Is there ever such a thing as too much snow? If it’s hurtling down a slope in a solid wall at 80 mph to bury you, yes! This is not a situation any skier or boarder wants to find himself or herself in, so it pays to know a thing or two about avalanches.
In the mountains, avalanches are a fact of life. Every year about 25 fatalities occur in Switzerland alone, but the majority of those accidents happen in backcountry areas, far from the pistes where most people ski and board. Still, a little extra awareness can help keep you safe no matter where you venture.
Predicting avalanche hazard is a mix of art and science. Experts predict risk based upon factors such as terrain, recent snowfall, temperature gradients, and sun exposure. The first step to safety is obvious: listen to the experts! Obey signs warning of avalanche danger and stay clear of closed areas. Never ski alone in areas with an avalanche hazard. If there are no tracks down a steep field of fresh powder, there may be a good reason!
Most pistes are very safe, since resorts usually control avalanche risk with explosives, triggering controlled avalanches when necessary. That noise you hear early in the morning that sounds like artillery fire is actually artillery fire. Nonetheless, keep an eye out for steep slopes that could deposit a mass of snow on a catwalk where you are traversing and do not linger in places that might present a hazard.
If you intend to venture off-piste, the risk goes up significantly, and you should arm yourself with as much information as you can. Take a class, read about the potential dangers, and always travel with a guide or experienced back-country skiers. Back-country skiers carry special equipment, too. At a minimum, if you head out of the gates, you should wear an avalanche beacon to enable others in your party to locate you if you are buried in an avalanche, a collapsible probe to use during search operations, and a shovel for digging someone out.
Avalanches should not be taken lightly, but they should not discourage you from enjoying the incredible snow sports opportunities in the Alps. Obey warnings, learn more about how to recognize danger, and be alert. An excellent resource to learn more is the online course from the Canadian Avalanche Association—just Google it!
In 90% of avalanche incidents involving skiers and snowboarders, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggered the avalanche.
The most common avalanches to occur are slab (a cohesive plate of snow slides as a unit on top of weaker snow) or flow (powder) avalanches. Slab avalanches account for almost all avalanche fatalities.
Experience indicates that about 90% of avalanche victims will be recovered alive if they are pulled out within the first 15 minutes. After approximately 45 minutes the chances of survival drop dramatically to 30-40%. After two hours, the chances of being pulled out alive are negligible.