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    Guidelines for avalanche country

    Sigurður Jónsson

    My grandfather, Sigurður „Búbbi“ Jónsson, died two years ago when he was almost 93 years old. All his live he enjoyed being in the mountains, hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. He raced on cross-country skis and toured throughout the Westfjords with his friends until his late eighties. Through the years we spent endless hours discussing this common interest of ours and sharing our experiences. One of the topics of our discussions was avalanches and he told me that he never had Lolita any mishaps or problems with avalanches in his eighty years of playing in the mountains. So was he simply lucky or was there anything specific that helped him and his friends enjoy all these years in the mountains safely?

    Our conclusion was that because of their interest and equipment they „accidentally“ ended up following what could be the most basic and important rule for staying out of avalanche danger: „Avoid layered winter-snow on lee slopes of more than 25-30 degrees angle“. They had no particular interest in seeking fresh powder in steep bowls because they were primarily running on cross-country skis. And they knew by experience to leave certain mountain slopes alone for awhile after storms.So, we could say that by following this simple rule we could live a long and safe life as backcountry skiers?

    But we like steep skiing… and we love fresh powder! So Summer there is no way that we are going to follow such a conservative rule – or what? Modern avalanche awareness education has perhaps developed in the direction where people are taught to evaluate the avalanche risk to allow them to ski steeper lines and basically travel in „avalanche country“ instead of staying away from it. New technology with airbags, beacons, ava-lungs etc even gives people a false sense of security and a believe that even if they do get caught in an avalanche they will survive.


    In the Alps and in the main mountain areas of USA and Canada there are very efficient forecasting services for avalanche danger and daily danger reports are accessible for anyone. These danger reports form a key input into decision making for terrain choices and tour plans. The Icelandic Met Office has started to publish similar forecasts but they are still being developed and even if they provide great help they are not yet regular or detailed enough.I believe there is a need for a new set of guidelines for backcountry skiers who seek steeper terrain and travel in areas with little or no access to official danger reports. We have to accept that people will want to ski that nice steep couloir or that beautiful looking powder bowl so there is no way we can tell them to Hello stay home. We need to learn to follow the local weather and the development of the snowpack over time. We need to learn to follow nature´s own warning signs and to use simple methods of checking local conditions with snow pits etc. We need to manage the „human factors“ and how group dynamics influence decision making, perhaps by establishing more strictly no-go zones during our trip plan. No-go zones are areas off limits for the day (certain lee-sides for instance), no matter how tempting they may look when you actually get there!

    Let´s all try to have at least eighty happy skiing years in the mountains… and live to tell our grandchildren about them!