recently whilst guiding for the Slay Safe project I found myself articulating the MSC journey to a bunch of keen young ‘frothers’. One, who worked in news media said at the end… ‘that’s a crazy story, I know most people want to know that’. So here’s a bit of a rear view on the MSC, what - why and how we are doing this. What reads below as a very Victorian-centric tale, it points to a shared bi-state outcome for us all. And it’s not without a fair degree of pause and reflection in the face of seemingly never ending deflection and dead ends that I’m ready to unload this perspective like a D3 wind slab. Hold tight.
Back in 2009, a season much like the one we are having now, not fat, not thin… but pow was fleeting. I was spared miraculously from an untimely end when on the pow hunt I triggered and slid in a D2/3 slide on the Waterfall face at Mt Loch. Less than 400m from the Orchard chair at Hotham Ski Resort. In reflection i’d ticked every box on the list of ‘stupid things to do in the mountains’, like travelling solo, skiing the warming after a dump, assuming avalanche hazard to be consistent with a single CT assessment (probably from a different aspect and elevation), travelling without any extraction aids (crampons / axe) and generally being ‘young dumb and full of a miss guided sense invincibility’.
Two things went my way that afternoon. The release started behind me, tipping me backward and when I hit the trees at an estimated 40-50km p/h 80m below I landed pack first. The tree plucked me from the avy debris however I hung limp and unconscious for an unknown duration (guess what… no helmet either). Waking shivering, winded, bruised and concussed I eased into mobility, only to find I was stranded, in a tree, on a 50˚ face surrounded by the bulletproof ice, the bed surface of the slide. Missing one ski and with no means of ascent out of there I braced for the controlled slide down to the debris patch 100m below in search of soft climbable snow and my lost ski. Eventually I got out, like the ski I never found, I too buried the experience in shame making mention of it to only one very seasoned Hotham local who on description of the location and circumstances nonchalantly remarked ‘that was lucky’.
Then there was the 2014 season. It was big.
Barely conscious hypothermic bodies where being airlifted to warmth still wearing the skate shoes they’d walked to the summit of Mt Bogong wearing. Parties were being escorted from peaks by VICPOL SAR in various states of distress, and then there was a slide. Not huge, exactly the same as the one that very nearly smudged me out of existence. A decent 30cm deep, 50m wide crown wall. With two mates out somewhere between Fainters and Bogong my heart sank thinking they’d be likely contenders as an ‘involvement’. Turned out that it was another party, Dan and Marty…
Double fatality burial. Shit.. heavy…
There was something about that event that I think made a few people really wonder wether they were cool with the anatomy of Dan and Martins plight and the hapless others caught out that season. An absolute dearth of information about the challenges of in the Australian Alpine glared through in detail. In my own personal reflection I was shaken by these strangers deaths. I later unpacked it as what could only be described as some form of delayed survivors guilt .
Above is the perspective down the slope that claimed the lives of the two snowboarders back in 2014. The obvious convex roller featured in the middle of the slope rings visual alarm bells to any savvy avy aware skier / rider. Clearly the backcountry community, it’s land managers and participating brands had been doing a poor job in reinforcing or transferring knowledge around alpine hazards.
Hotham Ski Patrol Director, Vic Police Search and Rescue bosses (the first responders) and myself, a web savvy science communicator by day, decided we should probably build a pilot. Provide an example ‘Alpine Travel Advisory’ much like the international standard, using the 5 graded hazard rating scale whilst also incorporating warnings around the weather, visibility and hazardous surface conditions such as rime, ice and access issues such as storm carnage. Makes perfect sense really. Wether it was conscious or not, the mission was to change the user group awareness and thus behaviour around alpine safety in Victoria to counteract the casual, and in cases ignorant approach that prevailed at the time. This is how we framed it up at the time (Click)
With a coronial enquiry ongoing into the Bogong fatalities, and the 2015 season fast approaching we readied a site and pushed live. The ‘old guard’ BC ski fraternity called BS on us and we had to legitimise the service in the face of this prevailing casual ignorant point of view.
Late in 2015 we had the Coroners Report from the Bogong incident (here). Whilst it did a great job outlining the hazard, it described it as a ‘very rare’ incident. In fairness this is true given there are no further fatalities to date, at Mt Bogong. The report is very ‘Bogong Centric’. Our small band, knowing full well that the interpretation of evidence had been played down in light of what we all knew and understood at the time. Effectively our pilot was ‘cut loose’ and the collaboration with VicPol and Parks had no mandate.
In 2016 there was a sense that the small nudge we’d provided the BC community was having the desired ‘rub’. Independently we pushed on using often very sparse data and often ‘very poor’ confidence forecasting to extrapolate what was seen at readily accessible areas to the the more remote areas of the park (Bogong and Feathertop). We formed the MSC organisation most importantly as a shelf company to provide indemnity to our field experts in case, beyond the good samaritan act, if a case was filed and negligence could be substantiated. By this stage we’d scooped up the brains trust of two NSW AST educators at Main Range Backcountry. We became a national service.
