After the storm

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The hashtags have told the story of the last week in the Alps; #snowmageddon, #pukingpow, #powderalert, and it’s been much needed and appreciated, but now the snowstorms have moved onwards, we are left with the after effects and reactions to consider. Our guided groups have been playing it very safe, and skiing on lower angle slopes for the past few days, but the headlines speak for themselves, as the avalanche death toll in Switzerland passed 18 for this winter alone (click for article). Even the Freeride World Tour was affected, as shown in the video below, though the skier was recovered quickly.

After all the sad news, we find that people tend to keep a respectful silence, but is this a heuristic reaction? Are we conditioned to accept that avalanches just happen, and that fatalities must occur after fresh snowfalls? Not according to Swiss avalanche expert Werner Munter, famed for the 3×3 avalanche reduction method framework, who has made outspoken comments after the recent deaths. He states that the recent incidents have been “natural selection”, and that all the recent incidents were avoidable. His most telling comment (click for article); “the mountain reminds those people that their wants are not the center of the world. If you persist in ignoring important rules or you are too thick to apply them, then nature will take you out”.

Some people have critisised Munter for his comments, but most guides we have spoken to, agree completely with him. People are ignoring the basic ‘rules’, and there is a dangerous pervasive attitude that avalanches are a risk that we just have to take. Mountain guides challenge this, stating that in the mountains risks must be managed, and that while zero-risk does not exist, it is straightforward to remove the Darwinian element. One of the sad recent deaths was a 17 year old French girl who had ducked under a safety rope with her friends in Verbier, to ski a closed slope without wearing any avalanche transceivers.

The first day after fresh snow, I am nervous. I hear the sound of each helicopter passing, and hope that my phone doesn’t ring. That it isn’t one of my friends who has let their guard drop, or who has pushed it on the day they must be most careful of all; the day after fresh snow. Why should I be worried? Because our social conditioning to risks seems like it is more in need of re-calibrating than ever before. Heuristic factors such as acceptance and social facilitation (click for article), need to be targeted in popular ski areas across the Alps, more than ever before.

Why? Perhaps it’s because we live in an age of social media, where there’s a rush to post footage of amazing lines that have been skied, and of freshies and faceshots. Maybe it’s because the internet shows us footage of people pushing the boundaries, that we’ve all become conditioned to think that these risks are more acceptable, as for many of us these feats are on terrain we’ll never ski. Or it’s simply people feeling the need to make their statement, in a world that is better connected, yet more socially isolated than before. It’s not ‘cool’ (sorry for showing my age using this terminology) to post pictures of ski touring on low angled slopes in the trees on a high avalanche risk day. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves to ask why this isn’t ‘cool’.

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Surely it is ‘cool’ to show your mountain awareness and expertise, by making the best call on what to do on a more risky day. As the old saying goes; “there’s old skiers, and there’s bold skiers, but there’s no old bold skiers”. I know a blog post can’t change the way the world thinks, but if it makes just one person think for a second, then it’s done it’s job. Providing mountain guided activities is our job, and the past week has really made us proud of the guides working for us, as they have striven to give the groups great days out, whilst reacting to the risks of the fresh snow.

Fortunately the avalanche risk is now dropping, and people are enjoying some great ski conditions, but having expended so much effort and time reacting to the high risks of the past week, it’s worth reflecting on how we each need to change our perspectives, and of course to take a moment to remember those who sadly lost their lives.

If the first thought in your head at the sight of fresh snow is ‘powder’, not ‘risk’, I’d argue that you are a prime candidate for getting a refresher on avalanche safety, or for hiring a guide. It’s not just about digging holes in the snowpack to study snow layers, but about the psychology of route planning, and learning when to adapt or to say ‘no’. It only costs £149 for our two day avalanche course out in the Alps, based in Courmayeur or Chamonix (click for details), but I’m stepping off the commercial bandwagon on this article as the message needs to be far clearer…

Snow is great. Snow is fun. Being safe doesn’t have to be boring. Think!

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