By the time Henry reached the grand old age of 18, he’d already been skiing for 14 years. He’d ranked as one of the best skiers of his age group in the giant slalom in The States and ski racing was all he knew. Arriving in the Alps in the 1980’s, he ventured off-piste for the first time and made an important discovery. The dangerous combination of being a good skier, having no mountain safety knowledge and developing a newfound love for off-piste skiing almost killed Henry in an avalanche.
Henry first started his avalanche talks in Val d’Isere in the late 1980’s. He and his team now deliver a regular programme of avalanche awareness and off-piste safety courses to thousands of people each year, both in the UK and across the Alps. If you’ve been lucky enough to attend Henry’s Avalanche Talk then please, go forth and enjoy the powder. If you haven’t, then read on… but remember, if you are not sure how to manage the risk, then think about hiring a mountain guide or a qualified instructor. You are never without risk where nature is concerned, but you can manage the risk. Here Henry tells us how.
In 90% of avalanche accidents, a person triggers the slide – either the victim or someone in their group sets it off, or someone above them triggers it. It is almost always a dry slab avalanche that is triggered by the victim(s), not a spontaneous wet snow avalanche that comes down from above. This is good news, because it means that we are in control. We can manage the risk.
Off-piste, backcountry, secured and unsecured
Off-piste and backcountry refer to unsecured areas. For the adventurers out there, venturing off-piste and touring is where it’s at. It touches the pioneering instinct and brings us closer to nature and ourselves. This is what makes it fun. Local authorities do not engage in avalanche control (with explosives for example) in unsecured areas and it’s here that you start taking responsibility for your own safety. Whether you want to go off-piste or not, it’s important that you know where the secured places (marked pistes) end and the unsecured places begin.
Where you go and when
Slope angles matter. Avalanches in Europe don’t release on slope angles less than 28°, which is like the start of a black run or a very steep part of a red run. Slab avalanches only release on slopes above 28°, but there is a difference between where the avalanche releases and where you actually trigger it. The trigger happens under your skis, but an avalanche frequently releases above you. Remember, you can be on a low angle slope and still trigger an avalanche that releases on a steeper slope above you. Slope angles are critical, so think about them when you’re deciding where to go.
Snow stability is important. When the snow is stable it takes more than one person to trigger a release. When the snow is less stable, just one person can trigger a slab. Avalanche forecasts tell you about snow stability a,nd it’s essential that you pay attention to them to understand the risks of the day. They include a danger rating and to use the avalanche forecast you must understand the definition of the rating.
Whenever the danger rating is three or above, or if you are unsure, ask local professionals such as piste patrol, guides and instructors where you should go and when. Recent avalanche activity is also a great clue. If lots of slopes that face one direction have recent slab avalanches on them, you can expect slopes with similar aspects and similar altitude to be unstable. Look for clues all the time and listen for settling and ‘whoomphing’ – this is the noise that snow makes when it settles and it’s a very clear message that the snow is unstable
How you go up and down
Once you’ve decided where to go, your conduct on the slope will determine your safety. Follow the rules and keep thinking and you’ll have a much lower risk of triggering an avalanche.
- Go one at a time on exposed parts of the mountain – the weight of one person is much less likely to trigger a slide than two
- Only ever stop at islands of safety – places where you are protected from potential risks, such as beneath a rock or on a ridge
- Avoid convexities – this is where the slope goes from flat to steep abruptly. Slabs fracture here often
- Keep your tracks together – if you follow next to the track of the person in front of you and they didn’t trigger an avalanche then chances are you won’t either
- Terrain traps might exist below you – these are anything below that could make the consequences of being swept away even worse, such as a hole, a ravine or a lake.
- Always have escape routes in mind – have a plan in mind should an avalanche happen, but remember most of us will not succeed.
You can be prepared with all the right equipment, but if you’re not thinking about what you’re doing, you are an accident waiting to happen. Find out first:
- What does the rest of the group want to do? What is their tolerance for risk?
- Will someone in the group be pushed beyond their limit and become a danger to the rest of the group?
- Most accidents are predictable. What is the avalanche forecast?
If you are still alive when an avalanche stops but you are buried underneath, you have 15 minutes to live. If your friends have detection equipment (a transceiver, a shovel and a probe) and they know how to use it, they should be able to find you in less than 15 minutes.
On nice slopes with fresh powder there is always a risk, but if you are aware of it then you can manage the risk and make off-piste about as safe as driving your car to work. And much more fun!
There are loads of avalanche and off-piste resources and advice articles on the HAT website. The website also includes details of their short course programme too.