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Avalanche forecast ends with fewer snow slides – but warning that winter dangers persist on high tops

By Mike Merritt

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Mark Diggins of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.
Mark Diggins of the Scottish Avalanche Information Service.

Scotland's avalanche service has ended for the season with more than a quarter fewer snow slides.

Despite the winter having the greatest dump of snow in over a decade, fewer people on the hills in the pandemic meant far fewer potentially deadly avalanches were triggered.

In fact provisional figures show there were 52 fewer avalanches than the previous winter.

As a result of the Covid travel restrictions, hill walkers and climbers have usually been limited to their local area.

Ski centres have been shut for much of the season and the great hordes of outdoor winter enthusiasts from south of the border and abroad have been missing.

The full Scottish Avalanche Information Service (SAIS) ended its winter season's forecasts on Saturday with 189 snow slides recorded.

But the total is well down on last year's 241.

In an end of season message, the SAIS warned there was still danger lurking in the hills. It said: "Snowpack stability will generally be good in all areas with summit snow on occasion. Any remaining snow slopes and patches will continue to present a slipping and falling hazard as any cold temperatures will maintain firm and icy conditions.

"We would recommend that when venturing into the hills and mountains, weather forecasts should be referred to prior to excursions, and visual observations of conditions should be carried out during any trip. This information is important when making good plans and allowing for flexible decision making.

"Snow cover persists in all mountain areas mostly above 900m, sometimes extensive at summit levels, notably in the Northern Cairngorms and Ben Nevis areas. Surface instabilities and sloughing is likely on steep sun-affected slopes. In places, cornice remnants may continue to be an unpredictable hazard with collapse threatening slopes below in the warm spring conditions."

Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the SAIS, said the snow cover to lower levels this winter had been the most extensive since 2009/10.

"We have had a lot of snow but there have been less avalanches," he said. "One of the main reasons is that not many people are on the hills – it has been generally quieter, so that has had an effect. Where people are caught up in avalanches, 90 per cent have been triggered by people.

"There have been some triggered by people this winter but not of any consequence and thankfully no fatalities."

The SAIS is staffed by 18 full-time expert recorders and also has 10 currently in training.

While there have been strict limits on travel due to the Covid pandemic, the SAIS continued to assess conditions in six mountain areas – Glen Coe, Lochaber, Creag Meagaidh, Torridon and Northern and Southern Cairngorms.

There was one avalanche fatality during SAIS's 2019-20 season.

In February last year, rescuers recovered the body of missing climber Andrew Vine.

Mr Vine (41), from the Manchester area, and a female climbing companion were on 4006 feet high Aonach Mor when they were hit a big snow slide.

His climbing partner, who managed to walk to the ski area on the mountain despite her injuries, was carried 'several hundred metres' by the avalanche. The pair were not roped together having just finished a climb.

Mr Vine, a mechanical engineer, is understood to have been an experienced climber – having conquered peaks in the Alps and Himalayas – and a member of Manchester-based Karabiner Mountaineering Club.

The first avalanche deaths in three years were recorded on the country's mountains in the 2018/19 season, when three climbers died on Ben Nevis.

Raphael Aymon, Cédric Ravimet and Adrien Robez-Masson, from France and Switzerland, all died in the deadly snow slide in Number 5 Gully on Ben Nevis on March 12, 2019.

The only survivor of the accident was Swiss citizen Mathieu Biselx.

Mr Biselx described how the party of four experienced climbers were flung down the gully by a torrent of heavy snow which fell 1500 feet on to them.

In the winter of 2012/13 eight people died from deadly snow slides.

Avalanches can occur naturally, be triggered accidentally by people, or be caused deliberately to remove an avalanche risk in ski areas.

The information provided by SAIS on the stability of the snowpack in the hills is used by mountain rescue teams and also by hill walkers and climbers in planning trips into the hills and mountains.

A figure of 241 avalanches was recorded in 2019-20, which was cut short by the Covid-19 lockdown.

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