My recent trip heli-skiing in Kyrgyzstan was more challenging than a week in Val d’isere or Zermatt in all kinds of ways. Just considering the skiing itself the exposure was significant with steeps, rocks, gullies, trees, streams, variable snow conditions and physical duress due to the 5 or 6 long off-piste runs per day. It was often what the French would call ‘Ski de Combat’ and at the end of the day everyone was exhausted.
The only thing that really scared me though was the avalanche danger. Three weeks before I was on the Swinging Monkey chair in Niseko Japan and I shared my lift with a dreadlocked, serious looking, loud American chap who was sporting a pair of fat Black Crows. Turned out he was from Juneau, Alaska, the capital of big mountain heli skiing. I decided to get some Gnar points by casually dropping my upcoming Kyrgyzstan adventure into the conversation. This stopped him in his tracks and he said: “Continental Snowpack. Stay safe dude, stay safe.” As is my modus operandi, I didn’t ask him the significance of this but noted for future reference. He duly skied off into the Japanese mist leaving me to ponder my fate.
I duly looked up what a “Continental snowpack” means, and for our purposes you can assume the snowpack is hard to read, variable and thus avalanches frequently, without warning and often weeks and weeks after the last snowfall. A great source of avalanche science is the excellent Meted Avalanche Forecasting website which has a full explanation of how snowpacks are classified.
The question that’s really intrigues me is what’s safer – heading into a remote location with a potentially unstable snowpack, but with the best equipment and experienced, risk-averse guides –or – getting off a chairlift on a powder day in the Alps and following someone’s tracks and then seeing some fresh and just hitting it, without any preparation, equipment or expert assessment of the danger?
The night before our first heli day we had a briefing with our 4 guides and they said the snowpack was unstable and was almost certain to avalanche at anything steeper than 30°, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. So the next two days were a bit of a surprise – we did all kinds of terrain including runs from 3600m and although the guides gravely tested the slopes and took us along ridges and spines when they could, I completely relaxed. Even from the heli I didn’t see the signs of avalanche activity. How wrong I was.
Day 3 dawned and we headed further east from our Yurt camp to get some more fresh. The terrain was steeper and the snow seemed a tad heavier than the previous day. There were only 4 clients this time (vs 14 the previous day) so we set for more action, or so we thought. The first pitch was excellent, and I got to go first and distracted by only one set of tracks from our lead snow sniffer, Oleg. This took us about 400m down on to a spur with a choice of a short, steep pitch left or right before the terrain flattened out into the valley. After everyone had completed the first pitch Oleg duly went to scout the left hand route. The slope which was maybe 40° at the top immediately avalanched below him, so he skied down that avalanche path and radioed up that we should try the other route, as it wasn’t stable and getting to his avalanche path would involve exposure.
Nikolai Gutnik, the lead guide, and something of a mountaineering legend in Central Asia, headed off to scout the right route which led into a narrow gully. This too avalanched, and due to the terrain trap, he radioed that we should go back to plan A. We went one at a time and traversed the steep pitch following Oleg’s tracks, before hitting the avalanche path. This slide was only 10-15m wide, and maybe 200m long, but had gone to the base and so was rocky and difficult. Everyone got down without incident but it was, to say the least, scary, especially as it was about the only properly steep skiing we did on the whole trip.
In the afternoon we again did some steepish – 28 to 30 degrees- pitches and these too avalanched, although this time it was only the top 12 inches or so that went. Here’s a photo of me showing the size of the slide.
Here’s a video of me skiing into an avalanche path and setting off a small slide as I turn left to right… The guides knew the snow base just wasn’t super deep but even so it was unsettling and given the rocky nature of the slopes, injury would have been pretty much certain.
There wasn’t a run we did that day that wasn’t affected by the unstable conditions and I was glad to get back to the camp without incident (well there was a daft stunt the heli pilot pulled, but that was kind of fun!).
Compared to a powder day in the Alps I think it was more dangerous, although my recent Alpine experience is limited. In the Alps I never carried avalanche safety equipment but I did follow the advice of the pisteurs, avoid areas where there were obvious signs of recent avalanche activity. Maybe I was young and dumb lived in a fool’s paradise when I did my seasons from 1997-2000 but I never felt in danger like I did in Kyrgyzstan. In the early season I’ve never seen snow just sliding off like I saw there and you got the impression it was fairly constant feature of skiing there.
And there’s no comparison with Japan at all. I’ve never seen an avalanche in Niseko after 4 weeks skiing there, despite the massive regular snowfall, and that’s one factor that will keep me going back.
Here’s a video created by Nikolai our guide with some pretty good footage of avalanches in the Kyrgyz backcountry.