Norway doesn’t have huge ski resorts with hundreds of km of nicely groomed pistes, but what it sure does have is a ton of pretty untouched nature. Naturally randonnee ski touring is a big sport here, and so my fourth pair of skis are a pair of randonnee or topptur skis. Rando skis are made for powder, so they are generally at least 86 mm wide and feature a special type of binding (Dynafit or tech bindings) that allow for the heel to be free for skinning uphill. Hiking uphill is called skinning because we’ll attach skins with fine hairs that run the full length of the ski and prevent us from immediately sliding back down the hill (we did a fantastic wax job on those skis at the beginning of the season after all). Skiing untouched powder is an exciting prospect, but it does come with its hazards, because fresh powder snow and avalanche terrain go hand in hand. Luckily there are a few sets of skills that one can learn to drastically reduce the chances of anyone in the group ending up in an avalanche, and to familiarise myself with these skills beyond reading, I motivated my topptur-keen friends to go take an avalanche course over the weekend. We booked with Fjellsentralen who happen to have a Canadian guide up in Oppdal in the Trollheimen fjellområde (fjellområde being just below national park status) “near” Trondheim (“near” meaning 100 km south of Trondheim). We drove up Friday after work and met our guide Andreas the next morning.
After spending some time discussing the schedule for our course and particularly the first day we got ready for a tour. This means skins on, dress down because we’ll get very warm very quickly, and, most importantly set our avalanche beacons to “transmit”. If you’re caught in an avalanche the one thing you’ll definitely not be able to do is turn on your beacon and if you’re buried it’s your only hope of being found. So you really wanna make sure it’s on and that the battery indicator is above 50%. For this first day Andreas taught us soft skills on tour: Looking around and observing, noticing how the snow changes under your skis, identifying terrain features and signs of previous avalanches, etc. During lunch Andreas dug out a snow pit for us. Andreas happens to be a geologist, so he explained that essentially snow behaves like rock depositing in layers, just a lot faster.
If a weak layer is deposited below a slab that usually means avalanche danger. If the weak layer collapses it essentially works like ball bearings for the slab on top, so all of that is going to come down the slope, creating an avalanche. Generally speaking (ignoring the exceptions here) this applies to slopes of at least 30°. Take a moment to guess the steepness of your average black run in a ski resort. It’s around 25°.
The downhill ski was my first ever powder experience and it was so awesome! I can see why some people say that once they ski powder they can’t really go back to skiing on groomers. I still have a lot of respect for trees in my line though. And by respect I might mean slight fear. And by slight fear I might mean terrified. There was definitely a mismatch between Andreas’ definition of “wide open” and mine. Back at the car park we went over what we learnt today and got some homework: Andreas would send us the location for the next day and we would gather as much information for planning a tour as we could in the evening.
After a big dinner in town we were really keen for our homework and got right to it. We used the local map (1:50,000), the clinometers on our compasses, the Norwegian weather forecast alongside the avalanche forecast, as well as Norway’s largest community effort: an app (Varsom regobs) in which people post their observations of avalanche hazards and snow conditions. Any photos you send in could help Varsom to provide a better avalanche forecast for tomorrow. How cool is that!
On Sunday we then convened at the agreed meeting spot and proudly presented our observations to Andreas. Today a much larger range of aspect was going to be hazardous compared to yesterday and other groups had reported hearing thuds in the mountain just one valley over. We were keen to go out on tour again, but this is an avalanche course, so we spent the morning digging a lot of snow.
First up was pairing up in twos and digging snow pits to examine the layers. We found a nice soft 20 cm layer of powder on top with a pretty solid frozen 30 cms below from the melt-freeze cycle during the week. The bottom was full of the bad stuff: Facets. This is a type of snow whose crystals look like grains that don’t really bond well with anything. The perfect layer of ball bearings for an avalanche (we were in a flat meadow though). That is the stuff you definitely don’t want to encounter on slopes steeper than 30°. Next up were a few rounds of beacon search practice, which is basically a scavenger hunt. Super fun, until you remind yourself that you are practicing for life-or-death situations. Finally, we practiced digging hard to get to an avalanche victim once they are located. It’s quite good to know how hard is digging hard, kind of like doing your first emergency brake during driving practice.
After our lunch break it was time to go out for one more short tour. Amazingly, my definition of “wide open meadow” to ski down had already adjusted compared to yesterday. As a final teaching exercise Andreas attempted a ski cut to get a small slope to move at a safe distance, but not much happened. Even with the layer of facet snow, the slope wasn’t steep enough and so drag force triumphed over gravity.
If you’re now curious as well, I’ve linked some resources recommended by our guide that give a great first introduction below:
- https://www.avalanche.ca/tutorial An online tutorial on avalanches by the Canadians.
- https://varsom.no/snoskredskolen The Norwegian equivalent in Norwegian
- https://varsom.no Avalanche forecasting in Norway. Note that the English version has limited info compared to the Norwegian one, so if you ski in Norway and can’t speak Norwegian, let Google translate the Norwegian page for you.
- https://www.powder.com/the-human-factor-1.0 Great article that explains the human factors leading to bad decisions in the terrain, even as an experienced guide
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2ScKSMGvtc&t=683s The best video on the internet explaining how to ski in powder (thanks Nuno for finding this)
To get dive deeper into the whys and hows of avalanches I also picked up Bruce Tremper’s book “Staying alive in avalanche terrain”, which covers a lot more detail, including the physics of avalanches.