That sounds a bit serious doesn’t it?.. Well it is… In fact, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get caught up in one in the first place!
If you are unfortunate enough to get caught, the odds of a happy ending are stacked against you and if buried, these odds reduce as the minutes tick by and drop dramatically after 15. All of us who venture off the marked runs should take the time to learn, get the kit, practice and surround ourselves with people with the same mindset.
After a dry start to the winter here in the French Alps, the snow’s finally a comin’! Deep pow is on the cards and we’ll all be tearing off like exited kids on Christmas day looking to lay down surfy fresh lines in deep snow!
Most people’s progress on snow starts on the groomed slopes and moves towards the fresh, untouched fields of dreams as they get better. There’s usually a phase where ability progresses rapidly beyond an awareness of the dangers. Board and ski design has made it even more fun for boarders and skiers to ride the floaty white stuff and backcountry gear like split boards and touring skis have fuelled the boom in people going further field in search of fresh tracks and new lines.
Most of us escape the blissful ignorance stage unscathed but the winter mountains are a dangerous environment for anyone, regardless of ability and experience. For me, the arrival of our first child, Iz and seeing the aftermath of a wet avalanche which had taken out a piste (no people, luckily) made me think it was time to take things more seriously. It was time to do some research, get some training and some kit and try to talk my riding mates into doing the same. I also felt like I wanted to be equipped to help if I ever came across a situation that someone else had got into.
This post only scratches the surface about avalanche safety but luckily there are loads of resources available these days. If you’re partial to a bit of pow and haven’t yet done so, follow the links, find a course, get some kit, keep learning and keep practising.
What is an avalanche and what causes it?
As you may know, there are several different types of snow. Sometimes it’s thick and wet and great for making snowballs, sometimes it’s so cold, soft and powdery that it just won’t stick together. It heats up, melts, cools, refreezes and gets blown all over the place. As the snow falls and the snowpack builds, these different conditions lead to different layers in the snowpack. A variety of factors can lead to these layers not bonding properly and thus, forming a weak layer in the snowpack.
If it continues to snow, the depth and weight of snow builds on this weak layer until it will inevitably fail. The slab is teetering there just waiting for the sheer weight of snow or an external trigger, like a skier/boarder, to overcome the weak connection and cause the whole slab to slide.
Once released, a dry avalanche can accelerate to speeds of up to 80mph in as little as 5 seconds – taking out people, trees, houses and whatever else is in it’s path. As it stops descending, it slows and then stops, instantaneously setting solid like concrete, entombing anything it’s picked up on the way.
There are all sorts of factors to take into account when assessing avalanche risk and whether you should ride a slope or find another route. Factors such as recent snow, snowpack, wind loading, temperature changes, evidence of other slides or unstable snow, snow depth, slope angle, slope orientation, size of face, recent snow, the terrain above, the terrain below, consequences of a slide, time of day, recent weather conditions, rain, route choice, your condition as well as the ability and attitude of your group.!
Many of these factors should be constantly observed and assessed while you are on the mountain and before you make decisions. As with anything though, good planning and preparation are essential.
Planning and Preparation
Ideally, your prep should start way in advance, first with education about avalanche awareness and how to avoid them, as well as how to carry out rescues if the worst should happen. Get your hands on the essential kit like beacons/transceivers, probes and shovels (discussed below) and keep brushing up your search, location and digging techniques with your mates. The faster and more effective you are in practice, the better you’ll be if you need to do it in the heat of the moment.
In the run up to a trip, keep an eye on the developing weather and snow conditions where you’re intending to ride. Have the temperatures been fluctuating above and below zero as the snow pack has accumulated? Have there been high winds which could have created large, unstable windblown slabs?
Keep an eye on snow and avalanche reports for the area and check the avalanche forecast and risk level on the day you are riding. The scale of risk is typically 1 to 5 with 1 ‘low’ followed by ‘moderate’, ‘considerable’, ‘high’ and 5 ‘severe’. The majority of fatal accidents happen when it’s an avalanche risk 3 because people think it’s in the middle of the scale and therefore an average level of risk when in fact there is a considerable risk. At 4 and 5 the terrain is ‘no-go’ and people give it a miss but at 3 they start to risk it even though the conditions are still dangerous with natural and human-triggered avalanches likely!
