Tricky / Treacherous Conditions in the Mountains

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by Gavin Baylis

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05.29.2023


AVALANCHE ALERT: MASSIVE SLIDE HITS POPULAR SKI TOURING ROUTE AT COL DU LAUTARET

The PGHM de Briançon said about conditions “il existe de gros cumuls, associés aux hautes chaleurs, cela rend les conditions en haute montagne piégeuses” and piégeuses can either mean tricky or treacherous.

 

And what we witnessed on the north face of the Combeynot on Friday 5th May 2023 was certainly treacherous!

I’d been up there the day before going at a similar time in the morning.

It’s a big north face and this time of year can offer great spring snow. However, with temperatures rising there were many natural avalanches occurring, as snow warms up on the rocks and then purges down couloirs and the like, as you can see from the image below as Elaine was skinning up

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

The ski back down was really good. We opted for a line skier’s right in the gulleys, which do not get the sun as much so the snow was much firmer, in fact perfect spring conditions. An hour later, the face in the background above Elaine, image below, went first and propagated across the whole face.

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

As ever after the descent we had a beer and a bite to eat at Fred’s, Café de la Ferme at the Lautaret, watching the few people who were out that morning, ski in the sector, taking a photo of the face we’d just skied.

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023 

 

Then as we drove off I saw a huge avalanche happening in slow-motion.

We rushed back, driving up further than normal, and then I ran up to the slide where I was relieved to see the two skiers we had been watching while at the cafe. They had been having more than a few problems with the descent, traversing across the face rather than skiing the fall-line.

I was running up with my arva in search mode shouting at the two guys to turn their transceivers off transmitting as I was picking them up. And then one of them casually took his backpack off to take his arva out of it, which every backcountry skier knows is NOT where you keep your transceiver in case your bag is ripped off in a slide.

I took the picture, below, when I was clambering up through the debris searching, before the heli arrived. I’ve highlighted where I left the van and then legged it to the start and up through the debris – no wonder I was a tad knackered in the evening with my HR figs higher than when I ski toured up a couple of hours before. It must have been a good 1.5km from the van!

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

I continued to clamber up the debris, which was not that easy in my trainers and no socks, I did think that the only casualty of the day would be me busting an ankle.

I had initially been getting some very strange figures with a reading of 50m further up the debris and then nothing, and I borrowed one from the skiers to use his and double check as he really had no clue, and again it was the same.

Fortunately, they had called the PGHM and the heli was on the way, but they were convinced that no one was behind them on the face and we were pretty sure, as well, in that we saw no one else from our view at the café. But it was such a massive slide.

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

I then saw another group of four skiers we had seen earlier on the climb, and they, too, kept their beacons on which didn’t help to say the least.

They really should have split into two groups and skied either side of the slide using their transceivers in search but they decided to sit it out just as I heard the heli approaching, which made a series of passes over us presumably searching. Then the heli dropped one guy off who came over and debriefed us. The heli came back, dropping another and then the two of them started to carry out a systematic search, continuing covering the area as we left.

 

As for the technicalities of the slide, we’re pretty sure it started from above the face off the ridge as the rocks became warm, and then as the snow came down it hit the main face and propagated across as you can see from the fracture/crown line.

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

The avalanche from the obvious crown is 750m and then if you add the slide from above it’s nigh on a kilometre. I took the pic, below, the next day, having cycled up the Galibier road to the snowline on the other side to get a better perspective of it.

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

And then this image, below, pretty well puts things into perspective as to the scale of it, check the guy on the debris!

Combeynot Avalanche May 2023

 

One thing depressingly sure is that, if God forbid someone was caught in there, they would have been crushed and I doubt if I would have been able to dig them out quickly as it had set like cement, probably almost requiring a digger!

 

 





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