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When did avalanche safety first click for you?

Updated: Feb 21


In asking this question, I don't mean it in a "we had a near miss and that's when we started taking it seriously" kind of way.

(Well it turns out I do mean it in that way, but that's for later) I more meant that you have done all the reading, watched all the videos, taken an avi course or two and carry the right equipment, but still are skiing round the mountain not sure how to read the signs the mountains are giving you. That is, until one day when you can read it like a book?


Well that epiphany happened for me last winter, skiing in Tignes and Val d'Isére with friends.


I will preface this post by saying that my avalanche journey has so far been a comparatively short one. Until a few years ago it wasn't something I took seriously at all, although this was a sign of the type of skiing that I did rather than the gross naïvety of how I was acting. As I began to properly ski off piste, I did everything I was supposed to do; carried a shovel and probe, working (and tested) avalanche transceiver, and generally skied sensibly paying attention to the avalanche forecast as I went.


In 2021 I completed the American Avalanche Association (AAA) Level 1 Avalanche Awareness course, sometimes shortened to "Rec 1" to distinguish it from more professional-orientated courses. I was super stoked to do this, and couldn't wait to integrate the incredible amount of information and knowledge I had learned into mine and my friends' skiing.


The Rec 1 course teaches you to understand the four basic factors that go into triggering an avalanche and therefore how to mitigate these factors: snow, weather, terrain and the human factor. You learn to recognise terrain and terrain traps, read forecasts to understand the snow that has fallen and will fall, read a snowpack for its stability and how best to work as a group to ski well, together.


So off I went, armed to the teeth with knowledge that was going to make me a better skier.


The trouble was, it didn't.


I found that I had suddenly become nervous in the mountains, afraid to tackle any slope steeper than my wonky desk and panicking thinking that every creak and crunch of the snow was a "whoomph", an audible signal of a collapsing snowpack. My skiing, or rather my attitude towards skiing, regressed to such an extent that I had almost defeated the point of the AAA Rec 1 but from a completely different angle; rather than enjoying the mountains whilst respecting the dangers, I was doing neither.


Before this season, I went out of my way to refresh my avalanche knowledge. Reading books, watching videos, and an invaluable subscription to the AAA's journal The Avalanche Review helped me understand that you need to take a step back, understand the bigger picture first, un-complicate matters, then dive in and start applying that to the situation that you find yourself in.


Some of the glorious bluebird conditions that showed off surface hoare to us

February 2023. La Sachet, Tignes. It is a glorious bluebird day, with not a cloud in the sky and the sun shining down on a solid, healthy snowpack. The mountains are covered in white, sparkling under the reflection of the sun's rays, and we had a nice, long, almost untouched run down into Tignes and (I was desperately hoping by this point) lunch.


Sparkling under the sunshine rays


Sparkling


I peered a little closer and then it hit me. The entire valley was just covered in surface hoare - flakes of snow that have failed to round off and bind to the surface below, reflecting back light like diamonds. I can break off a piece of slightly crusty snow and show off these huge diamonds of snow to my friends. They weren't looking out for it, and probably neither was I, but suddenly here was our first major in-the-field lesson on avalanche safety - if there's a big dump of snow overnight, we're f*****.


Authors note: surface hoare is not a guarantor of avalanches occurring; generally, the hoare disappears if temperature gradients in the snow even out, so even with a big dump of snow they can sinter and bind back into the snowpack and you avoid having a persistent weak layer - it's always worth waiting 24hrs after a big dump to allow snow to sinter and bind, and digging a snow pit will tell you whether a dump has covered over a persistent weak layer.



An interactive map from Fatmap showing the route we were skiing, Vallon de la Sache in Tignes.


Luckily for us, this was the Alps in early 2023, so that big dump didn't happen.


A day-or-so later, we were skiing at the other end of the resort in an area known as Grand Vallon. It had been windy overnight and, despite there not being any fresh snow, this has loaded several leeward slopes with what was effectively fresh powder (to quote Tim Vine: "alarm bells, alarm bells"). To access our favourite part of Vallon, we have to traverse around a couple of bowls. All our eyes and minds were open after our encounter with surface hoare the other day, and how it might play a role in the snowpack in the area.


One particular bowl felt particularly uncomfortable to cross, clearly around 30 degrees in angle and well loaded from the previous night's wind. There was also a considerable stretch of slope above and below the traverse line, creating a "terrain trap" - where the qualities of the terrain magnify the effects of an avalanche. Playing tail-end Charlie I caught up with my group at the col over to the next bowl and had a quick word with them


"Next time we come through here, we need to be really careful on that last bit"


After enjoying a stunning run to the bottom, we lapped it again, and did indeed take measures to mitigate the risks. We triple checked out avalanche transceivers on the checkpoint at the top of the lift, and proceed one-by-one with loads of space between us across the bowl in question. Everyone made it across. Skiing the rest of the way, we noticed the sun had come up, and a couple of dislodgements on small slopes as we went indicated the snowpack was becoming unstable, so we called Vallon a day and headed elsewhere after that run.


The next day, my friend came through the same area with a guide. The bowl in question had avalanched. Luckily it was only a small avalanche, especially lucky considering the potential behind it, and no one had been caught, buried, injured or otherwise.





Grand Vallon, off the back of Val d'Isére


It pays to be vigilant with mountain safety. Completing an avalanche safety course is not the end of your avalanche safety journey, as I discovered; it is merely the beginning, giving you a selection of tools to make appropriate decisions when skiing. We came away from this experience finally aware of what that meant. We were able to see and understand the signals that the mountain was giving us, and feed this back into our skiing, but this was only after we had all done mountain safety courses, skied extensively since, and done a fair amount of refreshing in the off- and pre-season.


The crown of the avalanche the day after we had passed through

An interesting article I read in The Avalanche Review last season I think was the key; simplify. It is very easy to get too deep into the nitty gritty of snow science, extremely so with the excellent instructors I had on my Rec 1 course. Remember that the signs will be obvious, but remember to look for the signs. That is how you stay safe but have fun in the mountains.


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