Katy’s Blog: Avalanche Awareness in the Chamonix Valley – Part 1

There’s been plenty of powder steadily floating down into the valley over the last few days… and it has been much needed as after the initial big dump in December, things have been icing up. With so much powder on the way, I was glad I’d already got my avalanche skills up to scratch with an avalanche foundation course run by the Avalanche Academy here in Chamonix.

The Italian Bowl

The Italian Bowl area of Grand Montets

Director, Stuart Macdonald, runs free talks on the subject every Monday evening in local bar, La Terrasse, but I also decided to attend the practical course on the mountain and have a go at search and rescue with my new Mammut avalanche transceiver.

I was met by mountain guide Jonny Baird at the café at Grand Montets for a chat before heading out onto the mountain and learnt a bit more about the local terrain. We first talked about the importance of decision making, which sounds obvious, but often can be ignored because of emotions. For example the desire to ski a specific route on a specific day, familiarity with a resort, the ‘expert halo’ where someone in the group has better knowledge or training so they tend to take the lead, then the issue of social interaction – if its trafficked it seems safe, but if it’s untracked – which is rare in Chamonix – people take bigger risks to get to it.

I discovered that there are a lot of things to consider when making a decision about where to ski, including: rises in temperature, new snow fall/rain, wind on mountain and of course the avalanche forecast.

In Chamonix there is what he called a “Dawn Chorus” – where blasts ricochet around the mountain as build-ups of snow are cleared. This should be an alarm bell that it’s not a day to get the fat skis on. Jonny suggested we talked to local guides, listened to local radio and tried to find out more specifically where the risks are as the French avalanche reports tend not to have very detailed information. We talked about the avalanche risk rating, but also to consider other factors. For example, the risk may only be in north-facing areas, in which case don’t ski at Grand Montets, but head to Brevent. If however, it’s level 4 on all aspects, then ski somewhere else, on a slope that’s less than 25 degrees and preferably in the trees. Head down to St Gervais, Megeve or Courmayeur in these conditions and you will have a great day.

Jonny told us that despite being a common complaint that Chamonix gets tracked out extremely quickly, it’s also a reason for it being a little safer, saying “skier compaction means the off-piste gets skied to death so the snow gets compacted down, actually making it safer”. The Italian Bowl area of Grand Montets is a good example of this, it’s the perfect avalanche slope angle at 30-35 degrees, but because of skier compaction it’s less likely to slide. “If it was true backcountry”, says Jonny “there would be a different decision making process when skiing it”.

Probing for a back pack

Probing for a back pack

Other aspects we talked about were route planning, reading the signs to identify potential hazards, risk reduction and safer travel techniques.

With this newly-acquired knowledge, it was time to head out on the mountain for some practical experience…

We headed out to the Italian Bowl area to witness first hand ‘skier compaction.’ Going up on the Herse lift and turning left towards the rock-face, the Italian bowl often has some of the best snow on the mountain, with plenty of big moguls. Here we carried out single burial and multiple burial practices, using our transceivers to locate a buried bag and then gently probing for it and digging it out. This proved quite difficult on the first try and I can’t imagine what I’d be like if I had to do this for real.

Testing layers in the snowpack

Testing layers in the snowpack

We then skied down to the ‘Dream Forest’ set in the triangle between the Plan Roujon and Retour Pendant chair lifts with its bouncy pillow lines and tranquil glades. I’d been here a few days earlier when it was snowing thick and fluffy, but it was quite a lot firmer this time. We dug a deep, deep hole into the snow to look at the different layers in the snowpack and check it’s stability. By pushing your fist, and when this no longer makes and imprint, your fingers, into the layers, you can test stability. Surprisingly it got softer then harder, then softer again as we progressed down the layers.

We finished the day with a vin chaud and me feeling more determined to get my off- piste skiing skills up to scratch.

Katy Dartford
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