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Few things are more exhilarating than letting it rip down an open slope of untouched, pristine powder. As you find your rhythm a massive, uncontrollable grin emerges and you whoop for joy. Yes! This is it! This is life!

Wait! This same open slope can, all of a sudden, transform itself into a ruthlessly efficient avalanche, engulfing and burying everything in its path and shattering all illusions of immortality. And all too often such a nightmare scenario is caused by foolish yet deadly mistakes, for which imprudence and ignorance are to blame.

The risk of avalanches when ski mountaineering or winter climbing can be greatly reduced given knowledge, understanding and experience of avalanche behaviour. has analysed this danger, highlighting what can be done to reduce the likelihood of an avalanche and what must be done in the event that the worst comes to the worst.
Avalanches - an ever present danger

Thousands of avalanches come thundering down every day all over the world and although most of them cause no harm, they pose the greatest danger in ski mountaineering. Unfortunately, every year in the Alps alone, between 120 and 150 ski mountaineers die trapped beneath the snow masses. And in spite of all rescue techniques, 57% of all buried victims do not survive. It is important to realise that a staggering 85% of all avalanches are triggered by humans! These three statistics show clearly that the threat of an avalanche should never be underestimated; as soon as you are in open country, you are at risk.
      Risk and prevention

      One aspect which makes ski mountaineering and winter climbing so intriguing is risk. Indeed, it is an integral part of our sport which can never be eliminated, but this does not mean it should be treated light-heartedly. If several practical steps are always followed, then the risk of getting caught in an avalanche can be reduced significantly.

       Firstly, listen to the weather forecast on the days leading up to the expedition and the Avalanche Information Service. These will give you a general indication of the prevalent snow conditions, but since one slope can differ substantially from the next, it is essential to be experienced in evaluating snow conditions in loco. High and moderate winds create conditions ideal for slab avalanches, the most dangerous type for the ski mountaineer and remember that after a heavy snowfall it may take days for conditions to become stable.

        Secondly, always carry an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. If used properly, these instruments can help locate and free a victim in as little as 10 minutes. Without prior practice though an avalanche transceiver, is completely useless, so make sure you know not just the theory! Our accompanying article shows how important and complicated this particular topic is.

        Thirdly, whilst on the tour, choose a sensible route, keeping away from pockets of spindrift on wind-protected slopes. Bear in mind that most avalanches come down on slopes angled between 30°-50° and remember to keep a safe distance between one skier and the next, especially when crossing risky slopes, so as to avoid endangering the entire group.

Crossing an avalanche field   
What to do in an avalanche

Should the worst come to the worst, the first thing you must do is not panic. It is essential that you stay afloat and by continuing to ski well it is often possible to avoid being dragged under. Otherwise, get rid of your ski-sticks and try to remain on the surface by swimming. When the snow comes to a standstill attempt to create some breathing space.
Studies have shown that 90% of all avalanche victims survive for 15 minutes, but that after 35 minutes this figure decreases to a mere 30%. This rapid decline highlights the importance of an immediate rescue and some breathing space, since victims die of either hypothermia or suffocation.

If an immediate rescue is to be carried out successfully, then the remaining group members must react quickly and efficiently. After having established no further avalanche danger, mark and start the search where the victim last disappeared from view. Look carefully for clues on the surface and remember the 15 minute time bracket; speed is essential. When to raise the alarm is a debatable point and depends on factors such as distance, number of victims and number of remaining group members. Although this must be evaluated at the time, consider that it takes one person ten minutes to free a victim buried beneath 1 meter of snow - clearly the more helping hands there are in those precious 15 minutes, the better. If the victim has been located, find out the depth using a probe and, using a shovel, start digging from the sides. After having freed the victim, carry out basic First Aid (ABC; airways, breathing & circulation) if necessary. Protect the victim from the cold until the rescue services arrive.'s advice

If you find yourself in a situation where a dangerous slope must be crossed and turning back is out of the question, remember the following five points.

Keep your skis on. Two people on foot produce the same additional load as a snowcat!

Undo pole and binding loops. This will stop you from getting dragged under in the event of an avalanche.

Put on all extra layers of clothes.

Keep a safe distance between one skier and the next. Avoid jumps and falls at all costs and never stop above a skier, but below and far away.

Choose a route which connects as many "safe islands" as possible.

Mobile phones

Mobile phones are increasingly being used in the mountain environment. Although in an emergency a telephone call can mobilise the Mountain Rescue Service immediately, bear in mind that it may well be all over by the time help arrives. Do not underestimate risks just because you have a mobile phone; it should be regarded only as something additional. It is not a substitute for solid mountaineering skills.

Thanks to
Dr. Brugger, of the South Tyrol, for his invaluable support and suggestions. For an excellent, in-depth analysis have a look at "Avalanche Emergency", published in English, German and Italian.

Avalanche Bulletins in Europe
Italy Piedmonte
Alto Adige
Friuli V. Giulia
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