Avalanches vary enormously by size, strength and speed depending on many different factors including the steepness of the terrain, type of snow and the length of the slope.
If you are caught in an avalanche it can be difficult to avoid being swept away by the speed of the slide and there are many myths and stories told about what to do in an avalanche. Here are some facts.
(If you haven’t read my first post see: skiing off piste and mountain safety.)
1. If you trigger an avalanche and realise quickly the snow is sliding then ski away to the left or right as soon as possible. Do not try to continue skiing down as it will be highly unlikely that you’ll be able to out run it.
2. If you are caught up in the slide then place you arms over your head and try if possible to keep your head above your feet. Often people are told to ‘swim’ with their arms, in reality this will not keep you above the snow in a large avalanche. If you are buried then the space created with your arms in front of your face might provide some breathing space.
3. Easy to say, but stay calm. If you are buried, save your strength and energy for breathing. If you can move your arms then try to establish where the surface is and if you are lucky enough to be in an upright position try to break through the snow above you. If you don’t know where the surface is then save your energy.
Search and rescue
The first basic rule of skiing off piste is ‘never ski alone’. Today we have the technology that provides equipment for our personal use that can locate avalanche victims very quickly. Providing that the trauma involved in being caught in an avalanche leaves you breathing, the key to surviving an avalanche burial is time. You need to be located and dug out within 15 minutes and statistics show this will give you a 90% chance of survival. Within 30 minutes you chances drop down to 30%. This means that your friends need to locate you themselves. Calling in the rescue services simply takes too much time.
Here is a list of crucial items that you need to carry when skiing off piste:
1. Avalanche rescue radio transmitter and receiver. There are several brands of avalanche transceivers on the market and they all conform to the same frequency (457 KHZ). Always put it on in the morning before you go out the door and don’t take it off until you have finished skiing for the day. Wear the device over your first layer of clothing (eg: Thermal top). Ensure the batteries are new and test the device everyday. The default setting transmits a constant signal. This can be switched to ‘search’ mode if you are required to locate a victim.
2. Snow Shovel. A good backpack preferably designed to take a snow shovel is required. The snow shovel should be light and strong and there are many brands available, which fit snugly into a pack.
3. Avalanche probe. A crucial piece of equipment as although the transceiver will locate the victim within a certain area, a probe will confirm the spot more precisely saving precious time when digging. Probes are telescopic and will fit easily into your backpack. Do not try and use a tent pole, it will not work.
These 3 items are essential but you could also include a first aid kit, survival blanket and some spare clothing.
Being able to locate avalanche victims with a transceiver takes skill and knowledge which requires detailed instruction and practice. There are courses available that specifically deal with this subject and I would recommend going on one before even considering skiing off piste.
There are other devices available which can increase survival rates if caught in an avalanche.
1. Avalanche air bag. This system helps to keep the victim above the surface by inflating an airbag housed inside a backpack.
2. Avalung. This device provides a buried victim with extra air allowing the search team more time.
3. Recco. A small reflective strip is attached to clothing or ski boots and allows the rescue services to locate buried victims once on the scene.
The subject of avalanches, prevention and rescue is a huge topic. It takes many years of training and experience to fully understand snow conditions and potential risks encountered in the mountains. This is not a ‘manual’ on mountain safety but merely a view on some of the issues and requirements faced when skiing off piste. I would always strongly advise using the services of a fully qualified mountain guide or instructor when skiing off piste. Their knowledge of the terrain and conditions will make your experience safer and therefore more enjoyable. Learning about snow conditions, how to avoid avalanches and how to rescue skiers in avalanches is an interesting subject and increasing our levels of understanding make skiing off piste an adventure to savour.
In the next part of the series I will talk about the type of equipment required for skiing off piste including skis, clothing and backpacks.
This post was written by Robert Stewart of The Skiing Department Blog. Robert is a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier and his blog has the latest information on many different aspects of the sport, from beginners skiing tips to ski clothing reviews. He can also be followed on Twitter @skiing_blog