You wouldn’t necessarily put these two together, but last week James and I went snowshoeing on Mont Chery with The Snowshoe Company. Not only did we get to enjoy the beautiful day in the sun, the charming company of our guide Caroline and the experience of running through deep powder with high-tech tennis rackets on our feet, but we were also given training in avalanches: How to spot them, how to avoid them, and what to do if you or a friend ever got caught in one.
So in the spirit of ‘it’s better to know a little than nothing at all’, we’d like to pass on some of what we’ve learned in the hope that the next time you go off piste you’ll be a little more clued up about the risks.
Risk? What risk?
The snow pack – the whole layer of snow, from the surface through to the grass and rocks underneath – isn’t necessarily of the same ‘consistency’ all the way through. There may be an icy layer somewhere in the snow pack which makes it less stable, or the new snow that falls might not ‘gel’ with the snow beneath it creating an unstable layer. There’s a lot to learn about what conditions may affect the snow pack – changes in temperature being a key factor – but let us just take from this an understanding that the snow you’re on doesn’t just consist of the nice powder that ‘s just fallen. There’s a whole history of snow underneath, and depending on all sorts of things, that snow may be prone to avalanche.
North facing slopes are more likely to avalanche, as there has been less sun to melt the snow and thus consolidate the snow pack. However, north facing slopes are often the better places to do off piste, as the sun hasn’t melted the snow, so it remains more powdery. Talk about catch 22!
Wind direction also affects avalanche risk: If there is a northerly wind, for example, most of the snow will get deposited on the opposite side of the mountain, so the south side would be more prone to avalanche in this instance. High winds can also cause cornices to build up on the top of the mountain facing the wind (large unsupported ‘cones’ of snow), and these may drop off onto the slope below causing an avalanche – avoid skiing on or underneath one.
So on the day you decide to go off piste, ask yourself a few questions:
Has there been heavy snow recently? Has it rained? What’s the outside temperature? Has it been warm or cold recently? Have you heard avalanche control explosions? Has there been a lot of high wind recently? Can you see any cornices that have built up? Have you seen any avalanches or signs that some have occurred? What’s the assessed risk of avalanche (yellow flag indicates low risk, the checkered flag medium risk and the black flag high risk)?
Pick your line
So you’re at the top of a powder field, nothing but freshly fallen snow in front of you. Firstly, what’s you’re gut reaction? Do you really want to go ahead with this? If so, what’s the safest route?
If someone has traversed along the mountain horizontally, this ‘cuts’ the snow, and the section above is more likely to avalanche.
A convex (as opposed to concave) slope is more likely to avalanche – so choose the concave part of the mountain, or the ridge. The ridge is a safer place to ski, as the snow at the bottom of the snow pack has more purchase on the ground beneath it, and there isn’t as much downward pressure from snow further up the slope.
Be aware of terrain traps – narrow valleys, gorges and dips in the terrain which could inhibit your escape in case of avalanches.
A big ‘do’ is to take a transceiver with you, making sure it works and can be picked up by the others in your group. These work by emitting a signal that can be picked up by other transceivers when they are switched to the ‘search’ position. When searching, the transceiver will display in meters how far away the other transceiver is, and some may even point at which direction to search in. These can literally save lives, as if you’ve been taken out in an avalanche, you have about 15-20 minutes for someone to find you – a much easier task if you have a bit of kit to hand.
Transceiver (worn as close to your body as possible, as avalanches can easily tear clothing from you)
Probe (once you’re in as close as your transceiver can get you, start probing the snow for the body)
Shovel (once you’ve probed and felt something, start to dig, but continue to use the transceiver to find out whether you’re getting closer)
Mobile phone (call for help asap, but then switch off your phone as it interferes with the transceiver signal)
If you ever have to find someone caught in an avalanche, the most important thing to do is work as a team. One person digging, one on the transceiver, and if you have enough people, one looking and listening out for avalanches – once one has been set off the risk of a second is increased. If you see one coming, alert the others and try to avoid it by moving sideways along the mountain. If you’re caught in one yourself, use a swimming motion to try and stay at the surface of the snow, clench your teeth to avoid snow going into your mouth, and try to dig yourself out when you stop, or create an air pocket in front of your mouth if you can’t move.
As for our training day, we spent an enjoyable afternoon digging holes in the snow and hiding transceivers, then searching for them, locating them, (eventually – we’re beginners at this) probing and digging them out. We then ran down the mountain on our snowshoes – a hilarious activity that we can very much recommend to anyone who doesn’t mind falling head over heels in deep snow.
For more detailed information on avalanches and how transceivers work, the avalanche.org is a great place to look:
The Snowshoe Company
Fantastic guided walks in the wintry wonderlands of Les Gets, Samoens and Morzine.