I wrote this Be Avalanche Aware article a year or so ago for the Professional Mountaineer Magazine but thought it was worth tweaking and posting it here. It is aimed at those prepareing for their Winter Mountain Leader award but hopefuly it is useful to anyone heading into the mountains in winter
Once we are released from lockdown for many it will be time to get out and log those QMD’s for Winter ML’s or Winter Routes for WMCI’s. The pressure of having a looming assessment or wanting to register so you can attend a training course can add a certain challenge to getting out in winter. Sometimes the drive of getting in a route or logging a day out can make us forget or miss the warning signs when it comes to avalanche danger. This is where the excellent ‘Scottish Avalanche Information Service’ (SAIS) ‘Be Avalanche Aware’ (BAA) planning tool comes into use. For a current or prospective Winter Mountain Leader and Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructors it would be expected that you had a very good working knowledge of the process. There are other planning tools and processes out there from different countries and these too are useful, however one of the reasons we focus on the BAA process is that it is designed to work well with the SAIS avalanche reports and website.
Below are my thoughts on the different stages of the process. These are by no means exhaustive, I fear if they were you would lose the will to read my rambling but are more designed as a reminder to get the brain working ready for winter!
The process is split into 3 stages (Planning, Journey and Key Places) and at each stage we think about 3 areas (Mountain Conditions, You & Your Party and Mountain Landscape).
As rough rule of thumb I think the break down on time and effort on thinking about each section is something like Planning 75%, Journey 20% and Key Place 5%. Most of our information is sourced before we leave home, we then confirm and check it during our journey before making any final decisions at Key Places.
When I have a vague idea of where I want to go and what I would like to achieve during the day I start my planning process. This will start to shape what I can and can’t think about doing in terms of safety. I must stress though that I do not finish this process with a fixed agenda for the day but with an outline plan. I glean information for my planning from lots of areas SAIS website, Weather Forecasts, Blog, Friends, Social Media etc it all goes into the melting pot
Weather: I am interested in a bit of history here in terms of the last 4 or 5 days as this will allow me to build some knowledge of where the snow will be and what it will be like (more of this below) as well as obviously what the weather is going to be like on the day and the day after. Temperature is important, have the last few days been below 0 or has it been fluctuating above and below 0. Where has the wind been coming from and how strong has it been and so where is the snow being moved to and what is happening to it. Finally, is there more snow or rain forecast.
Snow Pack: The above will influence the snow pack. Are their instabilities within the snow pack and if so what are the instabilities (Avalanche Problems), are they surface instabilities (wind slab) or is there a instability within the snowpack (persistent weak layer). This knowledge is important as it means you know what to looks for when in the next stage ‘journey’. Are the instabilities likely to change with the weather for the day? It is worth mentioning at this point that there are different level of instability but if you read the hazard levels they will never say never!
You and Your Party
The group is only as competent as its least experienced, fit or willing member, so to this end it is really important to make sure that everyone in the team is well equipped and skilled but almost more importantly they have the same aspirations for the day.
Equipment: Having the correct technical equipment it vital for your day out, but also having enough warm clothing, goggles etc is important. You may decide that due to avalanche hazard you stay on a wind exposed ridge, good for snow stability but no good it you get too cold in the wind and can’t see due to the blown snow.
Skills: If you are traveling through steep terrain do you have the movement skills to be able to do this with ease allowing you to continue to make decisions? Or are you pushed away from the hard stable snow into the soft potentially unstable snow because of your movement skills. Can you navigate well in white out conditions to avoid certain aspects and angles of slope? If you don’t have these skills, then it does not mean you can’t venture out you just have to be a little more careful with the route choice and location.
Plans and aspirations: Making good decisions in the mountains is important and when you are part of a group to do this everyone needs to be on the same page! Before any day it is worth making sure that everyone has the same goals and aspirations, the last thing you want to be doing is having an in depth discussion/argument about if you want bag that extra munro or do a particular climb. Be open and honest in the planning stage.
Steep: Is the terrain you are heading into going to be steep? For avalanche awareness this means anything around 30degrees and upwards. Why this angle well it is from here that avalanches become more common, but they can and do occur in lower angles. You can measure slope angle on maps with a little tool however be aware that this is fairly crude. Another option now is to use the excellent Fat Map software and app that is out there. Again, remember that during the next stage you still have to judge the terrain but this will help your planning.
Aspect: What aspects are you heading to? If there is unstable snow it is unlikely that it will be on all aspects. If you have steeper terrain to cross can you do this on the wind scoured safer side? Remember that this could change during the day and that mountains do strange things to wind so you might get pockets of unstable snow on various aspects you just have to watch out for this on your journey.
Complex or simple: Is the terrain you are heading into have lots of changes in aspect and angle on a micro level that would be hard to navigate around without good visibility or is relatively simple terrain where you can stick to uniform slopes and ridges? This along with the visibility will have an impact on your planning and route choice.
You have done all your planning and come up with some objectives for the day but you are still remaining flexible dependant on what you see on your journey. You are looking to see if what you came up with in the planning phase fits reality.
Weather: Is the weather as forecast? What is the wind and temperature doing, does this fit with the forecast? If so great but if not, then what is it doing to the snow? Are you going to have to change plans majorly or is it just areas you need to be more aware of?
Snowpack: Does the snowpack look, feel and sound like you were expecting? Do you need to do some further investigation? Are you seeing or hearing any warning signes: Shooting cracks, the squeeking on wind slab, pillows of fresh windblown snow, cornices etc?
You & Your Party
Equipment: Has everyone in the team got what they need? It is possible to forget things the the fug of an early morning winter start!
Skills: If the group is new to you, do the skills discussed match reality? Do you need to change plans to allow the group to be more comfortable?
Aspirations: Do peoples aspirations match their skills? Are aspirations still the same or have they changed when faced with reality of the winter conditions or is anyone carrying an injury or coming down with a cold? These things can not only effect movement skills but also the ability to make good decisions.
If you have not been to the venue before does it look like you were expecting? Maps are brilliant but they cannot show all the small features and micro terrain that can be important when it comes to snow stability and instability. If the terrain is not what you were expecting and you need to change plans how will that effect the group and the snow stability on your new route?
I do not have just one key place but many during a day. For me a key place is a decision making point from where a number of options are ruled out. For example, if working in the Northern Cairngorms during a climbing day my first key place decision might be which car park (Key Place 1)! Sounds funny but once parked in the Cas car park for Sneachda I am unlikely to be able to walk to Cha-No. Then if heading towards Snechda I then make a key place decision at the path junction between Sneachda and Lochain (Key Place 2), then halfway into Sneachda (Key Place 3) do I go into the base of the corrie or along the ficaill and abseil into routes, then in the base of the corrie (Key Place 4) which area do I go to and then finally can I get to my (eventually) chosen route?
You should arrive at each key place having done the above process and basically knowing the answer to the decision it is just a final time to confirm and if needed discuss with your group.
So there is a lot going on to make good decisions on avalanche terrain and the above is just a flavour. One of the most important aspects of making good decisions in winter is having ‘Head Space’, if you are operating at your limits then there will be little head space for decision making, however if you have plenty in reserve then there will be room for decisions! What does that mean? Go out and have big challenging days, visit new area, push your grade when the decisions are easy to make, when it gets all a bit more confusing or the weather is not so nice, or you are feeling below par then play it safe.