The last few turns in Val di Rhemes, Gran Paradiso National Park, Italy

Not Normal

It’s been a challenging ski season in 2017. Time for a round up and a reflection on the last 6 months of winter.

We had an early snowfall in October and everyone got very excited. Then, as has frequently happened in recent years, it was dry for a very long time. When it arrived, the snow came mostly on the southern side at the western end of the alpine chain. Piedmont had good coverage as early as mid December. Nearer to home, Courmayeur had reasonable coverage at Christmas when Chamonix had none. Yes – that’s right: no snow at Christmas. With the result that traffic queues at the Mont Blanc tunnel over the holidays reached record levels of up to 4 hours.

Low snow cover and stellar weather at Grand St Bernard, December 2016
Low snow cover and stellar weather at Grand St Bernard, December 2016

By mid February it was looking reasonable, that is to say it looked and felt like what we would regard as a January snow pack, with a huge amount of depth hoar between 1800 and 3000m. This concept of the winter starting later and later is something we’ve been getting used to, but this is the latest I’ve ever seen it. Coincidentally in February, I was sent links to a couple of studies on climate change, and one of the lines from the study by the Swiss Avalanche Institute and Lausanne Polytechnic stood out:

“the winter season starts half a month to 1 month later and ends 1 to 3 months earlier”.

And this is a prediction for what will happen in 70 years time! For me, the evidence of a late start to winter is already here, albeit occasionally. And an early finish? In March I was over in Austria, and despite reasonably topped up levels of snow in the higher mountains of the Tirol, it felt like April. In the 3rd week in March, we encountered a rain crust at 2400m, evidence of unusually high temperatures for that time of year. The skiing was great above 3000m on the north side of the Alps, but I’d cancelled a planned trip to the Dolomites. According to a colleague based in Corvara, it was “a very bad season, probably the worst I remember!”.

In March I witnessed some of the most unstable avalanche conditions I’ve ever seen in all my years of ski guiding. The dry conditions of early winter had promoted growth of an unstable layer in the snow pack in many parts of the Alps, a phenomenon highlighted by me and other colleagues in an article on the BMC website. It was only a matter of time before the other elements of high wind loading and some re-warming came together. The remote triggering was the most extensive I’ve ever seen, with 3 separate avalanches triggered across a distance of over a kilometre, burying 2 skiers up to a metre down, both happily excavated alive. We were a k away from the nearest debris, but nevertheless it gave everyone pause for thought. None of the 10 or so guides in the area could recall seeing an event on that scale – ever.

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Low snow cover and high zero degree isotherm forming huge ice patches in Jotunheim. April 2017

In early April, I was in Norway, and the good news was that the ice in Senja was lasting much longer than expected. In fact Darren and I appeared to be the only mountaineers operating on the whole island. The following week, I was in the Jotunheim and, with the exception of two other hardy British ski mountaineers, we were the only team on the famous Jotunheim Haute Route that week. Scarce snow cover, warm temperatures and high winds had even put off the Norwegians, it seems.

Late April saw us in Iceland. By now I was used to the story of “not much snow and much warmer here compared to previously”. We still managed some fine skiing, with temperatures hovering around freezing at sea level most of the week. But the fact that I didn’t put a Gore-Tex layer on all week suggests it might have been a bit warm!

Unusually sparse snow cover in Isarfjordur, Iceland. April 2017
Unusually sparse snow cover in Isarfjordur, Iceland. April 2017

 

Ten days in May wound up the season nicely, with a return to what might be thought of as normal conditions for the Alps. And even snow to valley level on the 1st May! Which brings me to the point of this post. I often hear people asking ( especially when it’s super warm or dry on what might be considered classic ski season ) : “Is this normal?”. And my response is usually: “ There’s no such thing as normal anymore”.

My observation of weather patterns over the last decade has been that the weather has become

  1. More extreme in nature: when it’s warm, it’s really warm. When it’s windy, it’s really windy. I was climbing with a friend of mine in North Wales in May. He advises the Australian government on climate change ( now there’s an uphill battle ), and this is known as increased variance, well known to climatologists.
  2. Slower to change: when a weather pattern sets in, it can often sit there for weeks. The establishment of blocking high pressure anticyclones over central Europe is often what leads to long hot and dry periods
  3. It’s generally warmer. I’m writing this at the end of May and temperatures in the Chamonix valley are pushing the high 20’s. Not normal…. The key question is whether it’s a blip or not. A Les Houches bar owner, normally very good barometers of conditions and resort business, observed that the last 3 winters have all been warm and she asked me: “Does that make it a trend?” Climatologists would say yes.

So what can we/should we do?

Firstly, it’s not all doom and gloom. By adapting what we do, we can still get good skiing and climbing. I’ve skied some excellent snow and climbed some great ice this season by being more flexible and prepared to change plans at the last minute.

Secondly, the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is being driven by human factors. The challenges are huge, so it may seem difficult to know what to do. Here’s a graph from my friends at POW that may help you to decide how to reduce your contribution to climate change

Housing, transport and food make up more than half the average carbon footprint in France.
Housing, transport and food make up more than half the average carbon footprint in France.

 

My personal approach is to try and do a few small things to reduce consumption. I’m mostly vegetarian, we run just one car between two of us, I travel to Austria on the train rather than driving, I haven’t really gone out of my way to promote heliskiing, and I draw the line at flying to Japan for skiing, even though it’s supposed to be sensational. I’m certainly not saying we should all do that, or that I couldn’t personally do more, but I certainly think about the effect I have on the planet when choosing my work.

If you want more info, especially as a skier, you could do well to check out Protect Our Winters

See you all next winter.