HAT Off-Piste Snow Safety Update For The Alps – Henry Schniewind, January 14, 2019

Following both large accumulations of snow in the Northern Austrian Alps and a change of weather in the French Alps, Henry Schniewind from snow safety company HAT (Henry’s Avalanche Talk) explains the current situation for anyone considering skiing or snowboarding off-piste during the next week.

This report is purely aimed at off-piste skiers and snowboarders. The current overall situation in the Alps for holiday makers is positive – there’s good snow conditions in the northern and western Alps with weather set to stabilise during the next few days. When resorts open their lifts and runs, then they consider them to be safe to ski on – the vast majority of ski resorts are operating as normal, with only some higher lifts closed in some areas.

Skiers and snowboarders must pay attention to local avalanche warnings if they are considering venturing off the marked runs and into off-piste terrain. As Henry explains, the situation currently is complex and is different in France than in Austria, with both destinations posing potential hazard off-piste.

About current off-piste conditions in the Northern French Alps, Schniewind said:

Recently we have experienced some very cold weather, around -20C and colder at 2000 metres and above. This has rotted the old snow and created a very weak layer of faceted grains. In the past 24 hours we have seen between 20 cm and 1 metre of new snow in different parts of the Northern French Alps due to snowfall and wind. This is now very unstable and the avalanche danger has been increased to danger rating of 4. The reason it is a danger rating of 4 is that there is a real risk of remote triggering.

Remote triggering means you can be on a low angle slope of 20 degrees or less and trigger an avalanche on steeper slopes that are 50m 100m or 300m above you. Professionals all over the region have confirmed that this weak layer exists. Remote triggering is now a real danger that is being emphasised by Meteo France. So be very careful where you go as the weather improves. If you don’t understand this or don’t know how to judge it, then only go of off-piste with someone who does.

This situation is different to the one in Austria, where large accumulations of snow alone have increased the danger of avalanches off-piste triggered by skiers and snowboarders.

Technical Explanations And Notes For Editors

a) The recent cold has created a seriously fragile snow pack (best to use that term ‘fragile snow pack’ rather than ‘weak layer’ because there are some different weak layers and the main weak layer presents itself in many different forms in different places).

b) In many places there’s a weak layer sitting on top of a hard layer now with fresh snow on it. This is characterised as a textbook example of the most susceptible type of scenario for triggering big slabs – the slabs that go will be facilitated by this hard layer which forms a sliding plane. The sliding plane provides a secondary magnifying effect albeit significant in the current situation.

c) Remote triggering is a serious threat/trap for professionals over the next few days. Thierry Arnaud from Meteo France said that this is why he put the rating up to 4 and warned that on slopes of 20 degrees, expect to able to trigger steep slopes above if there are any. He emphasised the serious propagating effect that fragile snow packs have due to facets / unconsolidated depth hoar layers.

d) There were two snow-packs before this snowfall. This was due to mild weather and rain at Christmas that affected snow below 2500 metres: So there was one snow pack above 2400/2500 m and one more stable below. But now the lower bit is rotting out more in some places especially shaded ‘when it’s that cold, it happens fast’. So we have to be careful everywhere. The avalanche danger rating 4 applies to all slopes at all altitudes.

    Company Information

    Henry’s Avalanche Talk (HAT) provides training and essential information for skiers who want to go off-piste, but are held back by fear of the unknown. HAT is known for helping ordinary skiers have an extraordinary experience off-piste.

    Henry’s Avalanche Talk has been helping to educate off-piste skiers and snowboarders for over 30 years and has grown into a team of off-piste professionals, often referred to as HAT. Talks and courses have been delivered to tens of thousands of people, presented at international snow science conferences and published many papers and articles, often in the British press.

    Training is available in the UK, Val d’Isère and online.

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