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An avalanche awareness course in Chamonix


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 early December, things have been icing up. With so much powder on the way, I was glad I had my Portaski to help me carry my new skis which were even wider, fully blown off piste ones.

The goal, now I’d been here for three weeks, was to finally get my off piste skills up to scratch by doing a course so I’d have something to work on for the rest of the season. Whilst I had some vague ideas about slower, more progressive turns and legs closer together, leaning back a bit more- I still wasn’t quite sure!

My first port of call however was an avalanche awareness course run by the Avalanche Academy ( here in Chamonix. Director, Stuart Macdonald runs free talks on the subject every Monday evening in local bar, La Terrasse, but I also decided attend the practical course on the mountain and have a go at search and rescue with my new Mammot avalanche transceiver.

Strapping my new fat skis into my Portaski and pulling them up to the café at the Grands Montets, the rest of the group were very curious – and assumed I as some sort of powder pro! I was sorry I’d soon have to disappoint them! Mountain guide, Jonny Baird was taking the group and had a chat with us before heading out onto the mountain. We learnt a bit more about the local terrain and talked about the importance of decision making- which sounds obvious, but often can be ignored because of emotions- 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 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. We talked about the 5

signs to look out for when making your decision about where to ski: such as rises in temperature, new snow fall/rain, wind on mountain a cracking or whoomping sound underfoot, and the importance of checking the avalanche forecast.  But just because a day may be a a high risk day, doesn’t mean there aren’t places safe to ski. For example the risk may only be in North Facing areas- in which case, don’t ski at Grand Montets, but head to Brevant. If however, its 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: ‘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 angle at 30-35 degrees, but because of skier compaction it doesn’t slide. ‘If it was true backcountry,’ says Jonny ‘there would be a totally different decision making process when skiing it.’ ‘Most avalanche accidents have been in resorts near pylons and close to lifts, not whilst ski touring.  Of all the resorts in Chamonix,’ say Jonny, ‘the most dangerous is Le Tour, with its grassy underlay which gives the snow nothing to stick to, so it slides. There are also very few trees, terrain traps, (gulleys that can be filled in, cliffs over which one can be swept) and its very windy.

We discuss how to travel safely: by not piling over edges and by going one by one so not to but pressure on the slope. To never ski off piste alone, to always be fully equipped with a transceiver, probe and shovel and if you are caught in an avalanche try to get rid of your poles, swim with your arms and try to get rid of skis.  Carrying a rucksack is also a good idea as it will help keep you above the avalanche and work as back protection. If you get buried, try to clear a space around you – if you are found in 15 minutes you have a 90-92 per cent chance of survival, in 30 minutes this drops to 30 per cent.

We then headed out to the ‘Italian bowl’ area and witnessed first hand ‘people compaction.’ Going up on the Herse lift and turning left and keeping horizontal towards the rock-face, the Italian bowl often has some of the best snow on the mountain, with 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.

We then skied down to the ‘Dream Forest’ set in the triangle between the Plan Roujon and Retour Pendant chair lifts and dug a deep, deep hole into the snow to look at the different layers in the pack to check it’s stability. By pushing your fist, and when this no longer inprints – your fingers- you can test how hard the layers are.  Surprisingly it got softer then harder, then softer again as we progressed down the hole. But overall- a very stable snow pack with no real signs of weakness.

We finished the day with a vin chaud and as I strapped my fat boy skis back into my portaski and headed down the road to my car, I felt even more determined to get my off- piste skiing skills up to scratch. Time to sign up for that course next week…

portaski · 1864 days ago
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An avalanche awareness course in Chamonix