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Avalanche! How lasers and wind tunnels make mountains safer

Wired, October 2012

Avalanches travel at 130kph and kill 300 people a year. That’s why, deep in the Swiss Alps, scientists are turning to lasers, CT scans and wind tunnels to understand snow better

At 9.30 on the morning of 17 August, 2008, a British former pro-snowboarder turned cameraman was shooting footage in the Southern Alps of New Zealand near the 3,754-metre Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak. Johno Verity had been hired by a UK TV-production team making a show, Gethin Jones’ Danger Hunters, about extreme sports. His job that day was to film Austrian snowboarder Eric Themel in action, keeping pace beside him with a camera as Themel arced on his board through deep snow.

For the previous three days heavy snow had fallen, making a planned ascent into the mountains by helicopter impossible. But on the 17th, the team woke to better weather. “It was epic,” says Verity. “Blue skies, light breeze, perfect light snow. You couldn’t ask for better conditions. We were brimming with excitement.” Themel, Verity and a local mountain guide boarded a red-and-white Eurocopter AStar 350 and touched down on an unnamed peak deep in the range. Following standard back-country safety procedure, the guide shovelled a metre-deep hole in the snow, exposing the numerous layers of snow that had built up over the past days, and checked for any weak layer that signalled avalanche risk. more

The Art of Flight

Financial Times, 16 December 2011

A taste of high-altitude snowboarding three miles up in the Himalayas, with nothing in sight but snow and rock

On my last morning snowboarding in the Himalayas, the Bell 407 helicopter set us down on a narrow mountain ledge at 4,800m. As it departed, huge gusts of snow stirring at its ascent, I was struck by how very far we were from any sign of civilisation. Even on remote off-piste slopes in the Alps you’re never too far away from an abandoned ski pole or chocolate wrappers borne aloft in the wind. But here, at roughly three miles up in the sky – the same height as the summit of Mont Blanc – there was nothing in sight other than snow and rock. Row after row of ­jagged mountain peaks stretched into the distance, the world below invisible beneath layers of cloud. more

Avalanche!!! – Survival Training

The Observer, Sunday 28 September 2008

He may feel at home on the London art scene but could Ekow Eshun, artistic director of the ICA and a keen snowboarder, cope with a snowslide?

If you are caught in an avalanche you have a 95 per cent chance of survival – if you get help within 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the average time for a helicopter rescue crew to arrive on the scene is 45 minutes, which gives you less than a 30 per cent likelihood of making it out alive.

These kind of odds are at the forefront of my mind when I find myself buried up to my neck in snow on a remote slope somewhere in western Austria – even though it is only part of a training demonstration and help is readily to hand. The experience is still sobering and, if I’m honest, slightly scary.

One cubic metre of snow weighs 500kg and the feeling of helplessness engendered by having it piled on top of you is enough to induce rapid panic. Worse, trying to fight your way free – which feels like a rational response to such a situation – will only make things more fraught. While kicking and shoving creates marginally more space for you in the snow, in the thinner atmosphere of the mountains it proves quickly exhausting. And with each breath you take between exertions, the snow collapses further into the cavity around your body: the more you struggle for freedom the more surely you’ll entomb yourself. By the time I am dug free only a few minutes have passed, but I am eager not to repeat the exercise. It is a salutary reminder that we place ourselves in inherent danger each time we venture into the mountains. more

Zen and the art of mastering your snowboard

The Observer, Sunday 14 October 2007

Ekow Eshun is known as director of the ICA, and a regular on BBC’s Newsnight Review, but beneath his sharp suits lurk the baggy pants of a snowboarder. We sent him to Japan to indulge his passion for powder

When I first took up snowboarding a dozen years ago, I was a danger to myself and others around me. Having never skied, been on a skateboard (good training for snowboarding) or indeed, even stood on a snow-covered mountain before, I was no more steady or accomplished than a toddler taking its first steps. What I was good at was falling; the performance of spectacular rococo tumbles that would launch me cartwheeling down the mountainside in a mass of flailing limbs. Small children applauded as I careered past, their cheers – and the cries of angry parents – pursuing me down the slopes. more