Until a few days ago, it had been over a month since any fresh snowfall in the N French Alps. The driest winter in the Northern French Alps since 1963/64.
Since last Wednesday there have been a few largely insignificant sprinklings of fresh snow above 1700 m, not enough to affect the snowpack stability, but helped with the snow quality in some places. With such uncertain weather forecasts and wild variations on how much fresh snowfall to expect, we’ve held out on publishing the Snow Report.
Meteo France image of off-piste snow depths for the Haute Tarentaise area of Savoie on 25th Feb
Even just a couple of cms of fresh snow here and there will help to freshen up the quality of off-piste snow, although it won’t improve the snow depths, which are well below normal for the time of season. Low and mid altitude resorts are struggling, and the best skiing is well above 2000 m.
Skiing off-piste is currently more about the adventure away from the busy pistes than anything else. There’s a mixed bag of conditions from horrible wind/sun crusted snow to softer ‘frisette’ type rippled snow (actually ‘facets’) that is enjoyable to ski, chalky compressed powder, icy traverses (with a risk of sliding and serious injuries if you hit obstacles or slide off cliffs below) to almost ‘spring-like’ snow, and old powder in sheltered areas that has become heavy and sticky in the recent warmer temperatures.
Current Danger Ratings for the Northern French Alps
The avalanche danger rating across the French Alps is between a ‘low’ 1 out of 5 and up to a ‘moderate’ 2 out of 5.
However, even at danger level of 1 it can be dangerous… “Is it safe? That depends on you”. The only avalanche I’ve ever been ‘fully involved in’ was on a level 1 day. That was because I was overconfident and stopped thinking about safety.
At altitudes below 1800 m and on sunny slopes, the snowpack is generally stable, with the weak layer of unconsolidated ‘sugary’ snow that we’ve been referring to these last few weeks pretty much ‘neutralized’ up to quite a high altitude on sunny slopes – at least 3500m on steep sunny slopes. This is thanks to the many recent sunny days that have brought temperatures to well above freezing on these slopes during the day, followed by a return to below freezing temps at night which has ‘glued’ the snow together.
BUT, a serious persistent weak layer still remains on North’ish and colder shaded slopes. The small amounts of snow forecast (a few cm’s) are unlikely to really have any effect on snowpack stability, except possibly near the French/Italian border which may receive slightly greater amounts 10-25cms). The mountain weather forecast is also liable to change. I’ve seen 10-20 cm come down in these kinds of weather scenarios (as I’ve seen no fresh snowfall happen at all). If, by remote chance, we do receive a significant amount of snow, we’ll need to be extremely cautious skiing these type of slopes.
Even 10-20 cm of fresh snow could create a potentially hazardous situation on the above mentioned slopes, especially in a ‘powder frenzy’ with everyone rushing out to get to the powder. See this very short demo video https://youtu.be/kT0tX5EoLas of a Propagation Saw Test done by Alain Duclos of data-avalanche.org
Weather forecast 26th Feb to 4th March
A mixed week of weather in the N French Alps. Mainly cloudy, with light snowfall on Sunday(just a couple of cm for most areas, but maybe a little more near the French/Italian border). Sunny again from Friday.
SUNDAY, 26th FEBRUARY
Scattered snow showers down to 1000 m. Around 3 cm of snow expected in most areas, but possibly up to 20 cm near the French/Italian border (e.g. Val d’Isere, Val Cénis). Strong N wind, turning E/SE with localised gusts of Foehn and Lombard on exposed ridges along the French/Italian border. Temperatures lower than they have been lately, down to -11°C at 2000 m by the end of the day.
MONDAY, 27th FEBRUARY
Some residual snowflakes falling in areas near the French/Italian border bring around 3 cm or so of fresh snow in the morning. Other areas will have a mixed day of sunshine and clouds. S to E wind at high altitude, particularly particularly along the exposed ridges along the French/Italian border. 0°C between 600 and 1000 m.
TUESDAY, 28th FEBRUARY
A cloudy days in the mountains with a gusty S/E wind, particularly near the ridge bordering with Italy.
WEDNESDAY, 1st & THURSDAY, 2nd MARCH
Remaining cloudy near the border, but brighter elsewhere. Light E wind. A little warmer.
FRIDAY, 3rd & SATURDAY, 4th MARCH
Sunny in the mountains with light N wind.
Tip of the Week
To maximise accident prevention and keep things at an acceptable level of risk – like everyday risks we accept and take, such as car driving – here are some thoughts on keeping it as simple as possible:
Snowpack stability (or instability) information is important. However, don’t spend all your time on this. Prioritise your attention to prevention points related to terrain: Slope Angles, Terrain Traps, Safe(r) Zones and people in your group – like keeping Distances* (See note below)
Now is a great time to practice applying these these points because the uncertainty/danger of snowpack instability is low!
Find the key prevention points referred to just above 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.
* NB This emphasis and attention on terrain (and group management) for safety, and less on snow stability, is a trend that most of the international avalanche safety community has been embracing over the last decade or so. It’s very well summarised by Canadian avalanche expert, Bruce Kay, in his book entitled “AUTONOMY MASTERY AND PURPOSE in the Avalanche Patch”. avalanchepatch.com :
Given the general inability to observe beneath the snow surface, the state of variability beneath that surface (and preponderance of ambiguous or indirect clues available), uncertainty is the defining qualifier of every interpretation.
Combine that with our rather weak “ protection ” systems and it becomes crystal clear why we de-emphasize avalanche prediction and focus more on terrain management as the best strategy for survival, …reading snow stability is our most difficult question, while reading terrain is our easiest.
Often, we can substantially manage our risk by reading terrain only. The same cannot be said for snow.
“Safety is freedom”