Staying safe when skiing or snowboarding in the mountains is crucial – an important part of that is being aware of the risk of avalanche where you are, being prepared when heading off piste, and knowing what to do should an avalanche happen.
The Telegraph Ski & Snowboard has teamed up with Henry Schneiwind from Henry’s Avalanche Talk, to provide up-to-date avalanche safety reports from the Savoie region of the French Alps, which includes popular resorts such as Courchevel, Meribel, Val Thorens and Les Menuires in the Trois Vallées as well as Val d’Isère, Tignes, La Plagne, Les Arcs, La Roisère and La Tania.
What is the current avalanche risk in the Northern French Alps/Savoie region?
There are five avalanche danger levels from 1, low risk of avalanche, to 5 extreme risk of avalanche. Currently the avalanche risk rating varies between 3 and 4
Off-piste snow depths are exceptionally good for this time of the winter. There have been some beautiful cold powder snow conditions, particularly on north-facing slopes at high altitudes.
With the milder temperatures and sunshine predicted in the week ahead, the off-piste areas will become heavier and trickier to ski. There should still be some great snow on shaded high north-east to north-west-facing slopes though. Wind will play a factor, as always, causing exposed surface snow to become hardened and crusted. On sunny south-facing slopes below 2,000m, the snow will become quite crusted at the surface.
What does this mean for skiers and snowboarders?
The team and I were having an awesome off-piste morning in a danger rating of 3 (considerable) earlier this week. Such conditions can make it tempting to stop applying risk assessment and basic risk reduction measures, but don’t let your guard down even when there there is little evidence of avalanche activity and nothing bad happening.
Skiers and snowboarders now need to be aware of the considerable, more localised avalanche danger off-piste following some consolidation of the snowpack. Staying to slopes of less than 30 degrees is advisable. There’s some excellent powder snow to be found, but caution should still be used.
Why is the risk this high?
A deeply-buried weak layer of depth hoar (aka sugar snow) persists, particularly on high cold north-facing slopes. These high slopes have been less affected by the stabilising effect of recent warmer temperatures.
Combined with the recent heavy falls of new snow, this layer creates localised avalanche danger, especially at higher altitudes on slopes above 30 degrees angle.
Where is most at risk at the moment?
The most important factor is to understand the conditions in each local area – right now in the Northern French Alps/Savoie region, the greatest risks are where we see significant wind slabs. These are most likely to be present on north-east to north-west-facing slopes above 2,300m.
Has there been any reported avalanche activity this week?
We’ve been seeing surprisingly little recent avalanche activity recently, despite Meteo France’s predictions of an avalanche rating 3 or even 4.
Indeed, nothing happens most of the time, but it’s important not to take that as a green light for no danger. Many people have been skiing very steep slopes at higher altitudes, and getting away with it. Nothing happened doesn’t mean the decision to ski that slope was a sound one, though.
How does the forecast look for the coming week?
Thursday 21st: Beautiful sunny day in the mountains. Milder temperatures with 0°C at 2,500m. North to north-east winds, with gusts up to 60 km/hr at high altitude.
Friday 22nd: Another sunny and mild day at high altitudes (0°C at 2,500m). North-east wind, 30 to 50 km/hr at 3,000m.
Saturday 23rd: The high-pressure weather system continues with sunshine and even milder temperatures at high altitude (0°C at 3,000m). Light north wind, 20 to 30 km/hr.
Sunday 24th & Monday 25th: Happy Christmas! Remaining sunny and extremely mild in the Alps. Up to 7°C at 1,000 m. Cloudy and foggy at lower altitudes.
Tuesday 26th & Wednesday 27th: A stormy period of unsettled weather coming through. Snow in the mountains, with rain lower down. Maximum temperature 5°C at 1000m.
Tip of the week
Keep it safe and keep applying risk assessment and reduction methods. You can greatly reduce the chances of having an accident (and have more fun) off-piste by following this simple off-piste checklist, downloadable from the Henry’s Avalanche Talk website.