While avalanches are not uncommon in Australia’s high country, they are certainly not a day-to-day part of the backcountry experience.
But the late start to the season, which saw excellent and deep falls across the Alps has seen some strange consolidation in many places, with a resulting increased number of slides as the snow base settles in.
Since the big fall in early July, there has been warmer and cooler cycles and continued snow showers across the Alps. Mt Buller saw a large slide avalanche in the Chutes last week, Stanley Bowl on Mt Stirling was closed, and a lot of the terrain around Feathertop and Hotham felt sketchy in the more avalanche prone areas. There are many reports of cornice collapse and slides from the Main Range of the Snowies.
When we checked snow conditions above the slopes at Stanley Bowl at the weekend (12/ 13 July) there was a clear heavier layer of slightly rain affected snow as the base, with a covering of new snow that cleaved off very easily. While only a few cm deep in places (depending on the aspect, deeper on slopes that collect spindrift) it was certainly a classic avalanche profile. This upper layer is getting heavier and compacting but in our cross sections was a separate strata to the base layer. Slopes that were more sun affected appeared to be in a more stable condition.
Two experienced backcountry snowboarders, Martin Buckland and Daniel Kerry, are currently missing on Mt Bogong and there have been fears stated by search and rescue about avalanche risk on the mountain. Let’s hope they turn up safe and sound soon. (As a tragic update to this story, on July 14, Victoria Police announced they had found one body, subsequently identified as Daniel Kerr, and that an avalanche had caused his death. On July 16, Victoria Police also announced that they had found Martie Buckland’s body).
The take home message here is that there are some incredible conditions out there at present and you’d be mad to miss some of the best snow in a decade.
And as pointed out by Bruce Easton, owner of Wilderness Sports and with 30 years experience in the backcountry, people have been reporting “best ever” backcountry conditions. Conditions have been better than average to date, and if people use common sense and stay within experience and what they know, they can have great experiences.
But there is also an enhanced risk of slides, so take care, and check before you drop in on any large backcountry lines. It’s a good idea to ask for some local intell from ski patrol before heading out if you’re starting near a resort, or check sites like Backcountry Forum or Wilderness Sports for conditions in the backcountry.
Personally I don’t carry an avalanche beacon, but a growing number of BC skiers and boarders do. I started, and was caught in, a slide avalanche on the bottom section of Pink Hamburg near Mt Hotham a few years ago. Since then I have been doubly aware of the value of carrying a snow shovel even when touring the side country, and the dangers of skiing/ riding alone. A trip intentions plan – with good geographic detail about where you intend to ski/ ride, and a reliable person at home who has a definite time to call the emergency services – is really important for small groups intending to ski / board bigger and more remote terrain.
And if a slope is questionable but you do decide to ski/ ride it, then establish basic safety protocol: identify the likely points where a slope may give way and if there are any escape routes or safe points on the way down. Go one at a time while other the party members stand somewhere safe which allows them to observe the full slope so if a slide does happen they can pin point quickly where the debris has settled.
And if you’re not familiar with how to assess terrain for avalanche danger, then consider doing a course. There are 2 courses being offered this year in the Snowies, organised by Main Range Backcountry. They are being held Aug 27 & 28 and Aug 30 & 31st. Full details available here. Its money well spent.
There is a great short film by Fitz Cahall called Strong, about a man who survives an avalanche and goes back a year later to ski the line that almost took his life. The final words from that film says it all:
This year, be safe
But live wild