Huge avalanches in the Alps: critical avalanche danger!

By meteomorris on 16 January 2019 · 0

It has been snowing almost continuously in large parts of Austria since December 29th and last weekend it snowed heavily in the northwest of the Alps for the first time since Christmas. The sun is coming out in the Alps right now. This pushed the avalanche danger to the next level. The avalanche danger will 'drop' a bit the next couple of days, but that doesn't mean it will be less dangerous for skiers and snowboarders. The fact that the avalanche danger is a bit lower causes many people to reduce alertness and sharpness. That is NOT the way it should be.

A lot of work has been done to actively generate avalanches over the past 24 hours and the results were sometimes gigantic. With the help of explosives, entire faces came down in Wallis.

Again, don't think that it will be safer for skiers or snowboarders now. Avalanche danger CONSIDERABLE (3 on a scale of 5) is estimated by many as 'average' and gives a false sense of security. But anyone who dives deeper into the avalanche danger scale (click-click) immediately sees what it really means. There is a significant avalanche danger when the rating is CONSIDERABLE. The snow cover is then moderately to weak on many slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees. Spontaneous avalanches of medium size are possible. The weight on the snow cover by a single skier or snowboarder may be sufficient to cause an avalanche. That sounds a lot heavier than 3 on a scale of 5, doesn't it?

TIP: check out the article 'Avalanche danger rating 3: more dangerous than you think!"

A lot of avalanches came down in the Alps yesterday (Tuesday) and that will not be different today. The fact that the sun comes out and the upper air warms up are normally alarm signals. wePowder user Gillie shared the picture below from the Kleinwalsertal with me.


Ski guide Sander Kan from Wallis kept me informed of current developments over there. Various avalanches raged down with people in it. A 20-year-old Swedish woman died from her injuries. (source).

Over the next 48 hours, the avalanche danger is critical because:

  • The avalanche danger is going to drop and we think psychologically that the biggest pressure is off
  • Almost all lifts and pistes are open and we can dive into the backcountry in more places. Also above the tree line.
  • More terrain means more options means more hotspots that you can hit
  • The sun is going to shine and we are inclined to take more risks when the visibility is good
  • When there is a good visibility, there is a tendency to dive into the terrain above the tree line
  • The avalanche danger around and above the tree line is often higher
  • There's a very dangerous old snow-covered layer slightly deeper in the snow cover in the northwest of the Alps (France and Switzerland)
  • Heavy snow has fallen on top of colder snow which is capped with cold snow on Monday
  • Wednesday quickly becomes warmer due to a warm layer of air that enters the Alps. That warm-up will once again make the situation more critical.

Always check your local avalanche forecast (here or on the destination pages on wePowder) and adapt your plans to them. Common sense and the right knowledge are the key to beautiful powder days. Avoid areas with mainly terrain above the tree line. Stay away around and above the tree line, it's still much too tricky! Ride powder lower on the mountain between the trees and avoid large open and steep sections. Even steep sections above a forest are dangerous because avalanches can reach far into the woods. Just check out the video below.

And with riding between the trees I do not mean a few trees on a slope. The picture below is the place of the disaster where the Swedish woman died.

(c) Plice Cantonale
(c) Plice Cantonale

With riding between the trees I mean a dense forest without open spaces. The trees work here as anchors to hold the snow cover. Do not let powder panic take over, read avalanche forecasts, talk to experts and ride conservatively. When you have no idea what all of the above is about, please stay on the slopes now and invest in your knowledge. Mountain Academy is the ideal start of your search for the right knowledge. You can start right away here.

When you do have the knowledge: do not forget to have fun, but keep thinking! As Sander Kan told me: 'I have skied beautiful powder runs without seeing whoomps, cracks in the snow cover or avalanches today.'

Knowledge is key!


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