Avalanche auguries: the first SAIS report of the season

Posted by Peter Burnside on 15/12/2016
A frosty view from the Cobbler (Ben Arthur), in the highlands of Scotland. Photo: Shutterstock / N Mrtgh

The wizardry involved in reading the portents of avalanches can be complex and sometimes even hazardous. With winter season nearly upon us, and with it the daily avalanche reports from the SAIS, we try and lift the veil on the dark arts of avalanche forecasting.

Predicting avalanches is a huge responsibility and one that not many would willingly shoulder.  The pressure of writing a report knowing that hundreds of people are relying on your information to be accurate would be daunting to the extreme, but it’s just a day in the life of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) team.

Daily avalanche reports from the SAIS commence on 16 December and will run through to the end of the winter season in 2017.

“The pressure is just part of the job,” states Kathy Grindrod, SAIS avalanche observer. “You could go home feeling responsible for what people do, but you’d be a nervous wreck. You be as accurate and do as best a job as you possibly can. But you can’t control what everybody does.”

Kathy is just one part of a small SAIS team that we rely on to produce reports for the whole of Scotland, covering the six main mountain areas of: Creag Meagaidh, Glencoe, Lochaber, Northern Cairngorms, Southern Cairngorms, and the Torridon region. Each member of the team uses a combination of personal field observations, the latest technology, and super accurate forecast information to assess the potential avalanche hazards and to write their reports.

WATCH: Winter skills 2.1: avalanche and route assessment on BMC TV

People and partners are invaluable

One of the team’s more valuable assets is the massive wealth of experience it shares between its members. Experience is essential when producing accurate forecasts and is integral to providing a professional and safe operational practice.

“We have 12 to 16 forecasters with an additional number of experienced mountaineers who are going through a process of training,” explains Mark Diggins, SAIS co-ordinator and IFMGA Mountain Guide.  

“Most have a great breadth of experience and have been with the service for over 15 years, some since the start of the service in 1990. Experience is essential as we need good decision makers when the weather is bad.”

As winter approaches, the gears of the SAIS team are already churning up to working speed and all members will be watching the developing snow to assess how it’s being laid, how the pack is forming, and what this will mean for avalanche potential in the coming months. These initial observations may be key to assessing avalanche risk in the coming season.

“From the first snowfalls, all forecasters will be looking at how the winter develops, as snowpack history is important when determining hazard. Additionally all members of the team will go on the hill to look at snow distribution and stability,” says Mark.

“Avalanche forecasting is both a science and an art. It’s important to have a good scientific understanding of the processes within the snowpack as well as applying weather forecast information to snow-grain changes within the snowpack and snow distribution.”

WATCH: Winter skills 1.5: conditions and weather on BMC TV

Mountain weather forecasts play a significant role in SAIS operation. Macro climate effects can be felt from weather systems crossing the Atlantic Ocean or from continental land masses like Canada or Europe. Both have incredibly different effects on Scottish conditions.

To ensure they receive the most accurate and timely weather data, the SAIS and the Met Office have been working together for over 20 years, with the SAIS receiving specialist, bespoke forecasts from the Met’s Aberdeen Office to support the assessment of conditions conducive to avalanche hazard.

“We also benefit from the latest technologies and developments from data collected by the Met Office supercomputer in Exeter. We get very accurate (hourly) forecast information for many factors,” says Mark.

Avalanche occurrences

The recording of avalanches is valuable to the SAIS as it helps provide clear, real-time hazard information and is the best indicator of the immediate short-term snow stability situation. Recorded avalanches are a compilation of observed occurrences from a number of different sources, namely: SAIS forecasters, reports from winter mountain sport enthusiasts, interested members of the public.

If you’ve seen signs of an avalanche, you can use the SAIS online avalanche report facility.

According to the Annual SAIS Winter Report 2015/2016, the total number of recorded avalanche occurrences last season was 205.

Of this number, 159 were natural and/or cornice released and 46 were incidents triggered by people. Some avalanches occurrences were minor, in that small releases occurred, but others were more significant and resulted in people being carried with down by the avalanche.

"I didn't even think of avalanches when I started," says Mark. "But when I think back now, I realise that I have had some lucky escapes."

While the SAIS wish for everyone to be able to enjoy Scotland’s beautiful mountain environment in winter, it’s only sensible for people to be out if conditions allow for it to be safe. For instance, during a 10-day period in February 2016, there were 21 human-triggered avalanche incidents with three fatalities. This period was during the mid-term holidays and coincided with stormy conditions, poor visibility, snowpack instability and when avalanche warnings issued by the SAIS ranged from Considerable up to High. It’s imperative that the public are fully armed with all the information before heading out in winter conditions.

Mark advises for the public to: “Keep looking at weather and avalanche forecasts daily throughout the season so you know what is going on before you go into the mountains. Be flexible with your plan so that you have alternatives in different locations. In this way you are best placed to take advantage of conditions elsewhere. A lot of avalanche accidents occur when people continue with a fixed plan because they have invested too much into one objective and do not change it if conditions are unfavourable.

"Most importantly, there is no shame in turning back when uncertain about conditions. A climb will always be there for another day. ”

WATCH: All three BMC TV winter skills series on Youtube

READ: #MAKEWINTERCOUNT – The winter competition


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