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

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

The ski season has turned deadly across the Alps and Europe after recent storms delivered long-awaited fresh snow.

Authorities are urging extreme caution ahead of the school holiday rush – as British families head out with the start of the Easter holidays – describing conditions as “critical” with a “considerable” risk of avalanches.

Multiple fatalities have been recorded across Switzerland, France, Italy and Austria, with 56 avalanches in the past 10 days across France and 20 across Switzerland.

Four people have died this week in the Four Vallees area of Verbier, with the Valais on high-alert after another huge-scale fatal 400m-wide avalanche on March 15.

“The snowpack remains unstable and the danger could continue for some time,” warns the Valais Avalanche Accident Prevention Group, urging extreme caution (on and) off-piste.

On March 16, the FIS World Cup Slopestyle – where the world’s best freestyle skiers compete – was hit by an avalanche in Tignes, with images shared across social media.

@windellscamp Crazy Avanlanche at Tignes today, thankfully no was injured. #fypシ゚viral #avalanche 🎥 @andriragettli ♬ original sound - Windells Skiing

There were no casualties but authorities across the Tarentaise and Haute-Savoie are advising people who ski on and off-piste to be ‘extremely careful’.

Elsewhere, a 57-year-old ski instructor has been killed by an avalanche, while skiing off-piste, at Les Arcs. In January, a 45-year-old British woman died after being caught in an avalanche with two others in the Mont-Blanc massif of Chamonix. Three were killed in Austria earlier this month with warnings in the area of Kaltenbach and beyond.

Experts warn, “We remind you that level 3 already describes a critical situation and above this level of danger it is better to refrain from off-piste skiing in unsecured terrain or without professional supervision if you do not have the necessary experience.”

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 - AFP
avalanche rescue - 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.