Sunday, 28 December 2014

Transceivers and interference

Major snowfalls have been happening across the Western Alps (50cm+ here in the Vanoise yesterday!) and there should be no need to remind everyone that the avalanche risk will be high for some time to come until the newly fallen snow has time to settle, and even then there will be some persistent weak layers under the new snow due to the thin early-season snowpack...

Conservative slope selection will need to be applied, along with careful group management and it goes without saying that those venturing off piste and into the mountains would be advised to carry avalanche safety kit and know how to use it.

On that note - this autumn I revisited 2 papers presented at the International Snow Science Workshop in 2013, concerning potential interference on transceivers from consumer electronics. This is a subject that is becoming more and more relevant with the increasing carrying of smart phones (particularly with touch screens), along with GPS, POV cameras, video cameras etc - the basic premise is that any device consuming power generates a magnetic field and this can compromise transceiver function.

The papers both took a systematic approach to studying the effects both on transmit and receive mode, and the results take a bit of sifting through - so here is a 'laymans' summary of the results and recommendations - unsurprisingly these match closely the observations I have made in non-scientific tests over a number of years:

Transmit mode:

Possible effect = loss of range.

Recommendations = minimum distance of 20cm between possible interfering objects and Transceiver

Note 1: Objects found to have an effect on the transmit range included: alloy bottle, food wrapper, shovel blade, belt buckle
Note 2: Range reductions of more than 30% were uncommon, so applying some reduction to manufacturers recommended search strip width should account for this

Receive mode:

Possible effects = loss of range, loss of accuracy of direction/distance readings

- minimum distance for no interference: 1m for phone with active screen, 70cm phone with screen off, 60cm camera in active mode. (With these devices switched off there was no discernible effect)
- watches (GPS or smart watches) had a significant influence within 10-15cm (hold your transceiver in the opposite hand!)
- avoid storing transceiver close to magnetic field as this can magnetise the antenna over time.

Note: significant loss in range was observed in receiving transceivers

Further notes:

- at its furthest range a transceiver is at its most sensitive and so more prone to interference, for example a digital camera 36cm away from a receiving transceiver creates noise of similar level to the received transceiver signal!
- analog function allows increase in range as human hearing is more efficient at detecting/discerning 'real signals' from noise, so can cope with a higher signal-to-noise ratio

In summary: it is strongly recommended to keep phones and other electrical items switched off whenever possible, and certainly this should be standard protocol in the event of an avalanche incident.


Meister and Dammert
"Effect of consumer electronics on avalanche transceivers"
Genswein, Atkins et al.
"Recommendation on how to avoid intereference issues in companion and organised avalanche rescue"

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Glencoe off piste guidebook

Kenny at was kind enough to give me a copy of the new Scottish Offpiste Skiing & Snowboarding - Glencoe guidebook when I saw him at the Kendal Mountain Festival last month:

This book follows on from the very successful Nevis Range & Ben Nevis guidebook and takes a very similar format.
The book covers the Glencoe area from Beinn a' Bheithir in the West, the North and South sides of the glen itself, and down as far as the hills above Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum in the South. With 93 routes of all levels there is plenty to go at in here for all ski mountaineers, from those looking for a mellow day in the hills to skiers seeking serious (in all senses) challenges, and for those who don;t want a strenuous day, there is also a full and detailed description of the off piste accessible from the lifts at Glencoe Mountain Resort.

The routes are well-described, accompanied by very clear topo diagrams/maps and photos which should help even a complete stranger to these parts find their way around with reasonable ease.

Sample page:

Back from the Nevis topo is the simple 6-step grading system of difficulty, along with the great "similar to", "harder than" and "combine with" information bars, all of which make the book very user-friendly.
Also useful for first time ski visitors to Scottish ski areas is a guide to Scottish lift etiquette, which takes some understanding to not commit a faux-pas!

The section covering the history of skiing in the glen along with the development of the Glencoe ski area makes for interesting reading, and the guide to pronouncing local place names means that no page of this book should be left unread (and having heard many, many bad interpretations of the pronunciation of 'Buachaille' this is possibly the most useful page in the book:-) ).

Another great job from Kenny, and with so much of Scotland's mountainous terrain still to be covered here's hoping there are more books in the pipeline!

Buy your copy of the guidebook direct from Kenny at the website.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

ABS Recall - steel cylinders & twin bags

Another recall for ABS avalanche airbags - this one appears to concern any twinbag which may have been used (test or real deployment) with a steel cylinder dated pre-3/12/2014.
Full details on the ABS website:

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Pre-Christmas conditions - 3 Valleys

As you may be aware, the start of this season has been quite (very poor) in terms of snow - while it is not unusual for lower parts of many resorts to be on partial opening until into Christmas week, the lack of any appreciable amounts of snow up high are definitely out of the ordinary.

In the 3 Valleys currently Courchevel has limited opening, with no realistic possibility of off-piste adventures, Meribel has very limited opening, with downloading on lifts necessary to get back to the valley, while Val Thorens actually has about 80% of lifts and pistes open. Off piste remains very thin, but one or two possibilities remain for avoiding the crowds which aren't almost certain to damage skis or body. Late morning today there was a good clear spell and I took advantage of this to take this week's team off in search of the few cms of fresh we had had last night:

There is a bit more snow in the forecast for this week, but not enough to make an appreciable difference yet, so much care is needed to seek out safe off piste turns - head high, and stay in the depressions which have accumulated a bit more depth through the autumn.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

British Mountain Guides CPD

I have just spent 2 days over in Verbier running some CPD for a group from the British Mountain Guides. The theme of the sessions was based around steep skiing - technique, tactics and psychology, and the experience of the group varied from an Aspirant Guide preparing for her final ski test this winter, to guides with over 20 years working experience. Despite very limited snow (basically we had to stick to the few open pistes) we managed to have a very productive 2 days, covering lots of topics and with all of the group making some good changes in their own skiing. All we need is a bit more snow so the gang can put it all into action!

