January 2006

Weather > Snow Avalanche Conditions > January 2006

28th January 2006. 07:00 The fresh snow has improved conditions and covered up some of the crust, remember that this layer will also form a good sliding surface for any slabs that have formed. The fresh snow is excellent to ski. The Chablais, Beaufortain and further south the Vercors to Matheysine have seen 30-40cm of fresh. This snow has been accompanied by a foehn wind (south-east), especially strong close to the boarder with Italy, this which will bring warmer temperatures (remember the American Indian name: Chinook - the snow eater). New slabs will have formed on shelterd slopes (north sector) and this is where the underlying snowpack is weakest. These slabs may be found at quite moderate altitude (1500m+) as this is where the fresh snow is deepest.

The picture in the Southern Alps close to the border with Italy (ie Queyras, Mercantour) is similar, 40-50cm of fresh snow accompanied by strong winds from the south-east.

There has been well over half a meter of fresh snow in the eastern Pyrenees where the risk is 5 (extreme). In the central Pyrenees the risk is 4 (high). Travellers should check road and rail conditions before travelling as at these levels some links may be cut for safety reasons.

Take great care if you are thinking of going into the mountains this weekend

We are at the Munich ISPO trade fair until Wednesday, see you then.

26th January 2006. 18:00 We had originally planned to tour to the Grand Ferrand in the Devoluy massif but the snow that was forecast for this afternoon was already falling when we hit the road at a little after 6am. So change of plan, Marika suggested the Pas Morta because it was an enclosed couloir so we wouldn't be worried to much by fog and she had already done it. The rest of us agreed. The east facing slopes had seen a lot of sun over the last few days and it showed. Things started off well with frozen snow but this turned into some of the nastiest breakable crust I've seen between 1200-1500 meters. The couloir was nice though, the weather front had deposited around 5cm of fresh. We noticed an increasingly dense layer of crust/windpack in the couloir. Around 75 meters below the summit, where the slope climbs from 40 to 45 degrees, we discussed options on a small balcony. Finally a snowpit was dug which revealed 20cm of dense "windslab" sitting on around 50cm of snow dating from the 1st of January fall. This was followed by older snow and a layer of depth hoar. The intermediate layers were quite well bonded and stable and thick enough that the depth hoar shouldn't be a big problem. The recent freeze-thaw cycle had obviously worked on this section. A "rutchblock" test showed the top 20cm was not well bonded to the base. However the couloir was fairly narrow with a number of narrow sections and slightly convex so we figured this layer probably would not move. We climbed to the end (one at a time) on crampons as these would let us penetrate to the deeper layer without cutting the top slab. Although we descended on skis we also went one at a time and tried not to put too much weight on the snowpack.

With fresh snow expected on Friday, principally in the Southern Alpes, Cerces, eastern Massif-Central and Pyrenees, and a number of slabs already in place sitting on weak layers (on north-east to north-west slopes the snow crystals have little cohesion) backcountry travellers should take care this weekend.

24th January 2006 According to French TV a trainee ski teacher was badly hurt in the Mont-Blanc range after falling 200 meters through a cornice in the Aiguilles Rouges while walking with skis attached to her sack. In the same area a father and his 11 year old son spent an uncomfortable night in a snow cave after getting lost while off-piste skiing.

22nd January 2006. 22:00 There was still a lot of snow being moved around by the north wind this morning which will have formed some new accumulations on slopes from the west through east. Climbing to the col Lamartine near the Grandes Rousses we noticed that our ski tracks were filled in very quickly by the blown snow. A lot of thick but breakable crust on the south and east slopes and some windpacked snow on north slopes near cols. Condtions on the north-east slope we skied were excellent. The couple of days warm weather seem to have stabilized the snow pack somewhat.

21st January 2006. 22:00 The wind has got up since 16h00 from the north to north-east. Tomorrow will be Sunny but chilly in the breeze. After a warm few days the zero isotherm has dropped back to 1000m so there will be little natural avalanche activity. We spent the day close to the Olympic resort of Chamrousse, above the clouds it was very pleasant and sunny with quite a bit of thaw going on around 1500 meters. South sector slopes had a lot of crust, this will probably melt during the course of Sunday at lower altitudes - but then the snow underneath is not particuarly wonderful. There is powder on north sector slopes but this is also where the risk of slabs, formed by the south-west winds towards the end of the week and again over the last 24 hours with the north winds, is greatest. In general things are more stable than a few days ago but there is still a localised risk.

The Pyrenees saw rain to 2000m mid-week. This caused a lot of natural avalanche activity but with the return to colder weather and an overnight freeze the slopes are now relatively stable below this altitude except later in the day on sunny aspects. Higher up on north sector slopes there is a localised risk of slab avalanches which could be triggered by a single backcountry traveller. Skiing conditions remain good.

21st January 2006. 09:00 We were ski touring in the Belledonne yesterday. A couple of reasonably low-angled routes: the Aigleton and Coche. You have to avoid any spots the sun has hit like a vampire, combined with the warm spell a crust of some 5cm has formed which is both hard to climb through and to ski. Under the crust is about 30cm of heavy powder, another crust then facetted snow with little cohesion. Handle with care. It had obviously rained below 1400 meters. Climbing through the woodland there was a lot of surface hoar crystals and the conditions were pleasant. On N, W and NE slopes there are good powder conditions but take care where this powder is cohesive as it is sitting on a layer of facetted snow and could slide.

