On snow the sayings go: To make the first tracks one can be tempted into stupidity and when a slope is covered in snow it can anaesthetise one’s caution, forgetting basic safety rules. This is a little story with a lesson.
Words and pictures by Didier Givois
During the second week of the Christmas holiday a significant amount of snowfall accompanied by a strong wind from the south-west (over 100km/h at altitude) clearly rendered north and east slopes dangerous (elementary, my dear Watson). With the return of sunshine I started to taste the pleasures of powder skiing on south facing slopes, first at lower elevations (30cm of fresh snow lying either directly on the ground or on some old firn snow, then at mid altitudes, always on gentle slopes with a stabilized base.
For the following day I had planned to start from the glacier de Bellecôte over a long, undulating descent, oriented to the south over its entire length, le Cul du Nant. At the gondola lift mid-station, following a short delay on the second section, I met a group of ski instructors on their day off and whose projects were oriented towards the face nord de Bellecôte.
As a good, old guide, I preached caution : north faces dangerous, large accumulations, snow slabs sitting on depth hoar, not good, big accidents! So I left in the company of a friend, for me Cul du Nant where the descent would be in nice and safe.
A phone call from one of the instructors assured me they were okay and vaguely began to seduce me with the story of their descent. We climbed to the top of the lift “just to take a look” at the north face. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the 50 tracks etched into the bowl of the petite face nord, I was lured by the call of siren voices and plunged into the shadows of this slope that only sees the first rays of sunshine from February (so no chance of diurnal warming in an early afternoon in January). So, from being very cautious I had become over confident as I linked turns followed at 50 meters by my friend.
Suddenly, a dull crack accompanied by a settling of the ground beneath my feet. The slope began to break up, fold and slide, forming waves. That which I always believed possible at this spot was actually happening, no need to draw you a picture. I understood: action and reaction, in a split second I scoped the edge of the slab, lit the afterburners and made for an outcrop safe from this white tide.
As soon as I was on “terra ferma”, with the impression of having a pit-bull snapping at my behind, I looked for my friend who had been taken by a tornado of snow, he hadn’t had time to escape but had had the reflex to trigger his ABS airbag and he was now floating between two orange buoys on a tsunami that was enveloping the slope. I immediately understood the gravity of the situation that was happening before my eyes. the whole of the left bank of our large couloir had started moving over a width of 250 meters and was rapidly heading for the bottom of the valley 500 meters lower down.
While this enormous white carpet continued to roll towards the bottom of the bowl I discovered, 50 meters from my perch, surrounded by two floats, a head poking out of the snow on a large monolith. After some polite chit chat (ok, you are not hurt, etc.) I asked my mate if I could take a souvenir photo which he accepted with the enthusiasm that you can probably guess. In the time it took to get out my camera and snap the picture the aerosol was still floating to the bottom of the valley which was slowly recovering its calm, frozen by the winter.
Obviously I was furious to have not obeyed my first analysis and more than anything to be led by the tracks which are certainly not a clue to security on such a slope. I imagine that our predecessors had fragilized the thick snow slab on which they were dancing and our passage was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
Of course, it is impossible to determine when and if that phenomena will occur in advance nor after how many passages the equilibrium will be broken. As the saying goes: in case of doubt…
I am certain that the ABS saved the life of my unfortunate companion. In the first instance it gave him a certain flotation and, and I admit this is purely by chance, a trajectory that left him on the summit of an enormous rock. In the second event it kept his head free from the snow on that rocky island where, without ABS, he would have almost certainly been buried with all that entails. I’m not certain I would have started searching from my island of safety but would have made straight for the debris lower down where I would not have found a signal.
Didier Givois is a high mountain guide and author of the “keys” range of off piste guides to the Tarentaise.
They can be ordered from his website: http://www.givois.com/