Now, you’d think that having a voluntary organisation of various seasoned field experts running around providing Victorians and now NSW backcountry snow sport participants a free service highlightng various hazards is the kind of initiative that a state government would celebrate and congratulate. Strangely what went down was quite the opposite.
The now disgraced, then Emergency Victoria Management commissioner Craig Lapsley dressed us down. We had no place doing what we do. Victoria legislates ‘One emergency picture / resource for all Victorians’. The 5 grade rating system we’d ‘invented’ was BS and a poor appropriation of the CFA fire hazard rating scheme. Not provided as constructive criticism, rather as a roller door, with us on one side and 'them’ on the other. Not an unfamiliar theme to all this by now. Late middle aged white males telling us to stand down, know your station and don’t rock the boat. ‘Old Guard’ participants and commissioners alike.
Now I’ll cool my guns a little. Its no huge revelation, government agencies are pretty poor at adapting to change, particularly sudden change. And from our vantage point in 2017 we had no choice but to plough forward in the bureaucratic slough with ‘pea-soup’ vis on where the compass pointed. We initiated a crowd funding membership scheme which thrust the org into the ‘usergroup representitive body’ quickly with 200 members within months. From our interactions with the users what was clear was that these participants skied and rode burly. Harder and more frequently than the alps had seen before. Big planks, splitboards, and airtime. As quickly as we could push the envelope of awareness forward, the BC crowd was getting incrementally bigger and more ‘gnarly’ in step. Thanks to Lapsley’s ‘us and them’ roller door we felt very much like a protest movement, and feared the consequences.
By this stage EMV had engaged the Resort Management Boards of the major resorts to provide forewarning of ‘heightened avalanche hazard periods’ (they stole our model and now we shared resources). ‘Considerable’ being the threshold, yet as we all know ‘moderate’ is where most participants come unstuck. Coincidentally ‘High’ was our rating (issued 48hrs earlier) on the day of one of these meetings when two MSC members unwittingly triggered a sympathetic slide within view of the main drag at Mt Hotham.
As fate would have it, contrary to the coroners findings, avalanche hazard is a wide spread and common phenomena in the alpine during winter, however until this event, beyond the view of the mainstream. Job done, Thanks Katya and Liam! Australia’s alpine sports participants, wether they are BC inclined or not, couldn’t miss this. The media bandwagon rolled in. And the politics went into overtime. MSC sat by wondering, from behind the roller door: ‘all this noise surrounds the one hazard that is least likely to actually nail you compared to hypothermia and Ice slides?’
Over the last year, having provided an almost spotless service for 2 seasons the roller door began easing. We had called ‘Considerable’ avalanche hazard on a day when ‘naturals’ occurred, technically it should have been ‘High’. That aside, a pretty reliable service for a bunch of volunteer snow wonks. Particularly when EMV had nothing on that same event. An instance of ‘bad, but not as bad as others’ mentality you use to excuse a poor grade in an exam.
We started working with Parks to help them understand what all this snow science was about. We pitched right in and everyone helped educate the government. Eventually worked with EMV too, with helping them spread the word about their undertaking amongst the MSC audience. And all the time waiting for Spring Street to actually decide who was responsible for avalanche hazard in Victoria.
Then we went even further, given that we’d disclosed the fact that all our formal avalanche training at the level of ‘forecasters’ had been undertaken ‘in the field’ and or secretly downloaded and that none could produce the relevant qualification recognised internationally as the standard for providing such a service. Yep, rogue yet right. So we contracted Dynamic Avalanche Solutions, the guys who actually wrote the book (yep literally, in NZ and Canada) to review the service and provide a roadmap to progress (read it here).
Now I’ll fast forward to only two weeks ago. Word came that EMV had dropped avalanche as an Emergency. Yep, within its constraints and policy parameters avalanches are no longer an emergency. Sure it was still an emergency when someone is buried, thats Police Search and rescue. Yet, even if the hazard is known and documented, it’s not an emergency.
Initially I was all ‘F this, F that… 3 years, WTF’ and then having reconciled all that time I felt we’d wasted helping, in being sidelined, a rosy glow grew inside. This meant that EMV was ‘OUT’. lIke a mic-drop. This is a good thing! The ruling read that the land managers (ski resorts and Parks Vic) are the responsible agencies. An answer… finally.
Just now, I’m fresh off the phone with Parks. They are ‘Green-light Go’ and we are stoked, again, finally. Working with Parks has been the only rational and ego free zone in the whole process to date and this is refreshing.
So heres to progress, if you read through the models proposed by Dynamic in their report you’ll note that the best practise involves a strata funding model and this has input from varied government and independent sectors. In our case a two state solution with Parks / Sports and Rec / Commercial operators ( resorts - guides and educators) and notably the independent user group. Thats us… that is you, and hence this is the rub, we need you. A strong throw down on the membership front will sure up the other funding streams. We used to call it ‘Pay it Forward’ as a gesture to an unknown entry level backcountry participant who we’d help along the journey, and this has never been more the case.
Re-enthused, we have something worth working towards. We’d been quiet with good reason as, you can see above its been a rocky road.
Thank You for your time…
Genuinely appreciate your collective contributions.
Written by Simon Murray
Supporting material and an interesting read none the less.