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Offpiste Safety - Val d’Aran Avalanche Video

This fascinating video combines footage of a real life emergency situation with an inquest into what went wrong, and what to do in the future. The avalanche occurred on the 6 th February 2019 in the Val d’Aran, central Spanish Pyrenees. It’s gripping viewing and brings home how important it is to be well trained for when the worst occurs. Luckily no one was killed or seriously injured in this avalanche.

Our thanks to Roger Martorell of Roger Mountain Guides who gave permission for us to use and adapt his video. Roger runs interesting ski touring trips in the Pyrenees, Iceland and elsewhere, take a look at his site http://www.rogermountainguide.com.

The video show the importance that everyone in the group has to be fully equipped and know how to use the transceiver, probe and shovel. You can never do too much training on how to use these and knowing that you are proficient will reduce stress and increase search efficiency in an emergency situation. Take a professional course, and repeat every few years. Take the time to practice with your friends, it’s good fun and you cannot train too often.
 

Val d’Aran Avalanche from TELEMARK PYRENEES on Vimeo.

THE AVALANCHE
Based on field work and picture interpretation it was determined that it was an avalanche with destructive size 3’5, with a deposit of 5000 tons and one meter of accumulation. The avalanche was not bigger thanks to a previous natural triggered slab which cleaned a big part of the slope. The snowpack structure is quite simple, a soft slab on top of a layer formed by big crystals (depth hoar and facets) bigger than 2mm. The average crack height was 50cm, with maximums close to 1 meter.

Let’s analyze terrain conditions. The avalanche happened at the top of Tuc de la Llança, 2665m, at the border between Vall d’Aran and Pallars. Proximity to the ski resort might be misleading, it’s a big mountain terrain. Its orientation, East North East, is the one where most of accidents happen in Pyrenees. Referred to Avalanche Terrain classification, it meets all the conditions to be called a Complex terrain. The angles at the starting zone are clearly above 35 with cliff sections even steeper and a flatter area at the bottom. The slope is propitious to accidental avalanche triggering, not only for its convex shape, but also for the presence of cliff sections, leaving the slope without supports and acting as terrain traps.

To understand the avalanche causes, we must go back to the very beginning of the winter season, an early snowfall, from Oct 31 to Nov 4, left 30/40cm of snow above 2.100m. After, high pressure conditions in the Pyrenees meant that there were only 8 days of bad weather during 10 weeks, leaving some southern slopes with no snow but a shallow and increasingly colder snowpack on shaded spots. Clear weather causes snow top layer to get colder due to radiation, and this combined with the shallow snowpack, this generates a very high Temperature Gradient, creating big crystals, named facets and depth hoar. Under such conditions, crystals lose their connections and snow looks like rock salt. High Pressure conditions finally finish and precipitation from Jan 21 and Feb 3 is more than 300cm accompanied by strong northern winds.

On these stability tests, performed few days earlier at Tuc de la Salana, on a similar slope and orientation, it’s clear how an overload can start the fracture on this buried weak layer. But even more important is its high propagation capacity, combined with the slab loading it. Any triggered crack can travel a long distance, and generate avalanches with large cracks.

Let’s focus now on snow and avalanche danger conditions during accident previous days. 50cm new snow had fallen during previous Sunday, with moderate northern wind, causing the avalanche risk to rise to 4.
Monday 4th was a sunny day, danger decreases to 3 but forecast advises to avoid complex terrain due to complicated mixed situation of wind slabs and persistent weak layer. Day prior to accident, a warm front drops 20 mm precipitation with the snow level rising to 2100m.

The avalanche day is sunny and clear, forecast avalanche risk forecast drops to 2, but with warnings of the possibility of Depth Hoar located in shaded spots to be reactive and trigger large size avalanches.
Finally, the day after the accident, avalanche forecast raises again to 3 on the understanding that the situation is more delicate than it looked like, and also a situation of moderate 2 due to this persistent weak layer that is not well understood and difficult to manage for the general public.

INTERVIEW WITH ALEIX

Q: What was your previous experience on similar terrain? 
A:
I can say we are used to this kind of terrain, with similar angle and so on, we were not going to do a special ride, it’s a terrain we have already been before. 

Q: How was your decision to ride the East face of la Llanca taken?
A:
That day we decided to go to Llança East face, actually we decided it the night before with Aran, and then we told Tommy. We were keen on going there because it was a nice line, we spotted it few days ago and it looked like it had some snow, and we just went.

Q: What reference did you had of the conditions you might find on the slope?
A:
Those days we were skiing in Peulla area, we were skiing on the “Y”s, couple runs in there, and we decided to go to Llança because it was pretty much the same aspect and so on, on the “Y”s nothing had happened, it was super stable. We thought both slopes had pretty much the same aspect, same altitude and angle, so… well, we decided to go there. What we haven't thought is that “Y”s is a place where constantly artificial avalanches are triggered and everything cleans up, but Llança East face is not.

