WARNING! Very unstable snowcover!

Von meteomorris an 22 Dezember 2014 · 2

Dangerous situations in the Alps
Dangerous situations in the Alps

You have to be very careful when riding in the Alps, just like last year at this time. The snow cover is really unstable and after traveling the Alps last week I can only confirm this. The Alps will face a hard period, where the snow cover already is very unstable and life threatening at the moment and this could be even worse the coming weeks. For those of you who have no idea what kind of consequences such a snow cover can have, hereby a little reminder. Last year we had to deal with 11 deaths caused by avalanches in less than two weeks time because of the unstable snow cover. Let's hope history won't repeat itself.

Now you might say 'avalanches? With that little snow? You are right that there is less snow than usual in the Alps. But that a thin snow cover leads to less avalanches is a myth. Winters with less snow are often the ones with the most avalanche victims. Although, according to the most avalanche bulletins the risk is only 1 or 2 (on a scale of five), we need to be very careful the coming days and weeks. Namely because of the following:

1. Thin snow cover

First, the snow cover is thin. And a thin snow cover will mean that you'll hit a weak layer in the snow cover pretty quick, with a possible avalanche as a consequence.

2. Lots of sugar snow

On more and more northern, eastern and western slopes a part, and sometimes the entire snowpack has turned into 'sugar snow'. A layer in the snow cover formed without any cohesion. It's still okay for now, but as soon as the strong northern Föhn blows new snow on top of it, or, at the end of this week, a new layer with fresh snow will fall on top of this horrible layer, it will immediately become a weak layer that's perfect for avalanches.

Avalanche in Lombardia, Italy
Avalanche in Lombardia, Italy

3. Snow and wind are on their way

Thirdly, we are at the beginning of a very turbulent period. The wind will kick in starting on Christmas. This will bring lots of fresh snow for the French Alps and the northern Alps in France and Switzerland. At the same time, a powerful northern Föhn will cause lots of drift snow in the southern Alps. This fresh snow and fresh drift snow will fall on top of a very weak layer, and you only need a slope with an angle of 30 degrees or higher to cause an avalanche.

The above issue is expected to continue at least throughout the Christmas and New Year period. These are problems that are difficult for laymen to recognize. For that reason, we strongly encourage anyone with no or little knowledge of the dangers in the backcountry NOT to go off-piste the coming week(s). Well, this obviously never is a good idea, but the conditions right now are and will be really tricky.

In short: if you go to the Alps the next couple of day, be very alert. It didn't snow for a long time in many places.. From various places we get reports from the Alps that the snow cover on slopes particularly in the shade has little cohesion. In addition, many ridges are blown bare and in many places a so-called 'harschdeckel' has been observed. Factors that in might be a weak of sliding layer for avalanches in the near future. Check your local daily avalanche bulletin, make sure you have the right gear with you and that you have the right knowledge. No knowledge? Are you not sure? Say no to off-piste and wait for conditions to improve. The season is still long.


  • girthmaul
    girthmaul op 23 Dezember 2014 · 08:50
    Can confirm. In the lower Valais Switzerland there is loads of sugar snow below 2200m and higher up a large ice crust has formed above 2600m.
  • meteomorris
    meteomorris op 23 Dezember 2014 · 20:25
    @girthmaul, Thanks for sharing!
    May the powder be with you.


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