Avalanche reports: what is the risk in the French Alps this week?

Telegraph Ski and Snowboard
Check the latest avalanche reports from the mountains - (c) Andrew J L Holt www.andrew-holt.com VCI 44AH44

Staying safe when skiing or snowboarding in the mountains is crucial – an important part of that is being aware of the risk of avalanche where you are, being prepared when heading off piste, and knowing what to do should an avalanche happen.

The Telegraph Ski & Snowboard has teamed up with Henry Schneiwind from Henry’s Avalanche Talk, to provide up-to-date avalanche safety reports from the Savoie region of the French Alps, which includes popular resorts such as Courchevel, Méribel, Val Thorens and Les Menuires in the Trois Vallées as well as Val d'Isère, TignesLa Plagne, Les Arcs, La Rosière and La Tania.

What is the current avalanche risk in the Northern French Alps/Savoie?

The danger rating is 3 above 2,200 m and 2 below that. The risks are greatest on Northerly facing slopes due to the weak layer being worse on those aspects.The calm weather since Tuesday allowed the recent snow to settle but some instabilities persist in places, in particular shaded slopes. Some releases may still occur during any period of bad weather.

What does this mean for off-piste skiers and snowboarders?

With some fresh top-ups of snow, anything between 5 to 40 cm, we’ve been finding some fantastic off-piste conditions over the last few days. There’s some lovely cold powder snow still to be found, particularly on high North facing slopes. And it looks as if we’re due some more small amounts of fresh snow in the days to come.In high exposed areas the surface has often been wind-hardened and crusted, sometimes blown off altogether. In other places it’s been densified by the wind, although quite skiable.

Where is most at risk at the moment?

A persistently fragile snowpack has developed with the very cold temperatures recently. Last Tuesday I warned of the likelihood of avalanche accidents, which was a bluebird day sunny day following Monday’s snowstorms. However, we did not get as much snow as was forecast in the Savoie and the Isère. There was more snow in Haute Savoie and that led to some avalanche accidents. This is because a thicker layer of new snow on the weak layer creates more instability and that, in turn leads to more danger.

Given the relatively small amounts of snow forecast in the next few days, this probably won’t create generalised instability everywhere. However, when combined with wind, even just 5 to 15cm of snow can be blown into an extra 40cm or so in some places. That is enough to catch people out. Especially when it lands on a persistently fragile snowpack, like we have at the moment.

That’s based on the fact that over decades many accidents have happened in similar conditions to the current ones. At times they’ve even occurred when the avalanche danger rating has been low.

How does the forecast look for the coming week?

A weak area of unsettled weather is currently crossing Savoie and Haute Savoie, this will be followed by much colder weather and an uncertain situation for the weekend. Next week we will have high-pressure north of the Alps and low pressure over the Mediterranean. This means we will see a mixture of cold sunshine and clouds with a possible weak Retour d’Est on Wednesday, so expect the chance of some significant snowfall.

Friday 18 January

Numerous clouds in the morning from 1500 to 2500 m, but this will clear followed by hazy sunshine in the afternoon, when the north wind will calm quickly . The cooling continues with maximum 0ºC to 2ºC up to 1000m and -5ºC to -8ºC up to 2,000m.

Saturday 19 January

Expect sun despite some high clouds and perhaps some Cumulus clouds on the slopes. The wind is weak from west to northwest at altitude. Temperatures remain low, moving from -6ºC to up to 2ºC degrees at 1,000m and as low as -14ºC up to -4ºC at 2,000m.

Sunday 20 January

The sun appears among some clouds, which cling to the summits, and probably more numerous in the afternoon or in the evening. Maybe some light snowflakes. Weak west wind and still very low temperatures.

Monday 21 and Tuesday 22 January

On Monday the clouds prevail, with a small chance of snow on the valley floor. Colder with temperatures below average. Tuesday is likely to see a return of cold sunny weather with some banks of high clouds, while the wind still weak.

Wednesday 23 and Thursday 24 January

A low pressure system coming from the south and east will bring wind, clouds, clearings and possible snow on the Italian border. Temperatures without much change.

Tip of the week

The biggest risk comes from deep slabs sitting on the weak layer. So watch out for accumulations of snow and fresh snow on any part of the mountain, even in just small localised areas. When these sit on top of a persistently fragile snowpack, like we have at the moment, an avalanche can easily be triggered by a skier passing by.

With cold temperatures forecast for the next few days this new snow will turn into faceted grains and create another weak layer. So if we get significant new snowfall the snowpack will still be unstable.