Saturday, February 27, 2021

Why This Season’s Avalanche Statistics Have Been So Concerning

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Snowpack Consolidation

Following constant weighting of weak layers in a snowpack, these layers, over time, become bonded. Snow consolidation can come in many forms; natural forms such as melt-freeze cycles solidifying the layers, or unnatural forms, such as skier compression (the weight of hundreds of skiers constantly skiing over a layer, in turn, compresses the layer down into the one below), or even a gazex blasting the layers out.

Put simply, there had been very little skier compression throughout the start of the season. Resorts like Tignes and Chamonix, which usually see thousands of skiers passing over their popular off-piste itineraries in any given month, have now only seen just a few descents. This meant resorts essentially had a similar snowpack to far-flung backcountry descents – totally fresh, uncompacted and holding a bucket load of energy.

Descents usually considered “safe” now pose serious risk (Credit: Jordan Tiernan)

While resorts across the Alps have seen pisteur (ski patrol) teams controlling the most dangerous of slopes, because resort closures and staff layoffs there hasn’t been nearly as much control work going on in and around resorts. This essentially magnifies the remoteness of many of the descents around resorts that are usually considered ‘safe’.

Resorts are brilliant spots for backcountry novices to find their ski touring or split boarding legs. The above skier compaction, regular patrol sweeps and avalanche control measures mean that backcountry beginners can dip their toe into the world of backcountry skiing and snowboarding, without being thrown into the often unforgiving world of ‘real’ backcountry skiing.

“It was obviously going to be incredibly dangerous… But in a year where the routes aren’t being continuously skied to bond the layers, it was even worse”

This, however, was not the case for the current season. With limited avalanche control and skier compression, as well as fresh snow everywhere, it was all too easy for backcountry skiers – expert or beginner – to find themself what is essentially a serious backcountry descent just minutes from the comfort of the resort.

Si Perry, co-author of the Tignes Backcountry Guidebook, put the recent dangerous activity to a combination of these factors: “Wherever we were skiing last week we found buried hoar everywhere – even on south faces as low as 2,200m. We were being incredibly careful before the dump, but after so much fresh snow landed on top of the weak layer it was obviously going to be incredibly dangerous – even in a normal ski year. But in a year where the routes aren’t being continuously skied to bond the layers, it was even worse.”



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