/ Avalanche (Mountain) Awareness and Rising Standards?
Back in't day I would imagine that most people who ventured out into the hills would have had an apprenticeship working up through winter walking, Grade Is, IIs and then IIIs. (Correct me if I'm wrong as I only started winter climbing around 8 years ago).
Now, with modern tools and the fact that people are fitter, stronger and more technically proficient from indoor climbing, sport climbing, trad climbing etc. it seems as if many people (as I did) just jump straight to around Grade III or IV and basically miss out on a couple of years of plodding up snow slopes and just generally being around potentially dangerous conditions. (buttress routes are much less prone to avalanche...)
So, are people missing out on an education...or have there always been people who jumped a few steps?
I've done around 75 mixed, ice and alpine routes over the last 8 years (which surprises me, I thought it would be more) and have yet to encounter an awkward cornice!!!
I have, however, just been in my first (albeit fairly small) avalanche in cogne, on a mixed buttress route, several days after the last snow...
Stay safe out there folks.
I personally think that there have always been some climbers who miss out the low grades and go straight onto harder things. There is certainly evidence of this if you go right back to the beginning, climbers like Aleister Crowley scorning the easy routes and jumping on the hard stuff from the start.
Whether or not this is a growing trend in recent years is certainly open to debate, and it would be interesting to see some data if any exists. Perhaps this would be a useful subject for study?
Years ago, the SAIS system was in it's infancy, there were less books, no internet forecasts, only a phone line and generally less publicity about compared to the present day, now despite more people, there is greater knowledge, so it's probably balanced out a bit. But, people are human and make mistakes or errors of judgement, regardless of knowledge or training.
The SAIS system is also based on the fact that the more avalanche data it recieves, the better the forecasting gets, hence why if you witness any avalanche you should report the it to them with a much detail as possible.
If it hadn't been for UKC I would never have known about the incident.
Last year up on Aonach Mor, cat IV risk on anything easterly, Glencoe road was awash, basically not a good day. Went skiing and I can't ski; thats how bad the weather was...saw two parties, one drenched, he'd been on the west face in rain most of the day and another who'd gone through the cornice on the eastern face, shaken not broken.
I think the ease of access, gear and mobiles have removed some of the perception of danger. I took the recent avalanche quiz that came around. On a few that I thought I knew, I was flat out wrong. Thats from the comfort of my armchair and not chattering on a cold hillside at dusk... no excuse for not knowing it, not thinking and not practising more.
That said, sometimes you're just in the wrong place, nature has it's way and there is nothing we can do, other than be happy for the previous step. "A Chance in a million?:Scottish Avalanches" is an excellent and eye opening read.
-2 very strong climbers attempting one of their first winter routes and successfully nailing -something hard in Coire an Lochain and getting to the top successfully in poor visibility. They had to 'phone a friend' to ask which way to turn to get off at the top of the route.
-2 fit lads who had been drytooling all autumn in preparation for their first winter season. They made a good swift ascent of The Message and both tripped over their feet descending a steep snow slope and went the distance.
-Strong youth goes to solo the Runnel with no understanding of what the crux will be like with no snow on it and makes it up .... just. "But it's only Grade II". (Quite apart from the effect his distress had on oped parties in the area).
-Being asked on top of Carn Dearg on Ben Nevis by two well equipped young climbers if this was the top of Ben Nevis.
-Being followed from near the summit of Ben Nevis by 4 climbers from a university club all of whom had forgotten their maps.
-2 well equipped climbers rescued from Comb Gully when unable to go up or down.... they through they were in No. 2 Gully.
Common factors: almost all of them were fit and strong and capable of high grades at the wall or dry tooling, lots of shiney gear, Nomics, youth. Now I've gotten into plenty scrapes and tried to learn from plenty mistakes (and still do). But I wasn't exposed to quite the same culture of cool kit, hard routes and physical training at their age. It takes more than being able to drytool a D8 to make a good winter climber but that message is less commonly portrayed by gear manufacturers and when magazines do encourage the right attitude to all round skills of course its never as sexy as the latest X,11.
Or am I just an old fart?
If you think about it though, most of those mishaps weren't due to people climbing something hard. They happened on easy ground after the climbing.
Am I not right in thinking that most accidents occur above or below a route and the problem is a lack of mountaineering knowledge and basic skills?
> Am I not right in thinking that most accidents occur above or below a route and the problem is a lack of mountaineering knowledge and basic skills?
I think your right on the money there!