19th January 2006. 14:00 It is a warm day today in the Alps with the zero isotherm above 3000 meters in the Ecrins and Bellecote. This has lead to a pronounced settling of the fresh snow at mid-altitudes and should help to stabilize the snowpack somewhat before a return to colder weather on Sunday. However it also means there is a risk of natural avalanches on all slope orientations to 2000m and on south facing slopes higher up.

Update There were five deaths in four avalanches in the Northern French Alps today and many other people involved in slides including on routes normally thought to be "safe". For example at the foot of the Croix de Chamrousse on the south-east slope close to the lac Achard.

17th January 2006. 22:00 A front has moved across the alps this afternoon. This has brought around 30-40cm of fresh snow above 2000 meters accompanied by strong winds from the south to south-west moving to the west to north west overnight. The Southern Alps have also benefitted from the new snow. This fresh snow is sitting on an unstable snowpack consisting all or in part of facetted crystals created over cold period from the 1st January. Backcountry travelers should pay particuarly attention to north to south-east sector slopes.

16th January 2006. 15:00 With the weather closing in over the next couple of days we have even been treated to some snow in the garden. The Massif-Central is expected to get the most of the new snow but there should be a few cm left over for the Alps. On Sunday we were touring in the Belledonne - the North-East couloir of the Barlet mountain to be precise. Conditions were powder with a lot of surface hoar present on sheltered slopes between 1400 to 1800 meters altitude.

14th January 2006. 20:00 I spend the end of the week skiing at Val d'Isère and Tignes. There is still plenty of powder around, or at least sugar snow generated by the recent cold weather. This is mostly on north facing slopes above 2000 meters. On piste the conditions were hard over on the Solaise area (north facing of course) but nice in the sunny and open Tignes slopes. On Thursday I gave a presentation on avalanche accidents at Henry's Avalanche Talk and the next day I toured with Henry, Camilla and Karen over the back of Mont Roup. Henry managed to find great conditions and I thoroughly recommend skiing with Alpine Experience if you are in Val d’Isère.

An interesting thing happened over the last few days. A week back the avalanche risk was at 4 (high) but quickly dropped to 2 or even 1 over most of the Northern Alps. It hasn’t snowed since new year when we had those avalanche accidents. Then in the Savoie department the risk jumped up to 3 (considerable) for the 13th. The snowpack is now largely composed of depth hoar or facets – a weak layer if there is a slab on top. What happened is that a south to south-east warm foehn wind blew in on Thursday evening affecting the regions close to the Italian border. What the forecasters feared was not so much the rise in temperatures – it reached 0C in Val d’Isère in the afternoon – but the wind transporting snow onto north facing slopes where it would form new slabs on top of the weak base. Well that is a bit of snow science to show that the mountains are an ever changing environment. All that facetted snow will cause big problems with the next significant snowfall, particularly if it is accompanied by wind. Watch this space.

In the Isère there is still powder snow on shaded slopes but a sun crust, breakable in places, has developed elsewhere.

We haven't spoken much about the Southern Alps this year. Well that is because the conditions are poor once again. In the Hautes-Alpes and northern part of the Alpes de Haute Provence the snow cover is close to normal with the last snow dating from the 1st of January. Avalanche risk is localised to some slabs on north facing slopes at altitude where good group spacing should be observed.

Corsica is having a good season, the season started early and there is excellent snow for mid-January. The principal avalanche danger are some localised slabs particuarly on west facing slopes.

The eastern Pyrenees from the Haute Garonne to the Med. still have considerable avalanche risk. The problem is a poorly stablised snowpack above 1800 meters with a number of brief but intense bouts of wind from the south which has transported a lot of snow forming wind slabs on north sectors. From the Pic du Midi west to the Atlantic the snow cover is above average in mid-altitudes.

8th January 2006. 20:00

Saturday was overcast over the Isère department with clearer weather further north in the Savoie. This kept temperatures fairly warm with the zero iso around 1500 meters. We spent the day in the forests of the Chartreuse mountains climbing to Mont Fromage (Cheese Mountain). On Sunday we climbed to the north-west Col du Mouchillon (2470m) with a view to possibly attempting the N/W couloir of the Rocher Blanc. However the recent south-east winds have left a lot of snow at the top of the couloir and another skier told us the entrance had a large slab. The day was fairly warm with little wind. There was some avalanche activity visible. Skiing was a mixture of windblown snow, light crust and dense powder and very pleasant. The path from la Martinette to the Refuge Combe Madame as suffered from a small landslide at around 1350 meters which requires some extra climbing.

6th January 2006. 22:00

Just a short trip today to a 2000 meter mountain north of Grenoble in the Belledonne. There was a lot of snow being blown around at altitude by the South/South-East wind so we can expect some new slabs on north sector slopes which might be quite a surprise 5 days after the last significant snowfall and with some sunny days in the interim. There is still powder on north facing slopes (some of it blown by the wind), but this is also where the snow pack is most fragile at the moment due to the cold weather.

