Avalanche Safety

World news, forums and Facebook news feeds are bursting with the chilling news of yet more avalanches. Since Christmas at least 24 people have perished in avalanches in France and Switzerland alone. It’s not just here in Europe, dangerous conditions and fatal avalanches are being reported across the world. With the avalanche risk incredibly high this season skiers must be more vigilant than ever. So why is the risk so high this season and how can we stay safe? 

The Problem: Snowpack

Avalanches are caused by a weak layer in the snowpack which makes the area unstable and prone to breaking away and sliding.  This winter we experienced poor early season snow coverage and changes in temperature which led to a weak, unstable and icy base layer.  Considerably more snow has fallen since Christmas, however, it has been unable to bond with the icy bottom layer thus making the snowpack incredibly unstable and avalanche prone.   

Avalanche Causes

Other factors which influence the risk of avalanches are weather and terrain. Heavy snowfall and snowdrifts caused by high winds increases the weight on the snowpack and therefore the likelihood of avalanches. Steep slopes, north facing slopes and those affected by wind such as gullies and bowls pose an extra danger and should be avoided or treated with extra caution, particularly when avalanche risk is high.      

Triggers

One of the greatest avalanche triggers is us, humans.  Ascents, turns and falls all put a huge amount of extra stress on the snowpack.  Below we've shared a few best practices for staying safe off piste, however, when the snowpack is in such a poor state we advise only venturing past the piste markers under the guidance of a qualified guide or instructor. Not only are they experts in avalanche safety but they have the local knowledge required to guide you safely.   

Before You Go

Always check the weather and avalanche rating before you go, altering your plans accordingly.  Avalanche risk is greater 24 hrs after snowfall and during high winds, so keep that back bowl until the snowpack is more stable.  Poor visibility makes any search and rescue extremely hard and in some cases impossible so stick to the pistes during a white out.  

Strength in Numbers

No friends on a powder day?  You might get up the hill earlier but that’s no use when you've got no one to dig you out a slide.  You're group is your initial search and rescue and have the best chances of saving you.  Make sure everyone has the emergency phone numbers and is carrying the holy trinity; transceiver, shovel and probe – and knows how to use them!

Plan the Route

Observe the route from a place of safety first.  Any avalanche activity; cracks, slides or debris, stay away.  Consider the terrain, avoiding anywhere with terrain traps such as narrow gullies which can amplify even a small slide.  Plan your route, places of refuge and places of danger.  If in any doubt, don’t go, it’ll still be there tomorrow. 

Reduce the weight

Reduce the stress on a slope by riding one at a time, waiting until the previous person out of the path of sluff before you drop in.  Always have a clear view so you can direct the area of search if need be.  When hiking or traversing keep a safe distance between the group avoiding overloading one spot. 

Education and Guidance

If there is any advice you should take it’s get educated, get equipped, and always take a guide or instructor.  If in doubt sit it out.  We know guides and courses are incredibly expensive however UCPA offers off piste ski and snowboard courses at extremely low prices, so there really is no excuse. Avalanche safety equipment is provided as standard and the education on mountain safety is invaluable.  All the instructors/guides are experts and know the areas inside out so know where to go and more importantly where to avoid.  It’s really the best and cheapest way to explore the gems of the back-country while staying safe this winter.

All inclusive Off Piste Full Time Ski & Snowboard Courses from £595

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Skiers skiing fresh tracks off piste

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