February and March ’21- Skiing during the Covid Years

Weird environmental seem to be happening more frequently these past years. From the 600 mm of rain that fell in the Alp Maritime in 12 hours this autumn, to this weird Martian day I woke up to in a strange bed heavily hungover after Searle’s birthday party, trying to make sense of what was going on. Turns out it was possible the biggest Sahara sand storm on record which transported sand as far as Finland. We went out kite skiing, enjjoying the wind and marvelling at the deposits of sand on our clothing, later to learn the sand had traces of Cesium 137 from the 1960’s French nuclear tests in Algeria – a paper mask might not stop covid but it may have been useful to avoid inhaling too much of that into our lungs!

A dry November and December was followed by the mother of all January’s. Without the usual ski resort avi control the steep sided Chamonix valley started to feel a little like it did in ’99 when houses were destroyed by avalanche with their occupants. Fortune seemed to favour us and the weather broke long enough for some essential avalanche control work by heli deployed daisy bell.

February was another drought and after skiing Pointe Percee North Face on disgusting snow, it was time to change tactics and look for better options. A ski and fly out the Pas de Chevre was a extrordinary experience for me, skiing those big open powder slopes then flying effortlessly over the combat zones down to beers in the sun at Argentiere. I’m a novice paraglider and it was my first time employing ski n fly tactics in the mountains. Pas de Chevre was one of my big goals for this winter and boom, it happened like clock work. For me ski n fly will be my future tactic of choice for the big lines like the Peuterey Ridge, I just need to keep building my experience and abilities slowly and surely.

While it was dry and hot we took to our bikes exploring Annecy venues around Semnoz, Talloire and Yeyrier, all so good and a pleasure to have bigger vistas than in our tight sided valley.

Another day I joined Ben Tibbetts and Valentine Favre (World skimo champion who just did Chamonix – Zermatt in 26 hours (https://runthealps.com/something-truly-badass-just-happened-in-the-alps/?fbclid=IwAR0pl0cuuOaaHf-2naRvW3cJRYl1SU_XJmcgkzgdkWIKJhbvAGzsavxL89c ) to ski up Mont Gele in Italy’s beautiful Valpelline. This is a great client day and there is a beautiful refuge and bivi hut to break the 1900 m into 2 days. The summit has incredible 360 views from Mont Blanc – Grand Jorasses – Grand Combin – Dent Blanche – Dent d’Herens – Monte Rosa.

Finally the snow returned and with it motivation to ski lines. The talented photographer Aaron Rolph joined myself and Tom for a lush day on the Premier Pointe de Tricot’s North East couloir which was almost despatched at pedal to the metal velocity. A few fabulous days at Skyway with friends followed, notably Luca Pandolfi. We skied Entreves, Marbrees, the lower trees – high quality snow on world class runs, just having fun, with lots of friends around us, eating and drinking like you do in Italy. It was an incredible shock and saddening to hear of Luca’s passing in an avalanche on the Monday in his homeland near Grand St Bernhard. His gentle loving nature, enthusiasm and happiness will be sorely missed.

Then it was time to hit the Swiss lift systems where we explored the untracked forests finding a plethora of untapped sick pillow lines down 40 degree glades. This was a massive moral boost and just so much fun having spent most of the winter touring for every single metre! During this period we revisited the Orny Couloirs, enjoying the return to the high mountain.

More recently my focus has been closer to home on the big runs in the Argentiere basin. After a lifetime of living out of hotels and refuges as an engineer or guide, I prefer to sleep in my own bed and have a longer day from the valley floor. In the last week we did 4 day trips to the basin to ski the Cristaux, Argentiere Y couloir, South Face of the Chardonnet and Col des Courtes. These are big days in anyone’s books and I’ve called upon my summer 5000 m vert bike missions on my Nomad to power a pair of 100 mm skis and maestrale’s up and back. I’d love to get my hands on a pair of Scarpa F1 LTs for the bigger end of season missions but seems Brexit and confinements is making my chances of getting a pair from the UK non existent. Oh well, I shall keep going with what I got for now!

Chamonix Skiing 2021- No Lifts, No Problem.

