The Price of Powder – Avalanche Awareness

I recently went to a lecture on avalanche awareness run by North Face at my local Snow And Rock store. It was incredibly eye opening and I thought I would share some of the information with you all. I know on fresh powder days the excitement is unreal and everyone is itching to get out, but whatever the conditions,  it remains essential that we look around, use our eyes and not put ourselves in any unnecessary danger. Avalanches most often occur on slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees. I don’t know about you,  but I most definitely love skiing on slopes a lot steeper than that! We can never predict avalanches but we can read the signs and attempt to steer clear of them.

One of the first things is to look out for are the signs at the bottom of the hill. There will always be an avalanche danger scale on display somewhere:

Even if the danger scale is at a moderate level there are still risks involved when skiing off piste. Do not be lulled in to a false sense of security.

It is essential to assess the terrain you are about to ski on. Learning to recognise avalanche terrain is the first and most important step in avalanche hazard evaluation. Instead of looking at your mobile or fiddling with you i-pod on the chair lift look around the mountain at the terrain you are about to ski – it’s the best view you are going to get.

The most treacherous type of unstable snowpack occurs when a slab sets on top of a weak layer. A slab is a layer of snow that has at least some cohesion.  Slabs can be quite hard or they can be rather soft; the slab layer just has to be more cohesive or harder than the layer below it.

If there has been a significant rise in temperature causing the snow to re-freeze, there could be a weak layer underneath that is ready to slide with pressure. Heavy snowfall or rain adds weight to the already unstable snow pack. Wind blown snow creates dense slabs on the leeward or downward sides of ridges. Reading the snow and weather signs before picking the terrain you ski is imperative. Look out for areas where avalanches have previously occurred.
When skiing off pieste or in the back country try to pick the safest route down. Take a minute at the top to look at what is around you: does the slope face the sun or is it in the shade, pick a line to ski or board and make a mental note of which direction you would ski in if an avalanche did happen. Always move from one island of safety to another, sticking to low angle ridges and not waiting for friends in what could be a potential avalanche path. Always ski or board ONE AT A TIME. Watch out for terrain traps – they could be cliffs, rocks, trees or gullies. A flat area or gully means a deeper burial.
You must think like an avalanche –  a certain line may look tempting, but it might not be the safest way down. Communication within the group is also very important – all of you must be aware of the changing conditions and be prepared to be flexible. But most of all be prepared to do a rescue.
You should always carry a beacon, a probe and a shovel with you – the life of your friends is in your hands and yours in theirs. Make sure that you all know how to work your equipment and know how to dig someone out  of an avalanche. Practice before you go out.
If you trigger an avalanche the best defence is NOT to get caught – if you get completely buried your chance of survival is 30%. Try and ski off the slab by maintaing momentum and getting to the edge of the slide. Discard of ski’s and poles if you can, attempt to roll on your back, with your feet down the hill and swim, fight and kick as hard as you can. As the avalanche slows, try and thrust a part of your body above the surface and make an airspace around your mouth. If you are completely buried, difficult as it is, try your best to remain calm and breathe slowly – the fate of your life is in the hands of your friends – pick your off piste pals wisely!!
If it is your friend that is caught, don’t waste time in calling for help (unless there are a few of you and someone else can do it) – you only have 15  MINUTES for a good chance to recover someone alive. As the person in the avalanche starts to slide DO NOT take your eyes off the victim, and when they go under the snow make a mental note of the last place you saw them above the surface.
Make sure it is safe to search before you begin, don’t become a victim yourself. Pick a leader in the group and make a plan. Begin with surface clues – hat, goggles, gloves, boots etc. Begin the search at the last place they were seen above the surface and begin a thorough beacon search – get close and probe before you dig. Even if they are not wearing a beacon don’t give up – probe around surface clues and likely catchment areas. When you think you have found them DIG LIKE CRAZY starting from underneath them.
Having learnt that there is no way to predict avalanches, I will most definitely be protecting myself against them the best way I can. This season I’m going to buy the Ortovox 3+ tranceiver. I was shown how easy it was to use at the Ski and Snowboard Show by the Ortovox stand – trust me it’s idiot proof.
The smart antenna technology with intelligent position recognition switches automatically to the best transmission antenna (it has 3 antenna’s) – in essence you get found more easily! You also are able to find people much faster – the circular display is clear and precise. Not only do you locate faster, but you can find more victims – the 3+ allows you to maintain an overview even with multiple burials. The number of victims is shown in the display. As soon as you have found the first one you can blend out their signal with the pin key. The victim is displayed as pinned and you can immediately continue with your search. Not only is it increasing your personal level of safety but the others around you. In my opinion you can’t put a price on safety.
Get your Ortovox avalanche tranceiver at: www.ortovox.com
Look out for avalanche lectures – they are well worth a visit. Hope you all enjoy some back country terrain this season but do it safely!!
For extra information about digging techniques look at: www.avalanche.ca
For I-Phone users there is a free avalanche app from:  www.mammut.ch

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