How to Stay Safe From Avalanches When Skiing in the Alps

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by Henry Schniewind and Telegraph Ski, The Telegraph, March 8, 2017

A snowboarder has been killed and two others are missing after an avalanche struck the French resort of Valfréjus.

The three visitors from the Netherlands were riding in an off-piste area on Tuesday afternoon when the accident happened. A helicopter and sniffer dog search was launched this morning to locate the two people who are still missing.


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"Initial information suggests the three people did not have detection equipment", such as a transceiver to indicate their location, said a statement from local mountain rescue officials.

In a separate incident, a skier was killed in an avalanche near Vars/Risoul in the French Alps. No other details have been released at this stage.

Also on Tuesday, the French resort of Tignes was hit by another avalanche, raising fears of a repeat of last month’s fatal incident. Early reports said that skiers had been buried by snow on the popular Carline blue piste, but the French resort has since confirmed that there were no casualties .

Last month, four snowboarders were killed at the resort  when a huge avalanche buried them in a wall of snow and ice.

What is the avalanche risk in the Alps at the moment?

The risk varies from region to region and resort to resort, but a spell of some of the heaviest snowfall of a comparatively barren season means it is now as high as it has been at any point this season.

The avalanche risk in Valfréjus and the rest of the Savoie region today was four out of five (high). Across the French Alps, other areas are marked with the same level of risk or with a three out of five (“considerable”) rating. Check Meteo France for the latest news.

How an airbag could save your life in an avalanche

Switzerland, too, is experiencing a “considerable”, or three out of five, risk. Check the SLF for the latest.

Some parts of Italy, such as the Mont Blanc area near Courmayeur, are registering a “strong danger” (four out of five), according to the Italian meteorological service, but most are classed as “considerable” (three out of five).

Have all of the essentials with you - avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel

A “considerable” – or three out of five – risk has been recorded on the higher parts of the Austrian Alps, but two (“moderate”) on lower slopes.

Have there been many avalanches this season?

The season has not seen too many bouts of heavy snowfall so the avalanche risk has not been as high in previous years. However, increased snowfall over the past few weeks meant a heightened risk.  

Last week, three people were killed in an avalanche near the Italian resort of Courmayeur.

The three died on Thursday afternoon when an avalanche struck the Veny Valley, south-west of Courmayeur. Several others were injured, some seriously. Five people were flown to hospital by emergency helicopter.

In mid-January, five French Foreign Legionnaires on a training exercise near Valfrejus were killed in an avalanche. Days earlier, two French teenagers and a Ukrainian tourist were swept away in another avalanche in the French Alps. 

Two men were killed in an avalanche in the Austrian Alps  in late November, while  an avalanche in Tignes, France,  killed four snowboarders in mid-February.  

How do I stay safe on the slopes?

Here are top 10 tips from Henry Schniewind, an avalanche expert, on how to survive dangerous snow situations:

  1. Know the danger rating definitions for the five international avalanche danger levels: 1 – low, 2 – moderate, 3 – considerable, 4 – high, 5 – extreme
  2. ​Read the official avalanche forecast bulletin for your ski area ​the evening before you head out​.
  3. Travel with people who have a similar approach to having fun and being safe off-piste.
  4. Equipment: Have all of the essentials with you –  avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel  – to get your friends out from under the snow in 15 minutes or less. After 15 minutes buried under snow, the chance of surival decreases rapidly.
  5. Train with the safety equipment. ​Do a two- or three-hour practical session on how to use your safety equipment and refresh yourself each year.
  6. ​The phone numbers of local rescue services: have all of them on your phone.
  7. Routes: Have a good idea of the area and routes you'll be skiing (using maps, guide books and your personal experience) so you don’t end up stuck on a cliff.
  8. Slope angles: Know how to identify slopes of 30 degrees or more, on which the majority of avalanches occur.
  9. Talk to local professionals like the ski patrol (piste patrol) to get insider information on the area.
  10. Learn the essentials from Henry’s Avalanche Talks (HAT;

What do I do if I'm caught in an avalanche?

Ski journalist Peter Hardy advises:

  • If you’re wearing an ABS backpack, pull the trigger and release your airbag. Hopefully this will keep you on the surface.
  • Try to ski or tumble to the side out of the path of the slide as quickly as you can.
  • If possible get rid of your skis and poles (never wear wrist loops in a potential avalanche zone).
  • The sensation is of being in a high-speed washing machine. Swim furiously for the surface and try to get your head above the snow. Make the biggest effort as the avalanche slows.
  • Try to keep your nose and mouth free from snow and use your arms to establish space around your face before it finally stops. Avalanche debris has a similar mass to setting concrete, and further movement becomes impossible.
  • If you are completely buried but wearing a radio transceiver your chance of survival is 34 per cent. After 15 minutes this starts to fall dramatically. If you are not fully buried, survival chances are over 90 per cent.

Can I cancel my trip?

You can but you will not be reimbursed by your tour operator. Tour operators are under no obligation to offer a refund unless the Foreign Office advises against travel to a destination.

But there's no reason to – you can still enjoy plenty of safe skiing in the mountains. 

Ski: the latest snow reports 

This article was written by Henry Schniewind and Telegraph Ski from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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