Creaking at the seams

Physically a little tired and mentally a little drained after todays outing.

It started benignly enough, skinning out of Hemsedal across snow-covered meadow before climbing up a gradually rising track through the forest, following snow-mobile tracks upto around 950m. It was warm, easily the warmest morning we had experienced so far, perhaps only 6 or 7 degreees below freezing. I was struggling not to overheat as we made our way higher up the mountain.

The previous night it has been very windy, even low down. We had sat and watched vast plumes of snow swirling off the peaks surrounding the valley floor. It didn’t take a genius to have realised that vast volumes of snow would have been transported, the faces would have been scoured and others would be harbouring large quantities of potentially unstable windslab. The official avalanche forecast had taken this into account, today being the first day that the risk level had risen to 3, considerable. Not unusual, not a reason to not head out but an upgrade in things compared to the previous days.

As we climbed above the tree-line conditions changed markedly. The wind-speed increased and the temperature plummeted. I went from overheating to feeling cold in the space of about 30 minutes. We were heading for the northern of two summits marked as Skurvefjellet, some 1741 metres high, roughly 1100 metres of vertical ascent from the valley floor. They way through on the map wasn’t completely obvious, from Hemsedal it is a direct and relatively steep ascent, but we thought we had spotted a line that would keep us on the safest terrain and be the least oppressive.

Skurvefjellet ski touring

Wild, atmospheric and cold conditions on Skurvefjellet.

Steadily the ground steepened. But it was mostly broken terrain, the snowfields and gullies interspersed with rocky outcrops and a safe line looked feasible. Yet as we made our way up, almost at every turn, on every slope however narrow, however low the gradient, great whooping noises could be heard. The sure-fire signs of an incredibly unstable snow-pack.  I was out front, putting in a track with Steph and Pete following behind, one kick-turn and whoop, I paused as a crack line fizzed out across the snow. This was unnerving. Yet we continued to pick our way up the ill-defined shoulder we were following.

Skurvefjellet ski touring

Feeling the cold on Skurvefjellet

At around 1500 metres the gradient began to ease, the terrain opened up and we pulled onto the edge of the main plateau that marked the south-western edge of Skurvefjellet. It was insanely cold. I pulled on my goggles, covered my face and headed for the summit. It was a wild and lonely place that day.

Skurvefjellet ski touring

Steph enjoying firm snow on the western slopes of Skurvefjellet

From the summit, despite the difficult conditions and half visibility, there looked to be a straightforward gradual descent northwards. By sticking to the western edge of the bowl we hoped to avoid the worst of the wind and stay above any significant deposits of wind-slab. It was steady away, firm snow down Point 1590. From here a line westwards would take us down hopefully scoured gully lines on firm snow. It was a relatively shallow snow-pack but we enjoyed great turns for 400 metres or so, easily the biggest continuous descent of our week so far, before we started to track southwards into a narrow valley that would hopefully take us back out to Hemsedal.

Skurvefjellet

Steph skiing on wind-scoured snow

Pete was out in front, the terrain was straightforward but the snow becoming increasingly hard to ski. I came around a shallow corner and there was Pete. Ahead a shallow gully line, ahead was nothing but avalanche debris. Pete had fortunately stopped just in time, rising up onto the edge of a concave slope, Pete has realised what he was about to cross and put the brakes on, just as the slope fractured right under the tips of the ski’s setting off a domino sequence as the gully fractured upwards for 20 or 25 metres, releasing from a crown wall some 80cm or so in depth before avalanching into the stream-bed. A very fortunate decision on the part of Pete. The slab would easily have taken him off his feet and there was more than enough to snow to have buried him in the narrow gully beneath.

Windslab avalanche

Windslab avalanche. For scale, the tree on the left is about 1m high. The width at the bottom about 20-25m across. Our tracks can just be seen top left

We decided to stop for lunch, contemplated our fortunes as we stared at the debris opposite and mulled over our exit strategy. That itself was far from straightforward.  The valley was narrow, the mountainsides broken with numerous deep stream-lines and for the first kilometre or so little in the way of an obvious way through. And so we were forced down onto the frozen stream, having wasted what felt like ages attempting to traverse the slope above before managing to find a line that gradually climbed back out and joined a small path back to Hemsedal. Defensive skiing in rapidly fading light was the order of the day as we negotiated the narrow forest path on ski.

The beers had been well and truly earnt today.

 

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About Richard Talbot

An accomplished fell-runner as well as being a keen climber and mountaineer. Since 2005 he has worked for the UK based manufacturer Mountain Equipment and is currently Director of Product. He has worked in the outdoor industry for over 15 years.
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