In this series of articles, we want to give an insight into the realm of avalanche safety. It is not a course. This is merely an overview of what avalanche safety consists of, and how each part fits in the total risk framework that it actually is. We choose the perspective of the amateur skier. What can he do to ensure his own safety and that of his party when chasing powder?
NOTE: I am not an avalanche safety professional. This article has been reviewed by those who are.
Why do we need a risk framework?
Being out in the mountains is always risky. There are factors and variables that we cannot control. To move safely in this environment, we have to manage the risks involved. And for that, we first have to understand what that risk consists of, and what the variables are that make up that risk.
In backcountry skiing (or snowboarding, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling), avalanche risk is one of the major risks we have to deal with. There are other risks as well. But in this series, we concentrate on avalanche risk. Why? The thing is: the slopes that are most prone to slide in an avalanche after fresh snowfall are the slopes we find most inviting to ski. And therein lies the biggest variable: we ourselves, the skiers.
Statistics show that most avalanches occur on 35-45 degree pitch slopes. Statistics also show that the majority of fatal avalanches are triggered by the very skiers that die from them. And – I think not coincidentally – those same 35-45 degree slopes are most appealing to ski. We, the skiers, are a major factor in avalanche risk. Better yet: both the trigger and the consequence lie with us. Luckily, our own behavior is something we can control. And there are many great tools for that, all linked together in one risk framework.
What is a risk framework?
A framework is nothing more (or less) than a collection of measures and the way they connect with each other. There are numerous great courses, sources, tricks, and pieces of gear we associate with avalanche safety. But each of those components has its specific place in the entire framework.
In the world of avalanche safety, there are awareness courses, deep-dive theoretical courses, practical courses, equipment training, procedure training, trip and route planning courses. And they are all very useful. It is understanding the role that each of these components plays within the framework, that should be the first step in this type of risk management.
Knowing how to dig your buddy out of the snow is a very good skill to have. But is it of any use when you are not able to find him first? It’s a harsh example, but that is how it works. All these pieces of training, knowledge, and gear all serve a very specific purpose. And without one, the others are useless.
Without knowledge (of how avalanches form, what variables are important, and therefore which measures to take and which decisions to make), you may not be able to prevent an avalanche from happening. And if it does happen, without the necessary equipment, chances are not great that you will survive. Or even if you have the gear – if you don’t know how to use it, it is quite useless. You simply need all three: knowledge, gear, and training (on how to use the gear, but also how to put your knowledge of risk management, route selection, and decision making into practice on the mountain).
Get it all, and understand it!
You can of course hire a ski guide, that’s the whole package. But if you want to go out there on your own (well, with at least one buddy), you really should invest in the gear, the training, and all the other elements. But buying a transceiver, shovel, and probe won’t cut it. Not even if you get trained in using them effectively.
It all starts with understanding the framework, and which element mitigates which risk. You only need the gear (transceiver, probe, shovel, perhaps an avalanche airbag) when things have already gone bad. Before you get all that, get educated. What is avalanche terrain? What factors are most relevant in the forming of avalanche conditions? What slopes to avoid? What signs to pick up? How is our decision-making process, beforehand, and on the mountain?
That is what you always need and use. Even before you may decide not to go into avalanche terrain at all. You need a lot of knowledge and practice in interpreting the weather forecast and avalanche bulletin even to make that call. So start with that.
Start with the education, even to get the gear. It’s so much easier to pick the right transceiver, probe, or shovel for you if you have had some (training) experience with a few different models. Even if it is just to find out what your own personal preferences are. Get educated first, then get the gear. And then: get gathering information, get planning your route, get out there observing and skiing.
Where to get the best education
There are organizations that offer avalanche safety courses of all sorts. It’s the more elaborate avalanche course you should be looking for first. Many national or regional avalanche centers offer them, but also some manufacturers like BCA (North America) and Ortovox (mostly Europe). Google them. Most websites that offer avalanche bulletins have links to these courses as well.
Just doing a course in a classroom is not going to be enough, even though it’s a good start. Get training on snow. Not just the transceiver, probe, and shoveling skills. Route planning, wind indicator spotting, slope angle estimation, and terrain trap recognition – are all vital skills when you want to go off-piste by yourself.
Ride wisely, and stay safe.
This article has been created in cooperation with Snow Safety Center.