Yes, well put.
Going off on a slight tangent here, but it's a point someone made in another avalanche thread that I thought was relevant to someone like myself; I'm just in my second season of winter hillwalking where I'm making an effort to go out as much as possible to learn the basic mountaineering skills mentioned above. This is with a view to getting into climbing graded ground next season. Without knowing anyone more experienced, I am too scared/sensible/whatever to jump straight onto grade I or II never mind III or IV!
The problem, I feel, with avalanches and the judgements you make when on the hill is the middle ground. For example, either late season bomber neve, or wind scoured snow on a windward facing slope with a green forecast on SAIS, you can be fairly confident you can cross in relative safety. At the other end of the scale, take todays forecast, heavy snow has been loaded onto NE aspects and has been given a red forecast on SAIS; I wouldn't touch that with a bargepole.
It's the middle ground where I personally find myself unsure of what call to make. The SAIS forecast is green with yellow spots, or more likely yellow with orange spots. You dig a test pit. There are two layers, but they neither slide off as soon as look at them, nor are you heaving on them to get them to slip. They just shear with 'a bit' of force. This is where I find difficulty deciding whether I'm being paranoid about a significant but relatively small risk, or whether to re-route if there is any doubt. On the one hand it could be your life your toying with, on the other, if you decided you'd only walk across solid neve you wouldn't get out much! Perhaps this is where the hillwalking to mountaineering to climbing apprenticeship really comes into its own?
> if you decided you'd only walk across solid neve you wouldn't get out much!
Ha! There was a loose layer of powder under neve in one of the pits I dug on Sunday, so the neve slid easily once fractured! Check to see how thick your solid neve layer is too!
Join a club! Be really keen and enthusiastic and bribe people to take you out, you at least get on routes and get some climbing done. Once you have got some experience, find a partner to for routes, and once you are confident at winter climbing take out beginners (I find climbing as a three much more pleasant, especially if there is a jetboil on the belay!) from your club to complete the circle.
Those orange spots are "pockets of considerable" where human triggered avalanches are likely. Its not "middle ground", its dangerous ground. These are often caused by cross loading, and can create the small pillows or dodgy gully exits that cause just the sort of avalanches that climbers get caught up in. If you are not sure, go somewhere else.
Fair enough advice re getting into winter climbing but I don’t see how it will necessarily help re avalanche assessment and awareness. I don't think you can assume that climbers are any more knowledgeable than winter hillwalkers re avalanches. I thought that was the main thrust of the thread. Getting out with someone who knows about avalanches is the key thing - it doesn't matter it they lead grade 11 or bag the odd winter munro.
Have a look at the online training course. This has loads of info.
Sticking to ridges and scoured areas on these aspects is a good idea if you decide to go in to those areas. The forecast you describe is precisely what was forecast for the aspects that were avalanched in Sneachda on Saturday I believe. Again, if in doubt, go somewhere else.
But thanks for the link anyway, having a cup of tea and a read just now.
Thanks for the advice. I suppose by middle ground I meant conditions that are somewhere inbetween largely stable and guaranteed windslab timebomb; I didn't mean to imply that it was safe by any means in an forecasted orange or spotted orange area.
In the other thread I didn't feel comfortable mentioning that the forecast for Sneachda, and also that for Bidean a few weeks beforehand, could have been used to avoid those areas, as I am a novice and I felt it could have been insensitive. But, it raises the important question of are people reading the forecast and the blogs, seeing a forecast that is somewhere in the 'middle ground' that I discussed above and deciding not to heed the warnings? As you say yourself, it doesn't mean you don't have to go out, but why go into NE facing corries when there is 'considerable' risk in that area?
Seems like you are doing the right thing and looking at the forecasts and making sense of them in terms of terrain and route. I think that historically, when numbers rather than colours were used to grade the av risk, people began to get complacent about cat 3, as it seemed to be cat 3 all winter a lot of the time, and perhaps the "orange" is starting to become all too familiar and non scary too. The key is in the words. Cat 3/orange/considerable = human triggered avalanches are likely. Those are bad odds when you think about it.
I've spent the last month walking in the hills with a considerable av risk most of the time, but stayed away from avalanche terrain quite easily because half the hill has been scoured... You just need to have more than one plan in the bag. Look at your route, on the map, and when you are out there. Don't be afraid to speak up if you think a more experienced member of your party hasn't considered the risks properly.
It's all very well digging a pit, but how do you know the conditions are the same 100m further on? How often are you going to dig a pit?
