Rulings around the current Covid situation are very frustrating for us all. We realise that many skiers, particularly Brits, are unable to get to the Alps because of the ever-changing travel restrictions. One might claim these are ‘First World problems’, but we know how important holidays, fresh air and the mountains are for many people.
We’re hearing all kinds of scenarios and rumours about travel. For example British people have managed to get around the ban on their access to France by going through Switzerland and neighbouring European countries, where there doesn’t seem to be much control (if any) at the borders unless perhaps you’re in a car on British plates. Of course you’re not supposed to do it, but it has been said that the Brits are too law-abiding. My own feeling is that it’s a shame that so many sensible people are being punished – indeed put into a situation where they are breaking the law if they attempt to come to the Alps. Ethically speaking, from the point of view of the expertise defined by European health care authorities, it’s far worse to be aggravating the spread of the virus by refusing and speaking out against vaccination.
In sum, on safety and the current precarious health and economic situation: I have been in the safety and accident prevention business for over three decades. Henry’s Avalanche Talk (HAT) helps people to prevent injury and death to themselves and others through risk reduction measures based on facts and evidence. I have also been hired to teach these methods in high-consequence risk contexts other than avalanches, including in health care.
SAFETY is about following advice and applying the risk reduction measures defined by experts in order to protect oneself and others. Theories not based on expertise are dangerous to individuals and all those around them. This applies to avalanches, healthcare and all other high-consequence risk contexts, including COVID. We don’t drink bleach to cure COVID and neither should you! We all know what the risk reduction measures are for COVID. All of us can/should apply them for the benefit of everyone. Here is our HAT Accident Reduction Framework for the key avalanche accident reduction points on the mountain. Apply ALL these points for a safe holiday season on and off the mountain.
…. On the snow side of things, a lot of you are in the Alps. So here is my account on current snow conditions in the N French Alps area, and on the potentially dangerous upcoming snowpack scenario during and after the snowstorms. It’s all summed up in my video at the end of the report too.
Any significant amount of fresh snowfall will result in a very unstable snowpack on North’ish facing and shaded slopes
After a week of sunshine and relatively warm daytime temperatures in the N French Alps and surrounding areas, any easily accessible off-piste snow has become well tracked out. Ski touring has become necessary to find any untracked slopes. Snow conditions are very mixed at the moment with hard-pack in many places, also wind-densified, sometimes crusted snow. Warmer lower slopes and S facing slopes are now very stable – in fact rock-solid – particularly first thing in the morning after softening/melting by day and refreezing at night which has effectively ‘glued’ the snowpack together.
On most N’ish facing slopes and shaded slopes can be found crumbly unconsolidated, faceted snow grains with a sugar like consistency, caused by a succession of clear nights over the last couple of weeks. This is sometimes referred to as ‘loud powder’. At the moment, this is great fun to ski on. But it will become extremely unstable and sensitive to triggering after any significant fresh snow lands on top of it e.g. 20-30 cm of new snow or more – see videos below.
Below are two short videos: one showing the relatively consolidated snowpack on South’ish facing slopes (just below) and the one beneath shows the loose faceted snow generally found on North’ish and shaded slopes.
What is the current avalanche danger level in the Northern French Alps/Savoie?
The current avalanche danger rating is very low – just 1 out of 5 on slopes below 2400 m and 2 up higher. However, if we receive any significant amount (20 to 30 cm or so) of fresh snowfall, that danger level will shoot up, particularly on shaded N’ish facing slopes where the snowpack has become faceted and unconsolidated rather than on the ‘sunnier’ S facing slopes where it is now relatively stable and ‘glued’ together after settling due to warming and some melting and refreezing of top layers even up to 3000 m.
Where is most at risk at the moment?
As always, any steep slopes above terrain traps. After the next snowstorm occurs, the cold N’ish facing shaded slopes will be most at risk. Virtually the entire snowpack in areas like this has now been transformed into faceted ‘sugar snow’ (‘gobelets’ in French). This instability will be most pronounced if we get a significant amount of fresh snowfall (over 20 cm landing on top of this crumbly sugary snow). See my short video just above for what this ‘sugar snow’ looks like.
Remember that even just small amounts of fresh snow can/will be dangerous if you’re above a terrain trap. At the beginning of the snowfalls, you could maybe trigger a little slab with just a 10 cm crown-line, and manage to ski out of it, which leads you to think you’re getting good at escaping avalanches…. However, imagine if this was to occur above a terrain trap like a cliff and took you with it… that could be an entirely different story. Plus when there’s more snow, you most likely will not be able to ski out of it however good a skier you may be.
Apply the pointers in our HAT Accident Reduction Framework to make the right decisions , have fun and be safe in avalanche terrain.
How does the forecast look for the coming week?
An unsettled week of weather, with cloudy days and some very light snowfall.
Fri 24th: Sunny with some high cloud in the morning. Clouds will build up as the afternoon goes on and we could see a few snowflakes starting to fall above 1200 m or so. W to SW wind gusting up to 60 km/hr in high mountain areas along the French/Italian border. 0° C at around 2400 m.
Sat 25th: Cloudy with just the occasional snowflake coming down above 1600 m or so. Clearing up in the afternoon. Temperatures remaining the same.
Sun 26th: Thick cloud and very light snowfall above 1600 m or so. 5 to 10 cm snow predicted at 2000 m. Light W wind. Getting colder.
Mon 27th: Moderate snowfall above 1400 m or so from the early hours. This will continue all day and into the following night. 0° C at around 1800 m.
Tues 28th: Remaining cloudy with occasional light snowfall above 1200 m. Winds turning N , gusting up to 60 km/hr in exposed places, and getting colder.
Wed 29th: Remaining unsettled with a cloudy morning and a clearer afternoon.
Thurs 30th: Sunshine returns to the mountains.
Tip of the week
Be very careful in and around all N’ish facing and shaded slopes if we receive significant snowfall. With a very unstable persistent weak layer under the fresh snow, these types of slope will be very sensitive to triggers i.e. people on skis.
Wishing you all a happy and safe holiday season!
There’s a long list of evidence that shows how applying simple frameworks, checklists and memory aids reduce risk in ‘high consequence, low feedback’ risk contexts prevalent in: aviation, military, finance, health care, avalanche terrain etc.
See our HAT quick reference ‘Safety is Freedom Framework’ for accident reduction in avalanche terrain. The Framework is aimed at all levels of off-piste and touring: for beginners: a point of departure; for experts: a guide for further learning; for pros: it’s a great framework for client training and quick memory aid.
The Framework is best if accompanied by training such as HAT events and on-snow courses, but it’s also a useful companion for all training as it focuses on the basic key points that all avalanche training courses address – it helps you to keep focused on the essential accident reduction points.