Saturday, February 1, 2014

snow, wind, and avalanches

I <3 pow
Freeriding is arguably the most fun thing to do on a snowboard. But as the proverb has it: no risk, no fun. There is always a looming threat due to avalanches. Although, judging the risk of avalanche danger is today based on a lot of scientific knowledge, allowing for proper  assessments resulting in decision strategies (see, for instance, Werner Munter), there is always a residual risk. Avalanches are very complex phenomena, depending on a web of factors, like temperature, slope orientation and steepness, terrain, vegetation, snowpack, ...

A very difficult variable to deal with is wind. Heavy winds during snow fall can pack incredible amounts of snow at very specific exposures. And windy conditions after the last snow fall can result in very local hot spots. Often only experience can help here.

Recently, we had to deal with this. In order to reach the side of the mountain we planned on descending, there was some windpacked powder to deal with. Between the three of us, we triggered four avalanches. Luckily they were all small and superficial - but you never know. Interestingly, the final couloirs greeted us with epic pow, very different in quality to the other slopes...

Perhaps the greatest safety accomplishment in the last years has been the introduction of avalanche airbags. A simple idea based on increasing the volume associated with the freerider. In an avalanche, understood as granular media moving under the influence of gravity, larger particles tend to travel to the surface. This is vital for survival, as being rescued before about 20 minutes results in a very good survival rate, which drops significantly after that.

One last thing. If you are "lucky" enough to be close to the tear where the avalanche rips away from the slope, you have a few seconds left to do the right thing. Next to deploying the airbag you can actually try and ride out of the avalanche. When the snow silently crumbles around you, it's like surfing! Your board actually carries you and if you are not distracted by the dynamics of everything around you moving, you can focus on a sideways exit. This happened to me here:

Not sure how easy this is on skis though, as you can see herehere  and here (note the effect of the airbag - the last guy didn't have one; those must have been long 5 1/2 minutes).

Watch the pros struggling: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And try not to do this, after you decide to gun it.

And then there's these guys: 1, 2.

Please, don't be one of those people who turn up with no safety equipment or say stuff like, "but I've never seen an avalanche come down on this slope" or "hey, there were already some tracks, no big deal"!

And finally, why bother? Why expose yourself to unnecessary risk?
Because it is so much fun, that's why:)

Safe and awesome freeriding!


Edit: So, they took down the last video due to a copyright claim.

This is the video, with some random audio:

And this was the audio track:



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