traps, and leaving space between each other, and stopping at safe(r) zones. See our accident reduction framework for more on this.
Saturday 17th, our first day of decent visibility after several days of white-out conditions, there were evident signs of a continuing fragile/unstable early season snowpack on slopes above 2200 m. This included Plenty of recent natural avalanche activity, particularly on steeper slopes, as you’d expect after fresh snowfall. And also many examples of slab avalanche activity being triggered by skiers.
There is a persistent weak layer in the snowpack, particularly on the colder slopes above 2200 m. Lower slopes, where it rained, have become more more stable thanks to this rain/warming followed by lower temperatures and refreezing (with a solidifying effect).
Snow depths in the N French Alps are now pretty normal for mid-December, though still a bit thin in places. There are still rocks around, but things have certainly improved from 2 weeks ago.
Best quality snow is on higher slopes above 2200 m. As long as temperatures stay low, the snow here is lovely and light. In exposed areas, like mountain ridges, the surface is often very wind-hardened by the wind. On the lower slopes below 2200 m, there is often a crust on the surface first thing in the morning, where the more humid snow has refrozen overnight.
Here’s the Meteo France image of off-piste snow depths for the Haute Tarentaise on 17th December 2022.
Lots of avalanche slabs observed 17/12/22, many triggered by skiers.
Temperatures have been yo-yoing around, with -16°C recorded at 2800 m one day and 10° C warmer there the next. Skiing conditions have thus been very changeable: alternating between lovely light powder snow on the cold days, and some really difficult heavy humid snow, often combined with poor visibility.
Even with a few top-ops of fresh snow, rocks are still an issue and the ski servicing shops are making a fortune!!
Most importantly, there is also that persistent weak layer in the snowpack, that we’ve mentioned in previous snow reports.
The beginning of the season was particularly dangerous in the S French Alps, with 6 off-piste skiers killed in avalanche accidents between 5th and 12th December. In the last 10 years, their average amount of avalanche deaths between 1st October & 15th December has been less than one. ANENA, the French Association for Snow and Avalanche Studies, encouraged skiers to “go into winter mode with the right reflexes. Little snow does not mean no danger”. See this account (in French) of what happened there.
Leaving distances between skiers to reduce the risk. Wayne Watson photo
Avalanche Bulletin 17th December 2022
Current danger rating in Haute Tarentaise
The bulletin reports a considerable danger rating of 3 above 2200m, particularly on the more N’ish facing slopes and a moderate risk of 2 below 2200 m
The reason for this is that the warmer lower slopes, which sometimes received rain rather than snow, have become more more stable thanks to the rain/warming/melting, followed by sub-zero overnight temperatures and refreezing (with a solidifying effect).
Weather forecast 18th to 16th December (and indication beyond)
SUNDAY, 18th DECEMBER
Sunny with thin high cloud. Cloud thickening by the end of the day. Light S/SW winds.
0°C around 2300m, gradually rising to 3000m on Sunday night.
MONDAY, 19th DECEMBER
Again, sunny with thin high cloud. S’ish winds 40-50 km/hr in exposed areas over 2000 m. Temperatures becoming warm for the time of season: 0° C around 3500 m.
TUESDAY, 20th DECEMBER
Thin cloud again by day, thickening up overnight. 0° C at 3000 m by day, down to 2000 m overnight. SW winds 60-80 km/hr above 3000 m.
WEDNESDAY, 21st DECEMBER
Cloudy, with possible light snowfall above 2000 m.
THURSDAY, 22nd DECEMBER
After a morning of sunny spells, clouds will return in force, giving rain in the valleys and snow in the mountains. Light W to NW wind (20 to 40 km/h).
FRIDAY, 23rd DECEMBER:
A new weather front coming through, bringing mixed weather and some light snow in the mountains. Moderate W wind, and temperatures above average for the time of season.
SATURDAY, 24th DECEMBER
Cloudy with light precipitation. W/SW wind. Temperatures are still fairly mild for the time of season.
Tip of the Week
The fragile and potentially dangerous early season snowpack, combined with lack of skier compaction, continues to be a serious problem. This has resulted in a much higher than average rate of tragic accidents in the region so far this season. ANENA, the French Avalanche Association, advised in an article overview on this season’s accidents a few days ago:
“Go into winter mode with the right reflexes. Little snow does not mean no danger”.