Winter at full speed

When at the beginning of December I made the wish about a very cold winter season full of precipitations, I would have never thought Mother Nature would have listened to me and responded so quickly. Once somebody said to me: “be careful what you wish for, it might happen”. It did happen.

By the end of December four low pressure systems, two of which very powerful, had already hit the Alps, leaving behind more than a couple of meters of snow. Although big storms and strong winds are not unusual at the beginning of the winter season, it’s been a while since the Alps have experienced such a heavy snowfalls in December.

And as if the Winter Mountains had not been already white enough, two big and cold Atlantic storms hit the Western Alps, the first one at the end of the first week in January and the other one about a week ago. They both raged for just over 24 hours and by the time they slowly decided to move on, in both cases, almost an additional meter of new snow had fallen. I am going to spare you with many technical details about the storms. I know how the mind of a normal person works: a storm is just a storm, what else do you need to know about it?

I have news for you. The mind of ski mountaineers and avid ski tourers like me works in a slightly different way. Wind strength and direction, changes in temperatures, snow fallen in a certain period of time is all vital information for us. No, although you do need to have a general understanding about weather patterns, we are not necessarily weather geeks. The reason why we take an interest in the topic is because we know that every single element of a storm is going to have an impact and it’s going to influence the mountain snowpack and consequently the avalanche danger. Skiing and riding powder is what drives us. It’s what we consider the ultimate reward. We also know that the risks involved are high. So if we want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it, we must find the way to do it safely.

The good news is there are experts out there helping us doing the homework. As increasingly more often happens, technology is on our side. France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, it doesn’t matter what country in you are in. Information about weather, new snow fallen and avalanche danger is just a click away. In winter I spend most
of my time in France and Switzerland so I am very familiar with the French and Swiss websites. If English is the only language you speak you will struggle to read the avalanche bulletin produced by Meteo France as it’s only in French. You will be fine if you ski in Switzerland though. The Swiss lead by example taking down all language barriers and publishing their bulletins in four languages: Italian, German, French and English. How civilized.

Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research

Meteo France avalanche bullettin

Even if groomed slopes is all you know, you strangely never had the desire desire to venture outside resort boundaries and are an illiterate as far as avalanche danger in concerned, I am sure you’ll find fairly intuitive that new snow and avalanche risk are closely related. Very closely in fact. Although this is only one of the many factors
that contribute to increase avalanche danger, the amount of new snow is probably the most obvious one. Again, I am not going to bore you going through all the others as I would like you to keep reading the article and have a look at the photos.

I have one more thing to mention about avalanche risk and then I promise I’ll move on. The hazard is measured using a scale from 1, very low to 5, extremely high. Those of you who are interested, probably not many, can read few more details in the picture below.

Avalanche risk 5 means if you really want to go out, ski the resort if open, or just stay home. At least here in the Alps, it’s a type of risk you don’t often come across during a winter season. This winter I have already seen it three times and it’s only the end of January. This just shows how exceptional the storms have been so far, not only in terms of the amount of snow fallen but also in terms of the speed and intensity of the snowfalls.

Last weekend I was supposed to run a friendly introduction course to splitboarding and general avalanche awareness and assessment. Out of the few people who said they were going to come, only my good German friend Mike showed up on Friday afternoon. It made my life easier, especially because in my pick-up I only have room for one person. The following is a summary of one of our days out.

We could have not picked a better weekend to run an introductory session on splitboarding and do some avalanche safety training. The forecast is for 40cm of new snow overnight between Friday and Saturday, few clouds on Saturday and partly sunny on Sunday. So if everything goes to plan we are in for a very nice ride over the next couple of
days.

There is nothing better than waking up at dawn and feel – not even seeing it yet as it’s still dark – that the forecast, once again, was spot on. It’s a winter wonderland out there.

It’s so special. It’s irrelevant how many times I have seen a similar landscape before in my life, it always generates a mix of different feelings in me; happiness, enthusiasm, excitement, astonishment. More than anything I am grateful for having the opportunity to be here and for having the perception of being in the right place at the right time.
I am lost in thought, pondering about the white, soft blanket of snow that has gradually transformed everything overnight, replacing the world we know with a different, unique dimension where everything is pure, clean and soft. Nothing beats it. It’s my favorite dimension.
It’s time to stop dreaming and start shoveling. Mark has not been very well recently so I am going to help him removing some of the snow from his driveway. I don’t mind doing it; besides, it’s a very efficient way of warming up on a cold winter morning!

Since I am out here, I might as well clean the windscreen of my pick-up. It might be helpful seeing where we are going.

Mike and I diligently packed all our gear last night so we are ready to set off right after breakfast. There is only one obstacle left between us and the day ahead: this massive snow plough. Even from inside a truck like mine, it’s scary.

