Avalanche Safety – Hazard evaluation and forecasting

If at some stage you decided to start (there is a good chance you won’t finish it) reading a proper book, written by proper avalanche professionals about avalanche safety, these are the definitions you will encounter. Avalanche hazard evaluation is the art of predicting the likelihood of a potentially dangerous avalanche occurring in a specific area. Avalanche hazard forecasting is an attempt to predict how the danger will change with time. In other words, the objective is to investigate possible answers for a number of different questions including the following: is the snow stable? Could the slopes produce avalanches? Will conditions improve or will they get worse? What would be the consequences if an avalanche did start on a specific slope?

In order to answers these questions, it’s necessary to collect all the information we talked about in the previous posts, snowpack, terrain features, etc. and since we also want to ski and ride at some stage, we need to learn how to collect the information and draw our own conclusions about the forecast as we go along. So although in an attempt to simplify our life we could come up with some form of checklist to summarize the process, I don’t reckon that would be very efficient. No single piece of information on its own will provide you with a proper evaluation. It will be necessary to use a combination of all the qualitative and quantitative information in order to be able to look properly at the whole picture.

As of 2010 North America and Europe use only one scale to identify avalanche danger. I am sure you’ll find it very intuitive

If you read the previous couple of posts (and you are also reading this.. I am impressed!) you will probably agree with me that the number and variation of factors that influence snow stability is overwhelming. I believe this is a reflection of the complex nature of the mountain snowpack. Experience constantly shows the need to screen all the factors. Trying to use shortcuts, considering only a limited number of variables, for instance the most obvious to identify and assess, doesn’t really work. And, more importantly, it could lead you to a very dangerous place. Therefore, since the idea is to have fun sliding and take calculated risks (also called “good” risks), we have to remember to avoid shortcuts and do all the time we need to do the homework the situation requires.

This is the reason why in one of the previous posts I mentioned that forecasting avalanche hazard is an art rather than a specific technique and that the way to get it right – we have no choice but do get it right – is through a lot of practice and experience.

Don’t worry, you are not on your own. As always, internet is the first, obvious place where you’ll find accurate and reliable information. http://www.avalanches.org/ is your gateway to access avalanche bulletins in 14 European countries.

Since I started snowboarding and linked my first few turns exactly 20 years ago, I always had the desire to ride off-piste. I remember riding powder during my very first week. It was June 1991, I was in France on the glacier of Les Deux Alpes. Powder in June?! I knoow, these days sounds a bit weird, doesn’t it? But you have to remember that 20 years ago the European glaciers were in a much better shape than the one they are in today. Anyways, riding powder was and still is, the main source of joy in my life. Have you heard the expression “Live to ride another day?” well, it pretty much sums up my life philosophy.

For years though I had to control this passion, this super strong desire I had to hike and ride down every time I would see a nice peak covered in snow. My friends and I didn’t know how to do it, and even if we did, we didn’t have the equipment. To be honest I don’t think we even needed to hike in those days! My friends and I were among the very few people who were enjoying the off-piste terrain easily accessible using the normal mechanical lifts. We grew up riding trees without even thinking that was off-piste. There were lots of people on the groomed slopes and then there were my friends and me riding the trees. We basically grew up on our boards using the lifts and the ski slopes purely as connections between areas of the mountains which were not groomed. I am not surprised I ended up on a splitboard. Few years ago my snowboarding reached a stage where in order to progress needed a new tool so when I finally found it, I didn’t waste any time.

When you are on a splitboard, you are on a different program. My interest (some people would call it obsession) for weather forecast grew even more, I started to collect all these new cool pieces of equipment, transceiver, probe, shovel, crampons, ice axe.. the splitboard itself is an amazing piece of modern mountain engineering. It’s simply beautiful. Splitboatrding didn’t only change the size and weight of my daily rucksack and improved my fitness level – in order to ride down you have to go up first. It helped me seeing the mountains with very different goggles. It helped me redefying what I could do on a board giving me the freedom to hike and ride where I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. After the first day I knew I was going to use a splitboard for the rest of my life. There was only a minor detail – I knew that the amazing rewards were coming at a premium. The only way to learn how to evaluate risk and feel safer was to develop some strong technical skills. So I did it. Since then I have come a long way.

Over the years, travelling around the planet with my boards and seeing very different mountain environments, I developed a number of smart mountain habits which I will try to summarize here. Although I fear that the end result will be once again a random collection of thoughts rather than a proper list, I hope you will find it useful.

In the US for instance it’s quite popular approaching the avalanche hazard forecasting using the concept of the 5 red flags. They represent a combination of 5 weather and terrain observations which, in a very short time give you the first and most relevant pieces of information you can start from to evaluate the overall risk of the area. The 5 red flags are:

  1. New snow in the last 24-48 hours
  2. Rapid increase in temperature
  3. Strong winds blowing and drifting snow
  4. Recent avalanche activity
  5. Collapsing and cracking of the snowpack

Regardless I am hiking somewhere or I ride around the resort, I go through this very simple initial data collection process every day. I think it’s a brilliant exercise to keep the brain working and to build the mental image about the snowpack I referred to in the previous posts. Besides, it’s a very easy exercise. You can easily have access to the information described in the first 3 flags before even leaving your house! The last 2 will be the first field observations you’ll concentrate on once you start skinning up..if you decided to skin up. You might have already had 3 bright red flags up by then!

Few other tips, which I am sure you will find more a matter of common sense rather than proper avalanche safety training.

–  Keep your eyes and ears open, the mountains will always try to show you signs of their mood

–  If you are new to the area or you are only there for a short period of time, before even thinking about going anywhere speak to people (read Guides) who are lucky enough to live and work there full time. They will have an excellent knowledge of the area and a mental image of the snowpack. They will share with you what they have seen throughout the season.

–  If the conditions are not right, be able to just say no.

–  Don’t let the guard down even if you don’t see any visual sign of instability, no whoomping, no cracks, no natural slides. If you have only 1 red flag up it doesn’t mean it’s safe to go!

–  It’s all about choosing the safest route down. If you get sucked into by steep skiing sooner or later you might get into trouble. Yes steep skiing if ridiculously fun but sometimes it’s not about the riding/skiing, it’ just about getting down safe.

I have no idea whether I have achieved what I wanted with these last 3 posts. The idea was simply to try to inspire you, encorage you to read something more about the topic, perhaps one day when you’ll get tired of sitting on chairlifts and will feel the desire to explore what’s around the groomed slopes of your local ski resort. And if with my rambling posts I even managed to push you enough out of your comfort zone and you have decided to attend an avalanche/mountain safety course.. well, that would be very wise.

Happy and safe turns everyone!

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One Response to Avalanche Safety – Hazard evaluation and forecasting

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