While humanity continues to battle against Covid, the ski season approached and the valley dwellers speculated wildly on what it would look like. Surely the economy needed to keep moving and generate some taxable income for the state that was haemorrhaging cash keeping the people off the bread line? The Swiss certainly thought so and were quick to announce their ski lifts would be open. France adopted the opposite approach going into lockdown in the autumn as covid cases per day accelerated past the 30k mark. They set a target of 3000 cases a day which gave hope to many that things might be under control by Christmas. Furthermore they actively sought a united European approach to keep the ski resorts closed aligning first with Italy and then a reluctant Austria. The ramifications and negative publicity behind the handling of the Ischgl covid outbreak that resulted in the virus being spread throughout Europe and class act law suits against the Tyrolean town must have weighed heavily on the Health Minister from each of the Alpine nations. In the end the target was not met and despite stricter curfews the numbers stayed near the 20000 / day mark. The ski lifts remained closed for Christmas and January and now the whole of February.

Drought in the northern Alps meant biking was the order of the day but like the pervious years, a massive storm on the Mediterranean brought huge snowfalls to the Dolomites and Piedmont. The rules and covid level classification for each Italian region made travel a dubious proposition and I had to wait patiently for things to change at home. And then it dumped for ten days providing one of the best periods for skiing the lowers in living memory. After ten days of averaging 2k/day ascent, it was a luxury to get a couple of days rest before the next cycle!

Avalanche Initiation & Snow Mechanics – Continued Professional Development IFMGA

This week we have had the first winter snowfalls here in the Alps and I got the chance to meet up with Alain Duclos once again to discuss his favourite topics of snow mechanics and in particular crack initiation, weak layer collapse and crack propagation. It’s kinda comparable to my work as an engineer and fracture mechanics in weld and acceptable flaw size that wouldn’t result in weld failure for the design load.

Alain is an avalanche expert, responsible for road safety in the Haute Maurienne which is home to the Frejus Tunnel – a major freight and transportation link between France and Italy that is over looked by some impressive alpine terrain. Sadly, Alain is often called as an expert witness for avalanche accidents in the Alps.

survivors are generally surprised that the slope avalanched and often underestimate the slope angle.

This highlights 2 things. The ability to accurately gauge a slope angle, remembering anything above 30 degrees puts you in avalanche terrain while also considering overhead terrain & the fact that they were surprised means they were operating in a relaxed mode, perhaps due to failing to recognise they were in avalanche terrain or failure to assess the risk. Alain’s website data-avalanche is a ‘go to’ teaching, training, and reference resource for everyone to use.

There are 6 main criteria to review and assess for avalanche danger; the avalanche bulletin, slope angles >30ΒΊ, recent avalanche observations, rising temperature & thawing, overloading due to wind accumulation / new snow / rain, and the possibility of a buried weak layer which a bulletin should highlight for well frequented areas.

There are 4 vigilance modes, relaxed, suspicious/cautious, alert & risk or gambling mode. It is clear that if you are relaxed and get caught in an avalanche, then there has been a failure in the observations made.

Play long enough in gambling mode and the statistics will catch up with you. However to complicate the matter further, Humans fall into 4 different categories for decision making traits, and at best only 2 of these types of people are likely to make conservative stand alone decisions (ref Powder magazine’s – The Human Factor 2.0).

Extract from Powder mag’s The Human Factor 2.0

To set the scene we were on the mountain after the first 30 cm snowfall of winter. The Alps has another hot summer and then a cold snap at the end of September brought around 1.5 m of snow and was followed by nearly 2 months of Indian Summer. Meteo France had not started avalanche forecasting and so digging a number of snow pits would provide valuable current information on snowpack stability.Β 

Usually I would have been skiing since September but with the new norms this was my first day on snow. We did a number of investigative snow tests between 2750 m and 2350 m on northerly aspects on 30-35 degree slopes. At each site 2 Compression Tests (CT) and a Propagation Saw Test (PST) were performed. For the first time all the tests yielded similar results – a weak layer lying just below the crust of the old snow surface yielding crack initiation, propagation and failure. Skinning around on the flat yielded a number of whoomps indicating collapse/failure of the weak layer. Its early days yet and no avalanche control has been done yet but it was definitely interesting to see whats going on right now.

Preparing the extended site for 2 Compressions Tests and Propagation Saw Test – circa 2.5 m long worksite
Compression Test 30 x 30 cm isolated column
Failure with Propagation Saw Test

I run 1 day avalanche awareness courses throughout the winter so don’t hesitate to contact me at rosshewittguiding@yahoo.com or phone/WhatsApp +33781287608 If you want to expand your knowledge and safety margins this winter.