Avalanche Risk Mitigation

The Swiss Institute for Snow & Avalanche Research (SLF) recorded 27 deaths from Avalanches in the winter season 2021/22 up to the end of March, double the number for the previous year and the moving average over the last 20 years. All the victims were winter sports enthusiasts on unsecured terrain – 11 back country and 16 off-piste – and a quarter were in the Verbier area.

Why do skiers and snowboarders get killed by avalanches, I have often been asked. Can’t they just ski out of the path of the snow slide?

Simply put, it is almost impossible to out-run an avalanche. A skier normally travels around 30km/hr, whilst an avalanche can exceed 100km/hr, faster than all but the fastest skier can travel in perfect conditions. Additionally a skier may not be aware that an avalanche has formed until it is upon them, as they can begin with little warning and an almost imperceptible change in the condition of the snow. Then, very rapidly, the force of the product of the mass and acceleration of the slab of snow is capable of knocking over anything in its way.

Just like a flood of water, it is possible to “float” on an avalanche by wearing and deploying an avalanche airbag. Without one, however, you will almost certainly be swept under. It is sometimes possible to “swim” through an avalanche, but swimming in an avalanche is not a skill the average victim will have.

An avalanche typically contains many hundreds or thousands of cubic metres of snow, and the snow consistency is often heavy once it settles. One cubic metre can weigh 500kg, so if you are under an avalanche that has settled you cannot normally lift yourself out of the snow. You would need to dig your way out, and that could well be through a substantial layer of snow. It may not even be clear which way is up. Your best chance of survival is that someone else is able to dig you out – assuming they know where to dig.

Even if a skier is conscious and knows which way is up when they have found themselves under an avalanche, the snow will likely encase them such that they are unable to move. The air pocket around their face will be unable to sustain them for more than a short period, perhaps a few minutes. 85% of avalanche deaths are due to asphyxiation.

The impact of the avalanche may well have made the skier unconscious or caused serious injury. In 15% of avalanche fatalities trauma is a factor. Avalanches often include debris such as trees and rocks, and in turn may sweep a skier on to rocks or other hard objects.

If a victim of an avalanche is not killed by the impact and is dug out within 5 minutes there is a 90% chance of survival. If they have been able to create a large enough air pocket a survival time of an hour is possible but is rare.

I have talked in an earlier article about how important it is to have some form of beacon, such as a RECCO reflector, in ski gear to improve the chances of being found. If you do survive an avalanche, it is likely because of some one else’s preparedness.


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Ski Movies – Part 2

Streif- One Hello of a Ride (2014)

This film is about the famous annual Hahnenkamm race, the toughest on the FIS downhill circuit. It takes place in Kitzbühel, Austria. You can see the movie at the Red Bull web site, and it’s probably the best ski documentary out there.

Frozen (2010)

No, not that Frozen. This one is about three skiers trapped on a ski lift in Snowbasin, Utah, after the resort has closed for the night. Enough to put you off that crazy run to catch the last chairlift before the mountain closes.

Low budget it may be, but it is definitely watchable and pretty scary.

Eddie the Eagle (2016)

If you can take clichés and sentimentality, you will probably like this story of Britain’s most famous ski jumper.

Fly like an eagle

SKI School (1990)/Ski School 2 (1994)

Judge for yourself whether the antics of a bunch of ski instructors, mainly filmed in Whistler, is to your taste. However the first of the two does enjoy something of a cult following amongst people of a certain age.

Extreme Ops (2002)

In what is probably not Rupert Graves’s finest outing, a film crew and three snowboarders go on a trip to a remote part of the Austrian Alps to film some stunts. Unbeknown to them they stumble across the hideout of a thuggish Serbian war criminal. What could possibly go wrong? Although the ski scenes are staged as being on the former Yugoslavian border, filming seems to have taken place at various locations, including Verbier.

More winter sports movies to come…

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Skiing Injury Insurance Payouts

#Verbier

The Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund (Suva) has recently provided an analysis of the extent and costs of winter sports accidents from an insurers perspective.

Typically around 90,000 winter sports accidents are reported every year in Switzerland. For the last full year for which there is data, unsurprisingly downhill skiing comes top of the list of incidents with a total of 52,320. For other winter sports the figures are: snowboarding: 11,060, tobogganing: 6460, cross-country skiing : 5440, ice hockey: 5010, skating and figure skating: 3780, and ski touring: 970.

The cost of these accidents in terms of insurance payments for skiing alone comes out at 610 million Swiss francs (snowboarding: SFr 74 million). The breakdown for skiers by seriousness of injury is: light injuries: SFr 100 million, moderately serious injuries: SFr 182 million, serious injuries: SFr 235 million, disability: SFr 49 million and death: SFr 44 million.

