TV review: Luck or good judgement?
Equinox on Avalanches, 12/11/95
Although your Ed has never, thankfully, been caught in an avalanche, he has twice been made to think twice about them. Once was during a hurry-up deep-winter descent of Beinn Bhuidhe in failing light, when some avalanche debris lay across the obvious route down. This was duly crossed, but not without both considerable effort and a lasting impression of the sheer physical forces which caused this 3D crazy-paving. Safe, even interesting, to be in amongst when all the energy has been released; less so when still either potential or kinetic.
The second occasion was on a long contouring descent from the western Lawers peaks, when during a benign-looking traverse we suddenly noticed gaping cracks at the top of spring-snowbanks above. Even though the slopes were maybe only 25°, even though it would probably have been okay, the twenty-minute, 100m reascent simply to progress five-minutes'-worth of linear distance down the glen seemed time spent wisely. It was the precise opposite of the much more common walker's habit of traversing under rather than over a small crag in icy or wet conditions.
The Equinox program did well in mixing core, cor! footage with an emphasis on the more subtle, slinking nature of this most deadly, and non-subjective, of hill killers. The sensational stuff was of a standard you expect from a series which previously produced celebrated viewfests of lightning and explosions. A New Zealand reporter was shown blithely describing what might happen whilst the multi-ton snow-surge was doing an "It's behind you!" act at pace. (This was oddly reminiscent of the famous Thatcher-emerging-from-No.10 occasion with the equally unaware BBC reporter.) There were some brilliant aerial shots, including the Snow Show near-miss when a huge slab almost took out two cool dudes who suddenly found themselves skiing down a travelating hillside. There was a horror shot of a house imploding as the snow burst heavyhandedly in. Yet perhaps most scary of all was a pre-rehearsed group of students being told to jump up and down along a potential line of fracture, whereupon an enormous - and remarkably compact - chunk of hillside came away beneath them. If this could be done so easily, think how little it takes to trigger a fullscale hillside.
The stats were equally frightening: 40mph within four seconds; a powder avalanche can reach 150mph; over 1,000,000 avalanches per year; 99% self-triggered...
For all that various experts are devoting their lives to study of avalanches (eg Doug Fesler, who has dug out 24 bodies and told of there being "no rules of thumb"), the wider context, as ever, proved discouraging. During the Austro-Hungarian war between 40-80,000 were deliberately killed by orchestrated avalanches; in Chamonix, town planners typically plonked the cheaper suburbs slapbang in avalanche paths.
Two lasting impressions both hung on the same word. An avalanche, no matter how "gentle" or easy-angled, is overwhelming and will most likely kill you. And the overwhelming need is for funding for experts to study both the micro and macro factors, and for education of the general hillgoing public and those who live in high-risk zones. It was chastening to note that this was shown on the same day 26 trekkers were swept away below Everest.
Returning finally to your Ed's own experience, the very first national news reports he can recall seeing as a child were the grim black-and white (but mainly black) pictures of the 1966 pit-tip-slip which killed 144, mainly children, at Aberfan - the kind of place, like Lockerbie, which should never have found a way into the encyclopaedias, but did. Black, white; coal, snow; the message is the same: moving hillsides have weight, speed, momentum, and will kill you. Treat them with respect.
TAC 26 Index