The SAIS reports normally show areas of very low risk. Often the risk is on high, steep ground on half or three-quarters of the directions. So, you can almost always find a route that avoids these areas. By staying lower, avoiding steep slopes and/or staying on one side of the mountain. You still have to be prepared to make a judgement, but it's less likely that you'll be faced with a life or death decision.
If you set out where the risk is considerable and aim to use your awareness skills on the hill, then in a sense you are already taking a risk in putting these skills to the ultimate test.
> The SAIS reports normally show areas of very low risk. Often the risk is on high, steep ground on half or three-quarters of the directions. So, you can almost always find a route that avoids these areas.
> If you set out where the risk is considerable and aim to use your awareness skills on the hill, then in a sense you are already taking a risk in putting these skills to the ultimate test.
well you are putting yourself at risk being in the hills.
I am as guilty as the next person with being complacent and indeed did get avalanched recently (after a decade long avoidance of it).
If I were to stay away from orange warning, I would not get half the routes I do (already little) done.
It is my responsibility and I am assuming it. I do try to minimise risks all the time and do have a flexible approach to routes etc. At the end of the day we will have to make decisions ourselves and there will be days when you chose wrongly... hopefully you can walk away from it, like I did unscathed (except pride).
The driving to get to those crags and avalanche areas is still statistically more dangerous though, is it not ;)
I did like the comments on positive/negative feedback earlier in the post. It does make you think
Going back to the OP, I did my apprenticeship from the ground up as they say (still doing it, not climbing hard at all) but I recall making some horrendous decisions with "more experienced" friends for company. I'd been to a couple of avalanche talks and read a book, but I didn't really understand how to interpret forecasts and make safe route choices. It hit home one day crossing the great slab in Lochain and great shooting cracks flying out from our boot prints. I realised that we'd made a very bad decision. We got away with it but I was able to recognise that we'd been lucky. Part of the problem for me in the early days is that all the avalanche education said avoid snow, and playing in the snow was exactly where I wanted to be. Perhaps also, I considered it to be all part of the general exposure to risk that I was negotiating through learning to winter climb, so I didn't see how I could avoid it- its a risky business. I'm a bit older and wiser (ie fatter) now with less ambition to climb certain things, and just a general joy of the mountains, so its mentally easier to come up with a ruck of plan Bs.
West: Yellow with Orange spots
East: Red all over.
East: Yellow with orange spots.
I would personally say that is two scenarios where yellow with orange spots say something different to me about overall stability. Would anyone else? I would probably tread the orange spots in the second one well before I would in the first as you need to take in the full context.
Sorry, I've posted 2 replies to this already and deleted both of them as I'm trying to figure out the best way to say "No".
I'll try again. Orange spots are often used to signify pockets of instabilities that have a certain likelihood of being triggered by human factors. There is usually information in the blurb about this, but absolutely no reason to suggest that one set would be more or less lethal than another, just because there is a higher risk elsewhere.
I wasnt really asking for advice. Sorry if it was interprated that way. I use a variety of different ways of building up a picture in my head of the state of play. I said you can use the full compass rose to build up a greater context and in my mind there can be degrees of "considerable" depending on what else is going on and you need to take into consideration what is going on at the other side of the hill. I can look at "considerable" in different contexts and make different decisions for myself.
He's not looking for advice but I'd also say "No".
A 'moderate' forecast is also 'middle ground' and most of the winter (at times when there's actually snow about) nearly all slope aspects on high ground will fall into moderate or higher on the model. If you only went out where there's a 'low' forecast you'd practically never go out at all.
I never said it does. I said that knowing the risk on other aspects let you understand the greater picture.
If the slope I am on is "localised considerable" and that is the LOWEST risk on the hill then I might make an assumption that due to local topography that the risk could be HIGHER. As there are high risk slopes I wouldnt take a risk of getting caught out on a more unstable slope.
If the slope I am on is "localised considerable" and that is the HIGHEST risk on the hill then I might make an assumption that overall the hill is generally stable and that the slope I am on may be stable as well but I generally wouldn't expect the risk to be higher.
As far as the compass rose is concerned the slope I am on is localised considerable in both but the greater picture of the weather and what is happening on the hill is different.
As I said I still evaluate the slopes myself, read the blogs, read the recorded snow profiles, look at where previous incidents happened and what the risk was on that particular day in that area on that aspect. But to say that what is happening on other slopes doesnt come into your thinking at all? I dont believe that.