The sums are some 70% higher than they were fifteen years. The increase is reckoned by Suva to be caused by higher performance equipment, the advent of ski carving, the preparation of slopes, artificial snow, and the increasing average age of skiers – with the most affected category being that of 40-59 years old.

For alpine skiing, the most commonly affected body parts are the knee: 30.9% (snowboarding: 15.2%), shoulder and upper arm: 24.1% (snowboarding: 23.4%), lower legs and ankles: 13.8% (snowboarding: 13.1%), trunk: 13.7% (snowboarding: 19%), wrist, hand, fingers: 11.8 % (snowboarding: 13, 1%).
Suva estimates the average cost of a broken leg at SFr 22,500 in total.

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Avalanche Fatalities

WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF , 4.02.2021

Although most ski lifts have remained open in Switzerland during the Covid pandemic, more skiers and snowboarders than ever are choosing to go back-country skiing. Inevitably this has led to a record number of avalanche fatalities, with the number of fatal incidents this season to date more than any previous season this century. The season average is 22 fatalities, whereas this year there have been 17 already – and notably that also represents 17 separate incidents.

Fatalities by risk factor

A handful of fatalities were from skiing off-piste, i.e. using lift-served unmarked routes, but the majority of the deaths in Switzerland have been back-country skiers and snowboarders. One would generally expect these people to be better prepared than those killed off-piste. Four of the back-country fatalities occurred when the avalanche risk was moderate. These include one in the Jura, the first avalanche fatality in this area that I am aware of in over 20 years.

One off-piste fatality of a British skier occurred below les Attelas in Verbier on 18th January when the avalanche risk was moderate. This is generally considered a ‘safe’ off-piste area, bounded as it is by lifts and groomed runs. As is usually the case, the unfortunate skier was not alone, and other people were also caught by the avalanche but survived.

Interestingly very few avalanche fatalities (3%) historically occur when the avalanche risk is high and none when the risk is very high. The majority of deaths occur when the avalanche risk is considered considerable (65%). For people going off-piste an even higher proportion of fatalities occur when the risk is considerable.

Not surprisingly the majority of fatalities occur in Grabunden and Valais since these cantons are most popular for back-country touring and off-piste. However this does not mean other areas are safe. To add to the fatality in the Jura, there was also a fatality this season in Rochers de Naye amongst a group of young skiers – this in a pre-Alpine ski resort above Montreux.

The message to me seems clear. If the risk of an avalanche is considered anything more than moderate even well-prepared back-country outings would be well advised to abandon their plans. However 30% of fatalities occur when the avalanche risk is moderate (and 2% when it is low), so the advice is to thoroughly plan back-country expeditions and off-piste runs even in these conditions.

It is worth adding that every year there are also fatalities amongst other winter sports enthusiasts, typically a couple of snowshoe walkers a year die in avalanches. Additionally over 90% of avalanche fatalities are triggered by the victims and their companions.

Switzerland has the most sophisticated avalanche-warning system in the world, largely due to the sheer scale of the detection capabilities the SLF (Institute for Snow and Avalanche research) has at it’s disposal. However risk to an individual skier or snowboarder needs to be augmented by an assessment of the specific conditions the skier or snowboarder finds themselves in. It is the case that even pisted, patrolled runs can be hit by avalanches.

Many back-country skiers are well-prepared for the risk of avalanches, but I believe even resort skiers should be aware of what contributes to avalanche risk, and inspect the terrain they ski through, on or off-piste.

My golden rules are PRICK:

  1. Plan. Decide in advance where you are going and what risk factors may apply. Discuss with your party in advance in which circumstances you would change your plan, e.g. because of a perceived avalanche risk. Ensure you know where you are going and discuss rendez-vous points. Make a note of distinctive features on your route so you can accurately communicate where you are if you need to.
  2. Risk Assess. Check the current avalanche risk assessment for where you are going. Be aware conditions may deteriorate during the day.
  3. Inspect. Before you set out make an assessment of where you are going, visually and taking advantage of local knowledge. Whilst out, look above and around you throughout your day for higher risk features – rocky outcrops and corniches, broken branches on the uphill side of trees and other evidence of previous avalanches, particularly steep (30-45%) or convex slopes…
  4. Choose. Choose your route according to the above factors. If in doubt choose the safest option. Don’t get drawn into the ‘incident pit’.
  5. Kit up. Have the right kit with you. For off-piste, having a working phone on you and RECCO reflectors is a minimum, but equipment required for back-country may also be appropriate for more challenging off-piste conditions. For back-country, tranceivers, probes, shovels and appropriate training are considered essential, and airbags are recommended.

For those not familiar with the RECCO system, it is a very small battery-free transponder, frequently found in ski clothing and backpacks but which can also be purchased separately and attached to helmets, boots or ski jackets. In most resorts rescue teams can detect the presence of a RECCO reflector within around 200m.

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