Heavy snowfall and strong winds are blamed for triggering dozens of avalanches at ski resorts in Austria and Switzerland, leading to several deaths.
Eight people died during a series of 30 avalanches that hit the Tyrol region of Austria, including the popular resorts St Anton and Sölden, on February 4. Two other people died in a landslide in eastern Switzerland.
Authorities have raised the avalanche alert level to four (out of five), meaning large-scale avalanches are likely. But, as the busy mid-term holidays approach, experts say many tourists continue to ignore the warnings. All skiers, especially novices, have been advised to stay on designated ski slopes and trails.
Visitors should always pay attention to local advice and prepare carefully for mountain outings, whether in winter or summer. “Be sure to avoid walking, climbing, and camping on and around steep slopes, 30 degrees or higher, right after snowfall, for 24 to 48 hours as a general rule, especially above you, but also around and below you. says Henry Schniewind of Henry’s Avalanche Talks (HAT). “Go under or through steep parts of glaciers or icefalls, either at night or very early in the morning to minimize exposure to glacier collapse, and pay attention to road closure warnings. If a road is closed, it is for a good reason.”
Use our report to check the latest snow forecasts. Here are Schniewind’s top tips on how to survive dangerous snow situations and stay safe in the mountains:
How to be prepared for an avalanche
1. Know what the hazard classifications mean
Familiarize yourself with the five international avalanche danger levels: 1 is low avalanche risk, 2 is moderate, 3 is considerable, 4 is high, and 5 is extreme.
2. Check the forecast
Read the official avalanche forecast bulletin for your area the night before you head out; this will tell you the altitude and slope aspects where the risk is greatest. This will be available at the resort.
3. Stick with like-minded cyclists
Ride with people who have a similar approach to having fun and being safe off-road. Keep your group size between three and five people – if there are only two of you and you catch one, the other will be alone and you will need to rescue him and get help. If there are more than five of you, the group can fragment and security risks increase.
4. Take all the equipment you need
If you’re going backcountry skiing in the winter, take all the essentials (avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel) with you to get your friends out from under the snow in 15 minutes or less. After 15 minutes buried under the snow, the chance of survival drops rapidly.
5. Train with the security team
Take a two to three hour hands-on session on how to use your security equipment and update yourself every year. Get to know how your equipment works and make sure others do too – trust them to rescue you.
6. Save key phone numbers
You should have all the phone numbers of the local rescue services in your phone.
7. Plan your routes
Have a good idea of the area and routes you will be skiing (using maps, guidebooks, and your personal experience) or hiking so you don’t end up stuck on a cliff. Be alert for danger signs as you go, it’s all too easy to let passion and enthusiasm blind you to risk.
8. Learn about slope angles
Know how to identify slopes of 30 degrees or more – this is where most avalanches occur.
9. Talk to local professionals
People like the ski patrol (piste patrol) and mountain guides are a good source of inside information about the area.
How to avoid triggering an avalanche
1. Go one by one where there is any possibility of danger
Avalanches are triggered when the weight on the snow cover causes the slab to break. One person exerts much less pressure on a slope than two or three people. When you stop to wait for the rest of your group, make sure they are in a safe place (look for an “island of safety”) so that if they trigger an avalanche, you don’t get caught.
2. Keep your tracks together
If the person in front of you didn’t cause a landslide and you’re still very close to the same line, you’re probably safe too.
3. Look for signs of recent avalanche activity
Slab avalanches are responsible for the majority of accidents and even small ones can be fatal. If you see recent releases, take note of which slope aspects and altitudes are most prone to them and avoid them.
4. Beware of convexities
Where the slope goes from flat to steep, there is often weakness in the snowpack that can be brought on by a skier.
5. Avoid wind-laden slopes
Slopes covered in extra snow, swept there by the prevailing winds, may have excellent freeriding conditions, but the extra load of snow makes them susceptible to the extra weight of a skier.
6. Be careful what’s below you
If there is a cliff or a narrow basin below, the consequences of a landslide will be much more serious than if there is only a small section of slope with a gentle drop. And make sure you never unleash an avalanche on others below you.
What to do if you get caught in an avalanche
If you are wearing an ABS backpack, pull the trigger and release the airbag. Hopefully this will keep you on the surface.
Try to ski or cartwheel to the side out of the way of the slide as fast as you can.
If possible, get rid of your skis and poles (never wear wrist straps in a potential avalanche zone).
The sensation is of being in a high-speed washing machine. He swims furiously to the surface and tries to get his head out of the snow. Do your best while the avalanche slows down.
Try to keep your nose and mouth clear of snow and use your arms to establish space around your face before it finally stops. The avalanche debris has a mass similar to that of the set concrete and further movement becomes impossible.
If you are completely buried but carry a radio transceiver, your chance of survival is 34 percent. After 15 minutes this starts to drop off dramatically. If it’s not completely buried, the chances of survival are over 90 percent.