Tag Archives: avalanche

How Many Deaths on Toubkal…

Nearing Tizi Toubkal in the South Cwm

Nearing Tizi Toubkal in the South Cwm

One of the search terms on Google that leads people to The Mountain People website is, ‘how many deaths on Toubkal due to avalanches’.


This might seem like an odd search initially, but it actually reflects the lack of information that we take for granted in the UK, such as the superlative Scottish Avalanche Information Service and Mountain Weather Information Service.


We are all used to the daily routine of consulting and poring over the current meteorological, avalanche conditions or the whereabouts of particular blackspots. However, focusing on a bodycount does seems a little odd: all mountains are dangerous, whatever the season. Whether a bodycount is high or zero, the risks remain.


This confirmed some reflections that been prompted after reading the trip report of an independent traveller, Holiday Nomad (link below), who climbed Toubkal at the end of March 2013.


There is nothing untoward or unusually risky about climbing Toubkal. It is widely recognised as a straight-forward trekking peak with no major technical difficulties on the voies normales. However, in winter conditions it necessitates a serious approach, with the right equipment (i.e., ice axe and crampons), and perhaps more importantly, the right mindset. The trouble seems to be that individuals make the wrong call in these areas, whether through innocent ignorance or downright folly.


Preparing for the traverse from Tizi Toubkal onto the summit plateau

Preparing for the traverse from Tizi Toubkal onto the summit plateau

If you forget your ice axe or crampons, you can normally get by, whether kicking steps with your crampons or cutting them with your ice axe, depending on which you have left. You may even be able to get yourself out of trouble by cutting steps with the edge of your boots. However, there are a number of areas on Toubkal where you would simply not want to be in such a predicament, especially on bullet hard névé. One of the most exposed areas is just above Tizi Toubkal on the South Cwm route, where an exposed traverse across to the summit plateau is required. To the west are precipitous cliffs and to the east is a moderate slope which ends abruptly with a 500m high rock face.


In fact, this particular spot is reminiscent of the area on Snowdon in Wales where the mountain railway crosses above the crags of Clogwyn Coch. The railway is dug into the mountain on its traverse, making for a tempting platform on which to walk. However, when banked out with snow and ice, a slip here would result in an increasingly rapid slide and eventual fall over the cliff tops (link beow). In recently harsh winters, there has been a handful of fatalities where the scenario above unfolded (link below).


The other thing to bear in mind is that the summit plateau of Toubkal can be very windy. This can come as a shock, as prevailing winter conditions are cold and dry. However, the combination of cold and wind translates into extreme windchill, so it is advisable to have a flexible clothing system that can deal with the wind. Moreover, wind can have further implications for safety, if one is without ice axe or crampons – a sudden gust of wind could quite easily cause one to lose balance and precipitate into an uncontrollable slide. If you want an idea of what it is like to slide down a mountainside out of control, watch the video below, which is again from Snowdon earlier this winter (link at bottom of page).


Summit cliffs of Toubkal

Summit cliffs of Toubkal

To come back briefly to the theme of avalanches, they do occur in the High Atlas, in the same way as in all mountain areas where humans or human property come into contact with the mountain. Fortunately, the level of incidence seems low, which could be explained by lack of media coverage, relatively low levels of people in the mountains or otherwise. However, the point is to remain aware and informed, and I recommend a great book on avalanche awareness that gave me a lot of confidence in assessing conditions recently in Scotland: Snow Sense by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler (link below).


Lastly, in an age where the apprenticeship process of ‘learning the ropes’ seems to be waning, either get out with an experienced, knowledgeable friend or get yourself an instructor. You may get lucky and be able to rely on good-hearted members of the public to help you in a tight spot. However, there is no shame in going back to basics in the old school and learning the ‘noble art’ of step cutting from someone, whether you have bought their services with money or beer! Alan Halewood, a local Fort William guide had to employ these techniques, drawing on the assistance of his two clients at the end of this season on Ben Nevis (link below).


Ice axe, crampon, avalanche awareness skills are life long skills once acquired, and may well just save your life and the lives of others right when you need them.




Categories: Blog, High Atlas, Morocco, Simon, Winter
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What Does the SAIS & Latin Have in Common?

Sunday 14 April was a sad day – the SAIS announced the end of its daily avalanche reports (at least until next season, and weekend forecasts will continue for a little while yet). For me, this unofficially signalled the end of winter and the need to move on. Trad climbing, scrambling and summer hillwalking beckon.


Elsewhere on the internet, writers, such as Heavy Whalley, took the opportunity to point out that although the daily reports have finished, those venturing into the hills still need to make judgements based on sound information and reasoning. Snow and ice still linger, and spring conditions are more than capable of producing avalanches.


However, you may have have noticed my own flawed logic above – that the end of the SAIS forecast season equals the end of winter. I exaggerate to make a point, but wager that I am not the only person who entertained the thought. Perhaps we are institutionalised by official services these days, but the wrapping up of SAIS for another year is certainly not the cue to throw caution to the wind when venturing out on to the hillside.


It interested me that the post above quoted Tacitus, ‘Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty’.  I was interested to know where the quote originated in the Latin, so after quite a roundabout and frustrating search, discovered it is from Annals 2, 39, ‘veritas visu et mora, falsa festinatione et incertis valescunt‘. The passage relates to the slave of the historical figure Postumus Agrippa, who was adopted into the Roman imperial family, but later executed as a result of political intrigue in the first century AD. According to Tacitus, Agrippa’s slave impersonated his master after his death and caused rumours to circulate to testify to the fact.


This first successful search then led me on to attempt to find the source, which had long eluded me, of a favourite quote of mine, attributed to Cicero, ‘Live as brave men; and if fortune is adverse, front its blows with brave hearts‘. Surprisingly, they are not the words of the famous rhetorician Cicero, but belong to a peasant called Orfellus from the poet Horace’s Satire II.ii, ‘quocirca vivite fortes / fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus‘. This is quite a dramatic misquote, presumably as a result of quotation bots’ indiscriminatory cutting, pasting and harvesting. Somehow too the words lose a little power on the lips of a farmer, as opposed to a great public speaker.


So then, in relation to the avalanche forecast, a few principles are clear: information wielded well is powerful and helpful; but also it is easy to lift the same information out of context and apply it according to one’s own needs. Indeed, everyone enjoys a rousing quote or a sunny weather forecast to lift the soul. However, in the case of the avalanche forecast, ignorance or wrong interpretation could be damaging in the extreme. Weather forecasts suggest that winter may well cling to the Highlands of Scotland for a while longer whereas elsewhere spring will be in full flow. If you are heading into the Cairngorms, for example, where snow cover remains extensive above 900m, take care that you are making good judgement calls rather than assuming the best or trying to ‘make things fit’.

Categories: Blog, Conditions, Simon, Winter
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