ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop) Report


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 29, 2008      

International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), is billed as “a merging of theory and practice.” The confab is indeed a fascinating mixture of full-on snow science geeks, mountain guides, artillery, tales of heroism and horror, all focused specifically on the study of snow avalanches — cause, prediction, avoidance, and consequences.

Backcountry Skiing

Ready, aim, fire! ISSW 2008...

I attended this year’s ISSW (September 21-26 in Whistler), and enjoyed the conference format with a trade-show-like experience, where between oral and poster presentations you’re able to wander among manufacturers’ booths.

Avalanche backcountry skiing.
Inside the venue

Aside from the cannons and avalanche dogs, one of biggest “crowd-pleaser” was AK Rendezvous Heli-Guide Theo Meiners’ talk on survival strategies for different parts of a flowing avalanche, spiced with harrowing TGR footage. Bottom line: One should “fight like hell” to get to the sides or tail of the flow where forces are weakest, and avoid the head at all costs. “Swimming” is advisable only insofar as it serves this end, while swimming toward the head is suicidal. Bracing on and spinning off the hard bed surface, and log rolling were also suggested as viable strategies.

Most terrifying: If you are stuck on the slab as it goes over the stauchwall, you will apparently encounter a large uphill standing wave that will stuff you under and spit you out — you are to ride this out and resume the struggle.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Blog author Chris mans his poster and demo.

Speaking of which, a variety of research presented here unequivocally supports Lou’s oft-repeated message that an avalanche ride is a brutally violent experience that will very likely inflict trauma. So in addition to avalanche risk avoidance and rescue skills, winter backcountry travelers should know first aid and be prepared to practice it.

A current hot topic in the avalanche professional community is multiple burials, and how much education and technology should focus on these scenarios.

Helicopter mounted propane canon.

Helicopter mounted propane canon.

Research presented by BCA indicates that an extremely small percentage of avalanche fatalities in Europe and North America have involved complications associated with multiple burial search, whereas extraction is by far the most time-consuming aspect of rescues.

Conclusion: Multiple burial search technique instruction should be left to advanced classes (e.g. guides), whereas recreational instruction should focus on organization, single search, and shoveling technique.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Wedge Mountain, Whistler backcountry.

Much of what goes on at ISSW is discussion of how professionals should advise and interact with recreationalists. Judging by the message from luminaries such as Bruce Jamieson of U. Calgary, future directions are characterized by greater integration of local and global capabilities in backcountry situations. For example, avalanche danger assessment procedures are being modified to combine regional forecasts with local information (stability tests and skier observations) in a systematic way. And given drastically decreased reaction times of S&R crews due to technology available to recreationalists (e.g., GPS, SPOT, and cellphones), some experts are advocating better cooperation of companions and rescue services, as opposed to stressing companion rescue as the only hope in avalanche rescue situations.

(Guest blogger profile: Christian Skalka and his wife Susan live in Burlington, VT, where he is a Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Vermont. In the winter you’ll often find them at Mad River Glen.”)



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Comments

12 Responses to “ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop) Report”

  1. cory September 29th, 2008 9:55 am

    Wow! Talk about bang for your buck in one article. I was just exposed to shoveling technique in an article I read last year (inspite of avy 1 class and numerous seminars over the years). With the trama issue being raised, was there any talk of helmet usage?

  2. Christian Skalka September 29th, 2008 10:27 am

    Yes, there was. For example, Theo Meiners stressed that a helmet (and avalung) are standard gear for all guides for and clients of their AK skiing, in addition to beacon, shovel, probe.

  3. Nathan Bryant September 29th, 2008 11:17 am

    “For example, avalanche danger assessment procedures are being modified to combine regional forecasts with local information (stability tests and skier observations) in a systematic way.”

    Fascinating, do you have any more detail or specific examples?

  4. Christian Skalka September 29th, 2008 12:00 pm

    It’s complicated and I don’t remember the details. Check out their paper for the full explanation:

  5. Jonathan Shefftz September 29th, 2008 2:13 pm

    “Research presented by BCA indicates that an extremely small percentage of avalanche fatalities in Europe and North America have involved complications associated with multiple burial search […]”

    – Yes, but that research has sparked some controversy. TAR published a counterpoint to the BCA research this past season, and plans to publish another article this coming season.

  6. Sky September 29th, 2008 2:47 pm

    That’s quite a stretch to categorize Wedge Mountain as Whistler Backcountry.

  7. Mitch Sulkers September 29th, 2008 4:09 pm

    Thanks for the link, Christian. This is the most recent paper in this line of research that Bruce Jamieson has been spearheading, with each piece of the puzzle suggesting better correlations between certain clues and results and the local danger. Nathan, if you go to http://www.eng.ucalgary.ca/Civil/Avalanche/papers.htm you will find more information on this subject.

  8. Nick September 29th, 2008 9:17 pm

    I suspect that if I ever have to swim in an avalanche the probability that I’ll be able to think through which direction to go is roughly zero 🙁

  9. Lou September 30th, 2008 7:21 am

    Nick, what a person can do in an avalanche depends on the size and speed of the slide. Some are quite small and or slow, and one can do plenty to survive. In a bigger one, then yeah, you can no to much though you should at least be trying to ball up your body and protect yourself, as well as get your hands in front of your face when the slide stops so you might be able to create an air pocket.

  10. Kevin October 2nd, 2008 12:48 am

    Aside from the cannons and avalanche dogs, one of biggest “crowd-pleaser” was AK Rendezvous Heli-Guide Theo Meiners’ talk on survival strategies for different parts of a flowing avalanche, spiced with harrowing TGR footage. Bottom line: One should “fight like hell” to get to the sides or tail of the flow where forces are weakest, and avoid the head at all costs. “Swimming” is advisable only insofar as it serves this end, while swimming toward the head is suicidal. Bracing on and spinning off the hard bed surface, and log rolling were also suggested as viable strategies. Most terrifying: If you are stuck on the slab as it goes over the stauchwall, you will apparently encounter a large uphill standing wave that will stuff you under and spit you out — you are to ride this out and resume the struggle.

  11. Whistler Snow Conditions December 15th, 2008 12:06 am

    Hi, sorry to bit off topic…

    I run a blog site where I give almost daily updates of the snow and weather conditions at Whistler Blackcomb. I was hoping you would consider putting a link to my site somewhere.

    thanks

    Greg

  12. Simon Isbister March 29th, 2009 9:56 pm

    Hey Lou- did you see the big study of avalanche fatality mechanisms published in the February Canadian Medical Association Journal? It’s a 21 year review of all fatalities within BC and Alberta, plus some interesting comparisons with Europe.

    If you haven’t seen it already, I believe you can find it at http://www.cmaj.ca. Or, I can e-mail you a PDF file, if you like.

    -s-

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