Things seemed fairly stable below 1800-2000m, no doubt due to the freeze/thaw cycle last weekend but the 10-20cm of fresh snow has not yet consolidated with the base. Expect some sluffing or even small slabs. Where we were snow on the southern side of any ridges had a light wind crust and some southern slopes had also begun to form a sun crust. We have only observed a couple of slabs - both around 1850 meters on north-west facing slopes. There has been some continued avalanche activity in ski resorts in the Mont-Blanc range, Vanoise and Maurienne caused by skiers and snowboarders (see below also).

The conclusion is that both for the Northern Alps and Pyrenees a great deal of thought is required this weekend with planning and group management if touring or going off-piste.

Sept Laux Accident: In the Sept Laux the piste security have put a sign up on the fence close to the scene of an accident yesterday remembering the two victims. It is hoped this will discourage freeriders from entering the sector. The resort commented "we know this area only too well given the number of accidents, some have the expertise to ski the route, for others it is fatal."

Main Courant Pouta

The Handrail. Photo: Les Sept Laux

One of the friends of the dead man has given the following information on the accident:

We took the Pouta chair and then made for the passage known as the “hand rail” that joins the top of the combe de la Jasse. We went around the wooden fence by the top ducking under a rope. We were four, the first two traversed the couloir, around the shoulder and stopped further into the bowl. The third person stopped 15 meters after the shoulder. The forth skier (Pierrot) never made it over the shoulder. It fell over a cliff of some 15 meters then slid in the couloir, a fall of some 100 meters in total.

Just to correct some misinformation.
He knew the route, we had already taken it with him. On the first run we told him of the danger and he took it without problem. We also discussed the route on the chairlift. He was in good physical shape and was not tired on that late afternoon because he ahd only done 3 or 4 runs from the col de Pouta to the bottom of the same chair since he arrived at 13h30.

Combe de la Jasse

The shoulder and couloir are in the top left of the photo.

He knew the mountain well. We had all followed the same French Mountaineering Federation courses where we had met. The mountains were his passion, he wanted to be a high mountain guide. He did ski touring, off piste and some slalom for a number of years. He therefore had the required level, he was not persuaded to do something beyond his ability by group dynamics.

We don’t think the route should be banned. Mountains are dangerous, we take and accept certain risks in our sport. It is up to each person to know what risks he is prepared to a accept.

5th January 2006. 17:00

As well as the avalanche at the col de la Forclaz there were two avalanches at Arèches Beaufort. According to the piste director the risk had fallen to 3 (considerable) from 4 (high) and despite yellow/black checked warning flags many off piste skiers and boarders were behaving irresponsibly, for example riding potentially dangerous slopes in groups, the result, two avalanches although without injury.

A 20 year old skier, resident of la Tronche near Grenoble, was killed close to the les Sept Laux ski resort after sliding and falling approximately 80 meters over cliffs. He was part of a group belonging to the FFME (French Mountaineering Federation) who were skiing in the Pouta sector above the Vallons de la Jasse. According to the Sept Laux piste security the area has seen a number of similar incidents in recent years including the death of a young woman on the 25th January 2004. Following this incident a wooded fence was constructed baring access to the area and signs clearly warn of the dangers. The piste security say that the group of four skiers either climbed over or under this fence and would have been aware of the risks. An eye witness report suggested that the victim looked very unsure on the first part of the route before he fell but this claim has been refuted. The three friends were interviewed by the police after the incident - a subject we will return to on our news pages.

4th January 2006. 17:00 Snow cover is good for the season in the Northern Alps at all altitudes. Above 2000 meters the snowpack is composed of a base consisting all or in part of snow crystals with little internal cohesion formed during the cold weather before the new year, around 50cm of fresh snow is resting on top of this. Lower down a freeze-thaw crust formed last weekend has consolidated the snow cover to a certain extent. There is still the possibility of a single skier triggering a slab at altitude and there was considerable snow transport at the start of the week under the influence of a strong wind from the north. The return to cold conditions means that the stability of the snow cover will only improve slowly over the weekend.

An inversion layer is keeping it very cloudy in the alpine valleys again with a cloud sea around 1800m. There was an avalanche in Le Tour / Col de la Forclaz today on slopes north of the lac Cornu involving two skiers - both were rescued from the slide without injury.

1st January 2006. 10:00

There has been an impresive increase in temperature over the start of the weekend. At les Saisies in the Savoie the mercury at 1633 meters climbed 23C from -17C to +6. Snow conditions were described as "heavy going" below 2000 meter with dense powder higher up. When the temperature drops this should help stabilize the snowpack below 2000-2200 meters. However with a fine afternoon in the Northern Alps today watch out for wet snow slides at these levels and new slabs formed by the fresh snow and strong north-west to south-west winds over the last couple of days

Snow levels la Saises

There was an avalanche in La Toussuire in the Maurienne yesterday and the avalanche risk is high above 2000 meters in all of the Northern Alps and Western Pyrenees and considerable in the eastern Pyrenees, Hautes-Alpes and Corsica.

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