12/12/11: Avalanche Academy

Stu & pals touring in the Aravis

Stuart MacDonald is a dude who I met in 2007. We lived in apartments on the top floor of the McDonalds building in downtown Chamonix. It was a great place to live, great views...but everything smelt of burgers. Anyway, I digress. Stuart (a mountain guide) and I spent a summer exchanging equally badly pronounced "bonjour"s until two things happened on the same day:

1. My long-suffering girlfriend at the time threw my stinking, ski-bum ass out of the apartment we shared.

2. I found a note outside my door from Stuart with his door key, telling me he's off to climb some peak and "can I keep an eye on his pad down the hall for six weeks".

Naturally it took me about five minutes to move my stuff in and set up the Xbox. After a cool five and a half weeks, I rang Stu and told him he had a lodger. We've been firm friends ever since.

Stuart is doing something pretty cool this year, and I wanted to write about it. "The concept came to me last January when I found myself running my fifth Avalanche Safety Course of the season. Over the past few years I have seen the demand for Avalanche Training increase, and so I thought that it was about time for a dedicated provider in Chamonix". He recruited local full time guides and rippers  Tim Blakemore and Jonny Baird to lend a hand, put together some courses and boom - the Avalanche Academy was born.

The Academy offers a couple of courses. The goal here isn't for you to get a certificate, rosette or fancy qualification - it's to give you the knowledge to stay alive when you're off-piste. Their Foundation course is aimed at people with little-to-no avalanche awareness, and their Progression is more for people who already have a grasp of the basics - it's more advanced with snow science, forecasting and multiple burial scenarios.

I was sceptial. After all, if you live in Cham, you know your stuff, right? Stu disagreed. "I think riders and skiers in Chamonix are the best and worst in the world. Many here are very knowledgeable, well equipped and make sound decisions. Some have no gear, no clue, and just treat it like a game. Most are somewhere in the middle. For me the biggest difference between Chamonix and other resorts is that in Chamonix, going off-piste is normal, whereas elsewhere it is still seen as special and treated as such. Because going off-piste here is so normal, some people don't seem to know when to wind things in if the avalanche risks increase".That cleared it up for me. And it's true - last year I was riding the back of Grands daily, so much that it almost felt like a piste to me. The same old seracs, the same windlips, the same convex roll that always seems to slip away if you cut too hard when you traverse it. I think that basing a specific Academy out of Chamonix is a great way keep seasonnaires and locals alive longer. On completion of the beginner course, for example, Stu expects people to be able to avoid risky areas and plan a day's freeriding, rather than just heading to anywhere with powder.

Avi courses offered in the States and Canada by the AAA and CAA are excellent - hands on, involved courses with little classroom, lots of on-snow poking around and transceiver scenarios. Until now, avalanche training this side of the pond has been at best nearly as good. I think the Avalanche Academy is going to change this and provide a stimulus and a boost to the knowledge of people in this place.

If that's not enough to provoke you to think about doing an avalanche course with Stuart, I don't know what will. Give it a try, and I wish him all the best with the Academy.


  • Both courses cost £75. More info on avalancheacademy.com
  • Follow Stuart's daily Chamonix-specific avi reports on twitter: twitter.com/avalancheacad
  • Go to the free Avalanche Academy lecture at the Terrasse bar in CHX every Monday at 19.00
Oh, to finish up, here's the question you wanted me to ask - where is the dodgiest place to be in Cham after heavy snowfall? "Well, there are too many dodgy places to list here, but they all have the same characteristics, says Stuart. "They are steep slopes (>30°), mostly near lifts, with wind-loaded slopes above them. A perfect example is the slope skiers right of the Bochard at Grand Montets. People traverse straight across there after big dumps to ride the nice slopes below. However, you are traversing a steep slope, below an ever steeper slope where wind slab usually accumulates. Some local teenagers were killed there two years ago. The other place that springs to mind are the back bowls of Le Tour. They are a huge terrain trap, where any avalanche will carry you down into narrow gullies and bury you. It might not even be your team that triggers it, but you are very vulnerable in there".

No-one's paid to have this feature written, it's me advocating a winner service that one of my friends is providing.

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