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Climate change and ski mountaineering: what changes?

Climate change and ski mountaineering in a warmer world

Once, the best way to reduce the risk of avalanches was to start ski mountaineering in March, when the alternation of night freezing and daytime warming drastically reduced the risk of slab avalanches.

Today, this rule is completely ignored, and ski mountaineers start their season as soon as the first snowfall. And the avalanches? Well, we have avalanche transceivers and airbag backpacks, and a little less popular is the Avalung device, which allows the buried person to breathe for a long time under the snow. These devices, which have proved to be extremely efficient in reducing mortality in the event of burial, have a major limitation: they do not prevent the accident, but only come into play after the avalanche has already occurred. To put it in perspective, they are like seat belts or airbags in cars: we hope they can save lives, but I don’t think any of us drives faster or more distracted because we have a seat belt. Right?

The same reasoning applies to off-piste skiing, starting from a stark fact: about 10% of those involved in avalanches do not survive the impact with obstacles or the jumps into the void during the dragging that the avalanche involves. For the other 9, survival can depend on the above-mentioned devices and, of course, on the skills of the hiking companions who manage the self-rescue operations.

What is the best month to ski touring?

In light of what has just been written, it could be concluded that the old timers were right: let’s go back to skiing in March on firn!

It would be that simple, yet every true enthusiast at this point would send me packing for two very concrete reasons:

  • The first, and most prevalent, is that today’s skis are a tool developed to ensure perfect floating on the so-called powder, the powder, the mythical snow of December and January, which continues to give us satisfaction for several days after the snowfall on north-facing slopes. Skiing literally immersed in powder is the dream of all enthusiasts.
  • The second reason is already tangible today and will be even more so in the future: climate change is already incredibly marked in the Alps. We always talk about the melting of glaciers, whose thickness is gradually thinning, which is a practical and concrete measure of the change, but we talk a little less about the other effects of the change that, for those who live the mountains all year round, appear to be rather evident. Summer is getting longer, which is great! Winter, on the other hand, quickly gives way to humid spring, and this is a little less great for us. In fact, our hypothetical ski mountaineering season that starts in March increasingly does not find favorable conditions in the months of April and May, and at low altitudes sometimes not even in March.

In this discussion, we are entering a minefield where it is easy to fall into careless assumptions, but it is certain that average temperatures in the mountains are rising and, even worse, we, and especially the snow, are experiencing strong and sudden variations, for example today we wake up with minus 15 and tomorrow we are at +10. This means that the assumptions of predictability of snow behavior from March onwards become a little less: the guaranteed night freezes are now a distant memory, not so far away, 10-15 years ago. Ski mountaineering in April in the Dolomites now requires luck with the freeze and long approaches on foot with skis on your back. In May, on the other hand, the ski mountaineering enthusiast leaves by car and from the Dolomites moves to the higher mountains where the higher altitudes still allow us to ski.

At this point, one objection that could be made is that if March 2020 is like April 1999, then we move the golden rule by one month: let’s start in February. Well, no … anyone with a little knowledge of snow science knows that the most predominant factor in the transformation and settling of the snowpack is not the temperatures but the solar radiation, and that remains the same. So in February, in the north, after a heavy snowfall, we will find a lot of powder for many days to leave our tracks on, but we can still easily encounter the risk of unstable slabs.

Other trap we have not yet mentioned: it is snowing less and less.

Less snow, less avalanches, right? Key rules to chose the ski tour route.

Less snow, less avalanches, right? Even here, the answer from those with snow science skills is surprising: a rather thin layer of snow on the ground can lead to a high avalanche risk that persists over time. In fact, the snow present is subject to a so-called “constructive” transformation that for the ski mountaineer translates as “negative situation”. Here is a bad explanation of the reason why, in recent winters with little snow, we have had so many avalanche accidents.

Reducing the probability of being involved in an avalanche today cannot be done by following such general rules as the one from which we started. Yes, we go skiing with the first snowfall, maybe the second, but we adapt to the situations, we don’t force, we don’t bend a severe nature that is, as mentioned, increasingly unpredictable, to our needs. We start with the awareness that turning our heels that day could be our peak. We are aware of what is happening around us and we try to get in tune with the place and the moment in which we find ourselves.

Future of ski mountaineering: Will we still do it?

Unless we change our minds… Does it still make sense to practice this activity that may have its days numbered? The answer is up to each of you. For me, it makes sense to the extent that it fills me with happiness, in the here and now. It makes sense because I am the one who adapts to nature and accepts its conditions. I move slowly in the silence of the high lands, conquering the summit with the sweat of my brow, I move away from the ski slopes which are simply something different. Comparing ski mountaineering to on-piste skiing would be like asking a fisherman why he doesn’t prefer to catch carp at the frozen food counter at the supermarket.

Written by: Fabrizio Della Rossa, Mountain Guide

The practice of ski mountaineering is a unique way to get close to and feel the contact with the mountains. Its beauty is a siren song for us small humans, its dangers are tension and adrenaline. We, alpine guides, are the first to be enchanted, attracted and irremediably chosen. The highest level of training and technical preparation are a guarantee of our safety and that of our clients.
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