If in doubt, ask the pros. If you are heading out of bounds in a resort and are unsure, ask the ski patrol. Among other things, they are in charge of keeping the marked runs safe and pre-emptively triggering slides on the dodgy faces to remove the danger in advance. If anyone knows the mountain, it’s these guys and they’d rather you asked and listened than have to dig you out later on.
The best course of action is to book some training and learn first hand from an expert. There’s everything from day courses on awareness and rescue to multi-day training on backcountry travel, offpiste riding and snowpack analysis. There are simply too many to list here but a web search in your area should let you know what’s available. If you’re in the UK, Scotland’s National Outdoor Training Centre at Glenmore Lodge offers a variety of courses and there’s some good avalanche awareness training available at Glencoe Mountain Resort. If you’re in the French Alps, Henry’s Avalanche Talks (HAT) run sessions in Val d’sere and Tignes and often do things in partnership with the Ski Club of Great Britain.
Glenmore lodge did have an excellent Avalanche Awarness Quiz on their website. At the time of writing, the link on their site isn’t working but they’ve said they are getting it sorted out. It’s here if you want to try.
There’s a few good books out there but Bruce Temper’s How to Stay Alive in Avalanche Terrain is the ‘go to’ manual. It’s a big ol’ book which shows just how much there is to learn.
YouTube is always a useful place to go and start finding out how do to all sorts of things and Avalanche Safety is no exception. They’re bone fide vids too, from renowned safety equipment manufacturers, training centres like Glenmore Lodge and some of the world’s top big mountain athletes. We’ve collected a few good ones together on our UpSix YouTube Avalanche Saftey Playlist.
Many resorts have beacon parks nowadays, so you can flip your transceiver to ‘search’ and practice locating several other beacons buried in the ground.
Loads of info on t’internet. You can find some more good stuff on the following websites:
One of the best resources available is to hire a local guide who knows the area. They should know the terrain, the conditions and the dangers. They should also be trained and qualified to look after their paying customers, giving them the best time possible whilst keeping them out of harm’s way.
Avalanche Safety Gear
Avalanche Beacon / Transceiver
Your most essential piece of kit if you need to be rescued. Wear it inside your jacket and check the battery is full of charge, switched-on and working. If you do get caught, this is the one thing that dramatically increases any chance of being located. If someone else is buried, you can flip it into search and get to work. The cheapest ones are generally not as good at the searching bit. If your mate has skimped on cost, swap yours with theirs so that at least they’ve got the good one for searching 😉
The second of the ‘essential 3’ is the probe. Once you’ve located the victim, you can use this to pinpoint them and find out how deep you need to dig. Move the same distance down the slope and dig in at an angle towards them. Digging straight down has resulted in disaster when the rescuer ends up standing on top of and suffocating the victim. Coming in at an angle helps avoid it.
The third essential. Digging is a lot harder than you expect and takes longer. It’s good to practice search and rescue regularly so you know what you’re all doing and can get on it fast. Every second counts. Avalanche awareness and safety courses teach team digging techniques which will improve efficiency even more.
Avalanche airbag system
Airbags make a big difference and they work on the principle of making you a bigger object in a snow flow. It’s the same principle that leaves you with small crumbs at the bottom of your cereal packet and big bits at the top. They should be used to supplement your essential kit above.
If you’re into snow sports, you’ll be familiar with the Recco brand. It’s a signal reflector that is often built into winter clothing and boots. It can give a misguided sense of protection though as all it actually does is reflect the signal back from the corresponding Recco detector. The detector is a reasonably big piece of kit that would be in the ski patrollers arsenal. If you are buried, your best chance of rescue is the people (your riding buddies) who are immediately on the scene. It could easily take 15 minutes or more for a patroller with a detector to arrive on the scene which might be too late. Having said that, every situation is unique and any extra bit of kit could make the difference.
Despite being ridiculously good fun, the winter mountains are a seriously dangerous environment. If you’ve not got the kit and the training, stick to the marked runs.
If you are heading out of bounds, arm yourself with knowledge, kit and a group of friends who’ve got each other’s backs. It’s no good realising you should have bothered when you’re in the middle of a nightmare situation. Always remember that the best way to to survive an avalanche is to avoid getting caught in it in the first place. If it does happen, every second counts!
Have fun and stay safe!