Bansko hotelier and new British Embassy Consular Agent in Bansko, Mr James Hughes suggests skiers and snowboarders should follow him on Twitter instead of heeding the warnings of The Bulgarian Mountain Rescue Service as they announce the nationwide avalanche threat is “extreme”.
Hughes – who only three weeks ago was confirmed as one of two “Consular Agents” for the British Embassy in Sofia – made the remarks after the British Embassy Consular Section asked for input on the Rusev statement (by group email) as to what they should communicate to British tourists skiing and snowboarding in Bulgaria at the present time. I myself, as contributor/journalist and owner of the Ski & Snowboard Guide to Bulgaria was copied into the communique from the start.
In his first of a series of open comments about the situation, Hughes urged the British Embassy to “take general avalanche warnings with a huge pinch of salt as they tend to err on the side of caution.”
Adding “I have been on the hill all day today only skiing steep open faces and steep forest and there has been no sign of any risk”.
My advice to the discussion group based on my experience* was to simply “take care”, listen to the advice of ski patrol personnel and not to consider off piste/back country skiing at the present time unless you have the right avalanche rescue equipment and know how to use it. I also suggested that anyone wishing to experience the superb off-piste ski conditions in Bansko (or anywhere else across the country) would be well advised to seek advice and training from one of the highly experienced ski schools in Bansko who employ fully qualified Bulgarian Mountain Rescue Service (BMRS) guides and rescuers such as Bansko Ski Mania, Free Mountains or Pirin 2000.
Corruption and limited experience – “more harm than good”
The comments about avalanche training in Bulgaria were quickly met by a return email from Mr Hughes who had already declared that he himself organised “avalanche awareness courses every winter” in association with the [French] National Syndicate of Mountain Guides.
“They are the only qualified guides in BG [Bulgaria]. Sorry but I do not recognise BG [Bulgarian] qualifications due to limited experience and corruption in the qualification process” stated Hughes.
Continuing to share his views about the quality of the BMRS Mr Hughes went on to claim, “For the main Bulgarian body to suggest there is an avalanche risk today is just them crying wolf and does more harm than good”. A reaction which has prompted some to comment on Hughes’s perceived lack of commitment to public safety versus his concern that the BMRS advice could “harm” his lodging business in Bulgaria’s largest ski resort if guests take the services advice seriously.
Mr Hughes then said of anyone repeating the organisation’s advice; “Yes cover your back and pass on the warning but who is more the fool? The fool or the fool who repeats the fool’s rubbish.”
A few moments after these comments were made to the author, Mr John Sutton of Bansko Tourist Information and the second Consular Agent for Bansko submitted his input to the group email chat and pointed out that at the time of him writing, the published avalanche risk level in Bansko was between “moderate” and “extreme” according to the live updates on the BMRS official website. Mr Sutton also added that all winter sports enthusiasts should display “an air of caution when out, check the conditions through as many sources as possible then heed the rules… better safe than sorry!”
That risk 12 hours later increased to “extremely dangerous” according to the source in some areas of the mountains around Bansko. Click here for the current situation in Bansko.
Another point of view
For balance and objectivity, we also spoke with Georgy Georgiev, owner/partner of Free Mountains, a company that offers the “whole range of mountain guiding services year round in both Bulgaria and abroad”. Free Mountains also provide Mr Hughes with his instructors for his own “avalanche awareness” groups according to Georgy who is widely regarded by most in-the-know as the most highly qualified mountain guide in Bulgaria if not the whole Balkan region.
“In terms of on the ski tracks themselves, it is true that the avalanche threat is only between 2 and 3 in Bansko at the moment”, he said referring to the European Avalanche Risk Table. This equates to a “Limited” or “Medium” threat.
“Back country areas are higher risk with the best snow conditions being on south west slopes for the next day or two. Anyone skiing in these areas should only do so with avalanche beacons, poles and shovels and ride or ski in larger groups”. Georgy went on to suggest that relying on the response time of mountain rescuers alone when you or your friends have only precious seconds under even the smallest of avalanches may prove fatal.
“Skiers should also be aware that popular off-piste areas are more susceptible to avalanches being triggered after busy weekends in Bansko. Researching the snow profile and the terrain is essential in the current conditions”, Georgy went on.
It is also worth noting that Free Mountains offer their own avalanche awareness courses for five people or more for only 15 Leva (€7.50) per day. Excellent and potentially life-saving value for money which Georgy considers his own personal “social mission”.
Mat Pidgen of Snow & Wake, Borovets added, “It’s simple common sense. It’s March, the weather is warming and cooling and we had over a meter of fresh powder on packed slab snow last week. It’s going to go [avalanche] sooner or later”. Mat is a highly qualified BASI instructor (complete with BASI avalanche training) and assists training of the Bulgarian Ski Federation for its own Mountain Safety and Awareness courses which are obligatory for all Bulgarian ski and snowboard instructors.
Bulgarian Mountain Rescue Service – Their response
We got in contact with the Director of the BMRS – Mr Kiril Rusev - to ask him for his own views on the comments made by the Consular Agent as well as the general situation relating to the nationwide threat of avalanche. As yet, he has not responded but as and when he does we will update you here.
Who to believe?
Common sense dictates that you should probably listen to all cautious advice from almost any source when it comes to your safety on the mountains where ever you are in the world.
The Ski & Snowboard Guide to Bulgaria was quick to relay Kirl Rusev’s comments through Face Book, Twitter, mobile applications and this website. We believe it is fairly obvious to most who have been watching the heavy snow fall and erratic temperature patterns over the last few weeks that a general avalanche threat is probably very real. Especially off the groomed runs.
Mr Rusev and his colleagues, as far as we can tell, have no [financial] incentive to “sex up” avalanche warnings in Bulgaria and regardless of the BMRS’s perceived lack of experience by Mr Hughes, I would still take the advice of the official body over almost anyone else.
The British Embassy in Sofia – via the UK Foreign Office website – has now updated its travel information for Bulgaria and has concluded to opt for a more balanced approach:
“Due to earlier heavy snows followed by a recent abrupt increase in temperatures there is a danger of avalanches in some areas of Bulgaria. You should take advice on weather and avalanche conditions before you travel and also while you are in the resort. Helmets are recommended when skiing; for children under 15 their use is mandatory in most areas.”
Please be very, very careful when riding of skiing anywhere in Bulgaria in the present conditions.
Do not go off-piste without the correct equipment and training, listen to qualified instructors and ski patrol staff and think “safety first” at all times.
Update: Borovets Avalanche Risk as of 12:31 Tuesday 13th March 2012 –
Just back from the peak in Borovets, Avalanche 1,2,3 zones are all very unstable with 50cm -1.5m of powder sitting on hard bed. The beach zone dropping down to Mussala Pathway is fine within the vegetated areas. Far left cliff zone of the beach riders are triggering small avalanches. We are offering guided rides to people to keep them in the safe zones. Next ones at 3pm today if anyone wants to join.