Now the important question is: where shall we go? Or better, where can we go? The Meteo France avalanche bulletin published last night reported risk 4.  The most important factor to keep in mind today is temperature. We know it’s going to go up and that is bad news. On a day like today the mind of a ski mountaineer starts working in the early hours of the morning and doesn’t stop till he/she takes the skis/board off after the last run of the day. Today we will not be spoiled for choice. I know from experience that the great majority
of the slopes will be unsafe. However, my knowledge of the area is pretty good so I know where we can try to score a good line safely. As always, the risk dictates what we can and can’t do so when we choose to go out in these conditions we must be able to read the signs the mountains give us and be prepared to rearrange accordingly our objective for the day.

On a day like today everything looks and feels more interesting than any other day, including the drive to the beginning of the track.

These conditions are perfect to introduce Mike to topics like route finding, avalanche safety and do some practice with transceivers. The best way is to start from the very beginning, learning the language Winter Mountains speak. A good way to master this essential skill is to memorize the five most important signs to look for and call them red flags. They are:

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

So the first piece of advice I give Mike is to pay attention to what happens around us, keeping eyes and ears open. The mountains will try to communicate with us, sharing what they know. He just needs to learn what to look for and where to look. On a day like today,
it’s fairly easy to recognize the first four of them in the short 10 minute drive from home to the beginning of the track.

With four red flags already waving in my mind, I know that the only sensible option today is to keep the angle of our tour low, the lower the better. When dealing with such a high avy risk, it’s imperative to find a slope that is steep enough to ski down, yet not steep
enough to slide, which usually limits your options to about a 10° window. Since avalanches’ favorite angle is 37°, some people believe that with avalanche risk 3 or 4 is OK to ski slopes around 30°. That’s an illusion of the highest order. You must not let your guard down or you are going to get you bum kicked. Today safety comes before good snow and fun terrain. We are not going to hike or ride anything steeper than 25° and will stay away from higher ridges.

Mike bought a new transceiver so the first thing we do is put batteries in and switch it on.

Although I have been using the Tracker DTS  for many years and I would not change it for anything else, I like the one Mike bought. It’s a Mammut Element Barryvox. Handy for group use as the screen can show multiple victims, including their distance and direction helping the user to prioritize during search process. Conscious of the temperature increase I decide to set off now and do some practice with it later on in the day.

A very excited Mike moves his first steps on a splitboard. He can barely contain himself. I have known him for almost 3 years but I have never seen such a big smile on his face. Big
smiles are one of the most common side effects of splitboarding.

I have never been riding with Mike before but I know he has been snowboarding for many years. He is a strong rider and with his level of fitness I am sure this gentle hike will be a piece of cake. I let Mike go ahead so I can take a good shot of him skinning along in
this magic winter wonderland.

Touring in the Winter Mountains is an extremely rewarding experience, on many different levels. However, in order to make the most of the experience, a good level of fitness and a genuine desire to put in the hard work needed to access the goods are essential. This is what ski touring is all about – invigorating, motivating, cleansing, energizing, always fun, sometimes spiritual and most definitely a fantastic way to experience a deeper connection with the mountain environment.

We are almost at the end of the trees. Mike’s familiarity with the new equipment is increasing by the minute. He has been keeping a very good rhythm since the beginning of the tour and now he keeps saying: “This is amazing”

On the way up we have been hearing a couple of avalanches coming down in the distance. As we exit the trees we are lucky enough to spot a very clear sign of recent avalanche activity. All our red flags are now officially waving.

This is a wet slab avalanche. You can see very clearly how long and deep the crown fracture is. The slab was certainly big enough to bury a few people. It’s good for Mike to see what a real avalanche path looks like. Regardless how vivid the description can be, seeing
one in front of your eyes, possibly not too close to you, it’s the best way to remember it.

We are out of the trees.

A very happy Mike celebrates the end of the first leg of the tour. Well done Mike! And the view’s so nice

The weather is coming in again. In less than half an hour we’ll have close to zero visibility. So even though the original plan was to keep skinning along the valley and up the col, we’ll
have to review it. As often happens when out wandering in the mountains, sticking to the morning plan is not necessarily the best option. Keeping an eye on what happens around, adapting to the changes in the weather and in the snowpack is usually a wiser alternative.

We are going to use this chalet as a safe and comfortable zone to switch our boards from touring to riding mode.

We have reached the goods. Snow is great and super deep up here. Even if we didn’t get as far as we originally planned, I know that heading down now is the most sensible decision. We are going back, and it looks like we are going to love the ride down.

Back at the car park, after a little snack and some warm tea we do some practice with avalanche beacons. Mike doesn’t need long to learn how to use his new transceiver. He is now officially ready for next month’s trip to Norway!

In the meantime, the job is done for today. Time to go home.

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