Avoiding avalanches

February 10, 2011

Reading Time: 16 minutes.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more and more into sea kayaking, both because my partner refuses to walk, and because it’s the nearest thing to having a full-on expedition in your back garden (1 hour in a sea kayak is equivalent to 1 day on an expedition).

One thing you learn very quickly is that the sea always wins.  No matter how strong you think you are; go out in a big gnarly sea and you’re going to come a cropper.  Like climbing, you can run headfirst into trouble and just hope that experience, bravado, and the luck that saw you through last time, see you through again, but unlike the mountains, the sea can play a much longer game, made all the worse that you can’t hold your breath long enough or keep your body temperature high enough to see its hand.  Also, the sea rarely bluffs.  As they say, the sea always wins.

And so when the sea is dangerous you don’t second guess it and you don’t go.

But for climbers very often the opposite is true, and in many ways, we have more to fear. 

Most UK climbers seek out the biggest waves, the roughest seas, the red flags, maybe because our winters are so short, it’s only the weather warnings and avalanche alerts that tell us it’s time to climb, and climb we will, weather be dammed.  Most of us - even those with decades of UK winter climbing under their belts - are really still winter novices; we just don’t have enough experience of snow or avalanche safety to really know what we’re doing.  We also have a gung-ho attitude to mountain safety; how many climbers have decided not to go on the hill only to kick themselves when they hear of some other team that did and got a route in? 

We see a level 3 avalanche warning and just think “great it’s not level 4”, tell ourselves we’ll be more careful, and go anyway.  We do crazy things like climb below parties in dangerous gullies with only luck on our sides, never thinking that there is only so much luck that can go around in such places. 

One problem is that although the sea always wins, it’s also pretty predictable, whereas the mountains tend not to win, can be outwitted, but are far less predictable because of it. 

But all these things are part of what it is to be a winter climber in the UK.  It’s the dilemma of knowing time and conditions aren’t on your side. It’s betting a ten-hour car journey on the weather being good, and the snowpack safe, and losing, and better again that you’ll be lucky and get to climb, and luckier still not to die.

It’s easy to look at winter climbing fatalities and find faults, but such deaths are just part of human nature and have to be partly excepted as the price others pay for such a raw experience. But its also a time to reflect on what we all do and make adjustments, even if it’s only for the next climb.

Anyway here are five ideas on avoiding those traps;

Fill your dance card: Get some early ice climbing in Norway, the US or Canada.  The more miles you have under your belt the lower to impulse to push it when the winter comes, plus your fitness and ability will be much higher when it’s safe to climb.  This is especially true if you’re moving up in the grades and intend to tackle steeper ice routes, as the skills learnt on cascades overseas will be invaluable (and much easier to learn), than on a skinny Scottish smear in a snow storm.

Learn to ski  People told me this for years and years and I just ignored them, thinking it was too expensive.  But ski gear has come down a lot in price, and you can pick up skies and boots in most ski shops at a really good price these days.  Better still get into ski touring, as this will aid your climbing and mountaineering no end.  Also don’t ignore Nordic skiing, which is very cheap to start, and is great fun and even better training, and can be used for approaching routes as well if you stick your climbing boots in your sack. Very often when it’s too dangerous to climb, you can ski instead.

Get better.  The Mick Fowler dictum of ‘stick to the buttresses’ is often quoted by me, but it’s true; climb out of the gullies and you’ll be safer.  On buttress routes you have belays, solid ground and no cornices to drop on your head.  Most go to the top of the crag, allowing ridges to be descended.  Also, short buttress routes can be approached from above, avoiding dangerous lower slopes, just abseil in and climb out.

Outsmart the danger. Use your experience, your map and local knowledge when it comes to both route and crag choice.  Take it slow and don’t blindly walk into a trap.  Stay flexible with your plans, and be prepared to ‘just go for a walk’.  Also, don’t let poor judgment be caused by poor communication.  If everyone is shitting their pants, but no one is willing to say it, then be the first (to say it, not shit your pants).

Get skilled up.  A friend of mine was caught in an avalanche once, and while being drawn down to what he imagined to be his death he realized he knew nothing about avalanches.  At that moment he decided that if he lived he would get clued up and so avoid it happening again.  And he did.  Although there are many more sexy courses to do I’d highly recommend getting onto an avalanche course, as the skills will be passed on much easier, faster than reading a book, plus they will stick.  The best courses at the moment are a steal at £35 (1 day) and are being run by MCofS (info here).  Glenmore Lodge also do a two-day course on avalanche awareness, and most guides will be happy to run courses for small groups (a good option for climbing clubs).  On the subject of awareness, I think most of us simply go by gut instinct and a small amount of knowledge, but mainly our gut. 

This reminds me of that story about Carl Sagan, who, when asked for his ‘gut’ feeling about the existence of God, replied, “I try not to think with my gut.”