How to stay safe from avalanches when skiing – everything you need to know

Always prepare carefully for outings in the mountains
Always heed local advice and prepare carefully for outings in the mountains - E+

Heavy snowfall has returned to the Alps – with it increased risk of avalanches. As skiers flock to make the most of the improved conditions on the slopes, local authorities in France have confirmed four people have been killed in an avalanche in the Auvergne region.

Earlier this season, two avalanches struck California’s popular resort area of Palisades Tahoe over the course of two days. One skier was killed and three others injured in the first avalanche. And while there were no injuries reported from the second, which occurred the following day, the incident highlighted the risks involved in winter sports.

If you’re heading to the slopes soon, use our report to check the latest snow forecasts. Here are Henry Schniewind’s, of Henry’s Avalanche Talks (HAT), 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 danger ratings mean

Familiarise yourself with the five international avalanche danger levels: 1 is low risk of avalanches, 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 evening before you head out – this will tell you the altitude and slope aspects where the risk is greatest​. This will be available in resort.

3. Stick with like-minded riders

Travel with people who have a similar approach to having fun and being safe off-piste. Keep your group size to between three and five people – if there are only two of you and one gets caught, the other one will be alone, needing to both rescue you and to fetch help. If there are more than five of you, the group can become fragmented and the safety risks increase.

4. Carry all the equipment you need

If you’re going off piste skiing in winter, have all of the essentials with you – avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel – to get your friends out from under the snow in 15 minutes or less. After 15 minutes buried under snow, the chance of survival decreases rapidly.

5. Train with the safety equipment

Do a two- or three-hour practical session on how to use your safety equipment, and refresh yourself each year. Know how your equipment works and make sure the others do as well – you are relying on them to rescue you.

avalanche rescue
Rescuers search following slides in Austria - AFP

6. Save the key phone numbers

You should have all the phone numbers for local rescue services on your phone.

7. Plan your routes

Have a good idea of the area and routes you’ll be skiing (using maps, guide books and your personal experience) or hiking so you don’t end up stuck on a cliff. Be alert to danger signs as you go, it is 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 the majority of avalanches occur.

9. Talk to local professionals

People like the ski patrol (piste patrol) and mountain guides are a good source of insider information on the area.

How to avoid triggering an avalanche

1. Go one at a time where there is any possibility of danger

Avalanches are triggered when the weight on the snow pack causes the slab to fracture. One person puts far less pressure on a slope than two or three people. When you stop to wait for the rest of your group, make sure it is somewhere safe (find an “island of safety”) so that if they trigger an avalanche you won’t get caught in it.

2. Keep your tracks close together

If the person in front did not trigger a slide and you follow very close to the same line it is likely you will be safe as well.

3. Look for signs of recent avalanche activity

Slab avalanches are responsible for most accidents and even small ones can be lethal. If you see recent releases, make a note of which slope aspects and altitudes are most prone to them, and avoid.

4. Look out for convexities

Where the slope goes from flat to steep there is often weakness in the snow pack that can be triggered by a skier.

5. Avoid wind-loaded slopes

Slopes covered in extra snow, swept there by prevailing winds, may have great freeriding conditions, but the extra load of snow makes them susceptible to the extra weight of a skier.

6. Look out for what is below you

If there is a cliff or narrow bowl below then the consequences of a slide will be far more severe than if there is just a small stretch of slope with a smooth run out. And be sure never to trigger an avalanche onto others below you.

What to do if you are caught in an avalanche

  • If you’re wearing an ABS backpack, pull the trigger and release your airbag. Hopefully this will keep you on the surface.

  • Try to ski or tumble to the side out of the path of the slide as quickly as you can.

  • If possible get rid of your skis and poles (never wear wrist loops in a potential avalanche zone).

  • The sensation is of being in a high-speed washing machine. Swim furiously for the surface and try to get your head above the snow. Make the biggest effort as the avalanche slows.

  • Try to keep your nose and mouth free from snow and use your arms to establish space around your face before it finally stops. Avalanche debris has a similar mass to setting concrete, and further movement becomes impossible.

  • If you are completely buried but wearing a radio transceiver your chance of survival is 34 per cent. After 15 minutes this starts to fall dramatically. If you are not fully buried, survival chances are over 90 per cent.