Q: Did you check the Avalanche Forecast?
A:
Not that day. Forecast was for several days, I remember, or I think, quite the same, but we did the mistake to not look at it because we had been skiing previous days in similar terrains.
More or less we could imagine how it was, the persistent weak layer we thought it was confined to very remote spots and... well, we underestimated it and we played it down, we knew it was there and there is where we failed.
At the end this is something you must take as an habit, whatever it may be, whatever you may think, because reading it carefully, always… at least it refreshes you how conditions are.

Q: Did you plan your descent?
A:
We climbed up the South face, from the T-Bar, by regular route to the top, and once there we skied down. The idea was to descend the couloir on the right side by turns, first Aran, then Tommy, then me. After exiting the couloir wait on the left side in case something could fall from it, it would go straight and we could avoid it. Aran skied down, and did this, he waited on the left side after the couloir, looking for some rocks to jump. Then Tommy skied down, they waited together, and Tommy didn’t feel it good. There is a moment when a little slide comes from the couloir, but it’s small and goes away, it’s something we were aware of. That was actually our planning. Then I left a margin of 30 seconds and I started skiing down, and right when I was getting some speed,without even turning, it was when everything broke off.

Q: Did you had any training on avalanche terrain safety?
A:
I had STA-1, I’d done it a couple years ago, and I remember going with Aran to practice at Tavascan Beacon Training Camp

Q: How do you remember the avalanche?
A:
First I tried to stay on top, and after I just realized I couldn’t. Once inside, I realized all that could happen, and it was quite like it. Well, I didn’t know how it could end up. I started feeling I was tumbling, then I knew the cliffs were down below, then it came to my mind that everything was falling down and my friends were down there, so they would get caught. That’s what I was thinking, and I remember when I thought the cliffs were close and that really scared me, being in the air and not knowing what was going to happen when I would land. Then I remember jumping twice, being in the air for… I don’t know for how long but it seemed eternal, however I had a lucky and soft landing and nothing happened to me. After the cliffs I felt it was slowing down, I tried to cover my mouth with my hands because I’ve heard you have to make an air chamber, but it was impossible for me, I tried it but the snow was getting everywhere. Then luckily… I had the impression I was being buried, everything got dark, I was still trying to make my little air chamber. I really thought I was going to get buried, and for a moment the avalanche released a bit, and left me buried up to here. I took a deep breath, then I saw Tommy down there and felt good on one side, but also knew Aran was there and we needed to get off the snow quickly. I also couldn’t believe I was ok, because I’ve rolled down the whole mountain. It was my first reaction, I stared the mountain and I couldn't believe I was OK

Q: What did you learn from that accident?
A: I’ve learned many things, specially that things can be very different than what they look like. When we plan the descent, for example, something it comes to my mind is to say there are rocks there, those rocks will hold a bit, just do a couple turns without pushing and then we get out, and what looks like to be a safe spot, if all comes down, it’s not. And specially, constantly analyzing the mountain, what we usually do, but when it’s time to ski, it doesn’t cost anything to use the pole, stop for a minute and test the snow, see if it is ok. Simple and quick actions that can save you from a big fright.

Avalanche safety kit is one of the things everyone must have, skiing in or off the resort, everybody must carry it.

In our case, Tommy rolled down over the rocks and his backpack broke off, so he lost his shovel
and his probe and when we had to perform the rescue we just had my gear. So it’s something
everyone in the group must carry. It’s vital.

GOOD HABITS IN AVALANCHE TERRAIN
1. Plan: Read the AVI forecast - set decision making spots - have a B plan.
2. Gear up: Beacon + Shovel + Probe + check, train and practice. Extra Gear (ABS, Avalung,
radio)
3. Use safe gear: Use skis with brakes and if using leashes unclip in high risk situations.
4. Safe trails: Terrain assessment - Set your trail/ line - do not trust existing trails.
5. Behave as a team: do not expose the whole group - ski one at a time - choose safe spots.
6. Think of the consequences: analyse the terrain - Imagine the scenario of an avalanche - act
accordingly
7. Constant decision making: be aware of changes - group/terrain/snow/yourself - adapt your
decisions.
8. Communication: create a friendly environment and share everyone’s opinion and
observations.
9. Training: be restless, train, learn - have your own judgement - constant learning.
10. Conservative: Minimize subjective risk - spot mind traps - adapt your decisions

Neil

Neil started skiing in the Scotland when he hired lightweight tele gear and skied Cairngorm to Ben Macdhui. He was bitten and not by the midges:&nb ...