A couple of incidents in the last few days have highlighted for me the issue of personal responsibility.
On Christmas Day I was enjoying my second run off top of the Brevent. Category 3 day on 35 degree terrain in the company of one of my neighbours. Fully tooled up with transceivers, shovels and probes, we were taking it nice and steady. On the traverse to the Hotel Face, two reps for a well-known British ski package company with no packs passed us. I mentioned to one of them that it might be a good idea to be equipped, to which the response was: “I’ve got a transceiver but I left my ABS at home today because I didn’t expect to be skiing off piste”.
Fast forward to a visit to Crans Montana on the 28th December, and the front cover of Le Matin, a local Valais newspaper, caught my eye. A family of 4 were avalanched on the south face of Mont Gelé in Verbier , with no transceivers, shovels or probes and (according to the head of safety at Téléverbier), no idea that they were doing anything unsafe.
In typical tabloid fashion, this escalates into a debate as to whether off piste skiers involved in avalanches should pay extra for their rescues, over and above any private insurance premium they might already have paid. According to a spokesperson for Suva quoted in Le Matin, the average cost to the insurance company of an avalanche incident is 50,000 Swiss francs.
To me, the debate isn’t really about that- all we have to do is look at the two pictures published in the paper of folk crossing the line in Verbier. On the cover, a tourer is stepping the fences at the top of Mont Fort. On the inside page, a boarder ducks a rope somewhere in Verbier. Aside from what they have on their feet, there’s one striking difference in the two shots - what they have on their backs.
In one, the person may have taken some personal responsibility by equipping themselves correctly for off piste terrain. In the other, they haven’t. And remember, there’s no such thing as a little bit off piste. It’s like being pregnant – you either are, or you’re not. And once you cross that line, you most definitely are…
Happy New Year, and happy hors-piste.
July means hot weather, dry glaciers, firm snow and no avalanche risk? Wrong!
Richard, Oli and I ahve just spent the last few days acclimatising for Mont Blanc. On day 1 I called Laurence, the ever helpful gardienne of the Cosmiques hut, to ask how much snow they had received during Friday's storms. "Welcome to the winter version of the Cosmiques!" was her wry reply, and then told me I had better bring snowshoes to make our planned crossing of the Vallée Blanche from the Torino hut on the following day.They were very useful to scoot across from the Torino to the neaby Aiguille du Thoule on the first day, and we certainly felt extremely smug while skimming across the surface of the VB to the Cosmiques, climbing the Pointe Lachenal on the way.
The bad news when we arrived there was that 3 hours of being bombarded by lightning on the Friday had fried parts of the hut's electricity supply, but the crew were coping admirably under the circumstances. The good news was that the slopes of the Mont Blanc du Tacul had been tested by 30 people already, and the key slope of the Mont Maudit, a well known avalanche spot, had released spontaneously that morning.
You can clearly see the crown walls of the slab which has popped out: 30cm to 2m in depth, and a total of 300m in length. That's a fair amount of snow. The track which we put in the next day goes straight through the right hand pair of crown walls, with a short section of unreleased soft slab between the upper crwon wall and the bergschrund, which we pitched up rather than moving together.
It's always satisfying to effectively manage a risk in the mountains, even if it's slightly unexpected. When the mountain gods offer a lesson, it's best to take them up on it....