Photo courtesy Jonny Baird.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Aiguille des Saints Pères - Couloir Ouest

A quick hit this morning to try and kick-start some fitness and maybe sneak in some good skiing...

I had heard reports that the St Pères couloirs had a reasonable fill of snow, and with the Val Thorens ski area already open there was the reassurance of having a high roadhead and snow back to the car (quite a rare thing this December...).

Several couloirs line the face of the Saints Pères, but the right hand one is by far the steepest (and most aesthetic):

An 8:30 start saw me skinning up out of Val Thorens before the lifts opened, with 1000m vertical on the cards. Despite a gloomy morning in the valley it was actually quite clear, with just a bit of high cloud around the Aiguille de Peclet. Looking back towards the valley showed just how poor the early season snow situation is:

Looking up into the couloir from the approach slopes:

The skinning went quickly enough, but progress slowed on entering the couloir - the snow consistency was not great for skinning, even with couteaux on, but boot packing was slow going in the deep snow. The promise of a great ski down kept spirits up though and soon enough I came out at the col. The top of the couloir currently is as well filled in as I have ever seen it - just 3 metres or so of rocks which are too tight to ski through (with rocks under the snow too) but below that it was perfect - creamy, heavy powder on a fairly consistent base. In the past I have generally had to downclimb or rap the first 20 metres over exposed rocks!

Ready for some fun:

The descent was great - 400m of good creamy powder, and then by following the stream/gully lines which are well filled in I was able to ski back to within 50m of the piste edge without feeling like I was risking skis or limbs (there were a good number of 'skier vs rock' incidents when Val T opened recently for a weekend...).

Looking back up from partway down the couloir:

A good way to kick off some steeper skiing for this winter - although the couloir is graded 5.1 on the toponeige scale it doesn't often feel like it quite deserves the grade, but is a fantastic ski anyway!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Kendal Mountain Festival - full(er) review

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Kendal Mountain Festival it is without doubt the world's biggest Mountain Festival, with 4 days of films, speakers, workshops, active events, literary events, music, partying, industry events and networking!

I have been a part of the main presenting team here for about 6 or 7 years and it is always a pleasure to be involved and see so many passionate outdoors people from all disciplines coming together.

Here are some of the highlights of sessions I was involved with:

Dream Line

It was a great privilege to be introducing Bjarne Salén and his (and Ptor Spricenieks') latest film "Dream Line" .

Ptor has a particular philosophy on life and in particular on how our dreams and real life can intersect at times and if we are open to this we can let this help to guide us through life. The film puts this across very well, without drifting too far into fluffy philosophising. It also features some great ski mountaineering, including archive footage from the first descent of Mt Robson, and a ski and snowboard descent of Artesonraju and culminates with an attempt to ski the Shina face of Gashot Peak in Pakistan, not without a mishap or two along the way. Well worth one hour of your time!

Snowsports night

What a night this was! Aside from the stress of hosting this (I took up an offer to work on the main presenting team at Kendal a few years ago specifically to challenge my fear of public speaking...!) the line-up and content was probably the best we have had in the 6/7 years I have been involved with this night. A first half packed full of British ski talent - Ross Hewitt, Tom Grant and Michelle Blaydon giving a short insight into their trip this spring to the ski mountaineering mecca of Baffin Island, Kenny Biggin following up with a great short film of a descent of Great Gully on Buachaille Etive Mor in Glencoe, Scotland and then Ben Briggs with a glimpse into the world of extreme skiing (and as a man who has skied the East Face of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, Y couloir on the Aiguille Verte, Sentinelle Rouge on Mont Blanc and many many more he is as qualified as anyone to use the often mis-used term 'extreme skiing').

Multi-talented Swiss skier Sam Anthamatten picked up the baton for the second half - 8a+ rock climbing at age 14, 7 years on the ice Climbing World Cup circuit, ascents of Cerro Torre in Patagonia, Freerider on El Cap, Moonflower Buttress on Hunter as well as a new route on the North face of the Matterhorn, 2nd overall on the Freeride World Tour in 2011, filming with Xavier de le Rue and Andreas Fransson - Sam is representative of a new generation of talented all-rounders operating at a really high level in the mountains, and pushing the boundaries of skiing by bringing the speed and fluidity of freeride competitions into areas and onto serious faces previously tackled at much slower speeds...

The evening was capped off with a series of short films, and an emotional tribute from film-maker Bjarne Salén to his friend Andreas Fransson (guest speaker here at Snowsports night 2 years ago) who was killed in Chile this September along with JP Auclair while filming with Bjarne.

Other highlights from the festival:

Valley Uprising - one of the common complaints amongst presenters and festival goers is films which are too long... this film is the exception to that - 90 minutes long, and it leaves you wanting more! A fantastic trip through the history of climbing in the Yosemite valley - part documentary, part social commentary, part climbing film, and hilarious in places (as long as you aren't of too politically correct a mindset...)

Jeff Lowe's Metanoia was another gripping film, charting his battle with an incurable disease, as well as retelling the story of one of ice climbing's most important pioneers. A measure of the importance of the Kendal Mountain Festival is that Jeff took the time (and great personal effort) to travel over and present the UK premiere of this film (and if you watch the film you will understand how much effort that is).

And finally, Afterglow. There are probably very few people who have not seen this since it went viral on the internet a few weeks ago, but it truly comes into its own on a big screen with a high quality projector!