Which quiz is that, Colin?
Yep - I agree that the big picture is important and it's very likely to affect one's overall plan for the day.
> But to say that what is happening on other slopes doesnt come into your thinking at all? I dont believe that.
Yes again, you're right not to believe that. I didn't say that.
I think the point of yours that three of us have now reacted to is this: " I would probably tread the orange spots in the second one well before I would in the first..."
That seems like a curious approach. Maybe you could explain a little more?
Sorry, deleted my last post again. Really wish I could have an actual conversation with you about this rather than trying to sound sensible on a forum! Its serious stuff, and I disagree fundamentally with your logic for assessing slopes which seems like a good way to talk yourself right in to the zone.
I think the bottom line is that a considerable risk is serious whatever else is going on. If you can do this through route choice, great. Ridges and scoured slopes may allow you to negotiate aspects where pockets of considerable are forecast. If not, go and sit in a cafe.
To be honest you probably just dont understand my logic - and that is party because I am finding it difficult to explain it fully on the forum without bringing in everything else I use.
One thing I will say though is that I actually use my avalanche assessment skills to talk myself OUT of things rather than talking myself IN to them.
As I said I dont just use that as a tool to assess a slope. I assess a slope a dozen different ways, in advance, when I make my plans, and also in person on the ground when I get there. I use the information provided as well as going with my gut instinct of the snow which is usually on the paranoid side of things rather than complacent.
Again just because I tried to trivialise my logic.. apparantly unsuccessfully. I shant bother as it is too much effort haha
> A 'moderate' forecast is also 'middle ground' and most of the winter (at times when there's actually snow about) nearly all slope aspects on high ground will fall into moderate or higher on the model. If you only went out where there's a 'low' forecast you'd practically never go out at all.
That's not my experience at all. The wind tends to blow the snow onto one side of the hill. E.g. Grey Corries on New Year's Day: North/West scoured of fresh snow; South/East distinct windslab forming.
In Winter, there's often a marked contrast between one aspect and another - which is shown often on the forecast.
> In Winter, there's often a marked contrast between one aspect and another - which is shown often on the forecast.
I've found that this applies more on open slopes, but in corries, the wind can swirl or vortex around, it eddies can be created by quite minor ridges and towers, depositing small pockets of fresh slab, not enough to bury you, but enough to carry you off your feet, which is all it takes. Drawing a major conclusion on a topic which consistently proves to have many minor facets could be dangerous thing.
In my youth as an instructor I had a near miss, where myself and the student were decending what would be grade I ground in Sneachda, down Alladins then at the bend cutting across the break in 40 thieves to avoid the potentially icy steep in the gully. Lots of patches of fresh slab, despite NW slopes be minimum risk and SE places like Hells Lum being very high risk that day. Luckily we both dropped through the 1ft deep slab as it broke away onto hard neve with our crampons on. A lesson learnt for me that day, confirming low risk is never zero risk.
yes but although as you point out one aspect will often be worse than another, that doesn't mean the safer aspect will be given a 'low' forecast. It will often be given considerable on one and moderate on another.
Interesting discussion starter. I would question whether people are fitter or stronger now than at any time in the past, and certainly whether indoor climbing brings with it any degree of technical proficiency (that is applicable to winter climbing) whatsoever. In the past it may well have been the case that winter climbing was more the preserve of the very committed and hence towards the fitter end of the walking/climbing community; nowadays it is much more common and therefore perhaps the mean fitness of participants is reduced?
What has certainly changed is the higher number of people getting out in winter to climb. More people = greater number of potential avalanche incidents.
You could argue that more folk go winter climbing without having built up a well of mountaincraft experience first, because it is now a more accessible and attractive past-time than it was. Having less all-round nouse and hill-fitness can certainly contribute to errors on the hill.
Specifically on avalanche awareness, as mac fae stirling points out, it requires a systematic approach that can be omitted by an old lag just as easily as by a newcomer to the game. It is very easy to fall into the trap of believing that your own 20 year span of mountain experience somehow guards you from avalanche danger; only a committed approach to learning the signs, techniques, and decision-making of avalanche awareness can make a real difference to this aspect of our experience.
And I say this as someone who admits to getting over-excited on my (increasingly rare) exposure to snow, so that I become blind to all but the desire to CLIMB UP SOMETHING. Stopping to dig a block-test or properly mesh my observations with the SAIS and weather info viewed the night before are often given way too little attention in my priorities.
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