Sochi: An Inside Look at Snow Safety

Along the shores of the Black Sea, Sochi is Russia’s ritziest beach city and host to the 2014 Winter Olympics and Winter Paralympics. While snow in Sochi is rare, deep snow is found 2-hours east at Rosa Khutor, Russia’s newest ski resort and home of the downhill and super giant slalom courses. On the eve of the games, nearly 1.9 meters of snow sits at mid-mountain and more than 2 meters blankets the upper mountain. Big storms, huge dumps of snow and massive avalanches are serious concerns as this young resort does not harbor the historical data and tools traditionally utilized to provide calculated snow safety efforts.

Rosa Khutor Ski Resort Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

Rosa Khutor Ski Resort
Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

Unlike most Olympic ski venues that maintain a rich history of wintersports, Rosa Khutor is a 10-year-old ski area that opened without an avalanche program and a scarce recorded history of weather, snow and avalanches. The terrain of this maritime “Whistler-like resort” rises 5,800 vertical feet, topping out at nearly 8,000 feet and is home to giant bowls and fluted ridges. French avalanche consultant Fanny Bourjaillat described the area as warm, wet and snowy with yearly precipitation totals on the mountain exceeding 2500mm (98 inches) most of which is snow. For comparison, many Colorado mountain areas receive only one-third as much annual water.

Ski-area consultant Roger McCarthy, the mountain design lead for Rosa Khutor, offers “the avalanches run 4,000 feet.” The Russian newspaper Pravda reported that an avalanche in 2007 buried and killed a 10-year old girl when she and 3 others were swept off a chairlift. Avalanches are not the only snow safety risk, massive cornices and huge glide cracks also threaten the area.

Windsock covered by snowfall above avalanche control team office Photo courtesy of Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

Windsock covered by snowfall above avalanche control team office
Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

In 2008, an effort to safeguard the ski area from avalanches prompted Olympic organizers to contract avalanche experts from Canada, Switzerland, France alongside the Russian research institute Roshydromat and a local engineering company Engprotection. These experts were charged with assessing and defining the hazards as well as planning and implementing an avalanche protection program.

The first remote weather stations were placed in 2006, and the first avalanche studies started in 2008. In 2010, organizers asked Stefan Margreth of the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) from Davos to review the studies and develop and propose a mitigation program. Margreth’s team recommended developing an avalanche information program to monitor snow and weather conditions, and preparing/disseminating avalanche danger bulletins. Additional recommendations included hazard mapping and evacuation plans. Later that year, organizers then hired the French consulting firm Engineerisk to develop and implement the avalanche mitigation program.

With no history of snowfall, weather or avalanche conditions for the area, the SLF and Engineerisk teams relied heavily on RAMMS, avalanche-modeling software developed by the SLF. Bourjaillat, of Engineerisk, states the software, “helps to qualify and quantify avalanches. RAMMS permits [us] to get an idea of avalanche trajectories and of deposit-area location.” The program provides insight into the magnitude of possible avalanches in terms of flow heights, velocities and pressures. For Rosa Khutor this information was invaluable in determining where to place lift towers and other structures.

Weeks before the Olympics the Russian authorities “locked” all the safety information prohibiting mountain manager Jean-Louis Tuaillon from commenting. However, in a December New York Times article Tuaillon mentioned that Russian authorities have not allowed the use of hand-tossed explosives, a key component for avalanche mitigation programs practiced across Europe and North America. The article does mention that snow-safety crews will be permitted to use two-part explosives for hand-tossed mitigation. These charges consist of two separate agents of solids or liquids that only become explosive when mixed. Since the agents can be stored separately, they pose minimal security and storage issues. The crews will also be able to use one air-cannon, too. While advantageous, crews have extremely limited shot placement experience and results.

Additional active avalanche mitigation tools include more than 50 Gazex® exploders, J-shaped pipes fixed strategically across the mountain that emit a significant explosive burst using propane and oxygen, and heavy-equipment excavators.  Gazex® devices can be fired remotely from inside the avalanche service’s office at any time, day or night and even during the worst storms. In the New York Times article Tuaillon said, “with the philosophy of controlling them very often, we think we will not have a problem.” The heavy-equipment excavators are a unique way to manage the cornices, knocking down cornices before they get too big.

Excavating Cornices at Rosa Khutor. Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

Excavating Cornices at Rosa Khutor.
Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

Passive measures include diversion and catchment dams and 1.3 kilometers of 4-meter tall snow nets in lower starting zones. However, even at 4 meters the nets were completely buried in 2011/12.

Another challenge is the canyon-like glide cracks that form when deep snow sits on steep, warm ground. Gravity causes parts of the snow cover to slowly slip down slope and tear away from the stronger stable snow. Deep crevasses can open up in a day or overnight. These cracks rarely result in avalanches but their unexpected opening may cause dangers to skiers and riders. To prevent cracks from forming Bourjaillat’s team proposed that wooden poles (like telephone poles) or pipes positioned perpendicularly across the slope to hold back the lower part of the snowpack and limit gliding.

Canyon-like Glide Cracks at Rosa Khutor Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk.]

Canyon-Like Glide Cracks at Rosa Khutor
Photo Courtesy: Fanny Bourjaillat, Engineerisk

With alpine events this weekend, confidence by the snow professionals at Rosa Khutor is high but like all avalanche professionals they remain vigilant and skeptical of what nature might present. Avalanche rescue expert Bruno Jelk from Zermatt who has spent time at Rosa Khutor training the ski patrol and snow safety teams reports, “they are equipped with the same knowledge and technology like in Switzerland.” In the event something does go wrong, the patrol has five years experience training with RECCO detectors. Tuaillon’s ending quote in the NY Times article summarizes the attitudes well, “honestly, I don’t think the danger is big,” Tuaillon said. “But like anywhere in the world, you can have crazy weather. And it is the mountains.”

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