Avalanches are easily the most significant hazard a ski mountaineer is likely to encounter. This section of the website contains links to information about avalanche awareness. It is by no means complete, but hopefully will provide some useful information.
Sometimes it can be problematic to find avalanche information for the area you need. Fortunately the European Avalanche Warning Services enables easy access through a clickable map for Europe. www.avalanches.org
For Canada go here: www.avalanche.ca
All the resources listed on this page are very useful, but there is no real substitute to undertaking a training course in a mountain environment with a trained professional.
Probably the best overall book in English is Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” (second edition 2008).
Bruce Tremper has also published a concise 'Avalanche Essentials' book in 2013 which is more easily portable.
There can be significant differences between the snowpack and weather conditions in North America / European Alps / Scotland, so this may need to be born in mind.
For Scotland, see “A Chance in a Million?” by Bob Barton and Blyth Wright (second edition 2000).
There are many online articles which provide an excellent introduction and overview of avalanche awareness. Examples include:
- The Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) has much useful information, including an excellent summary brochure, which can also be ordered (free) as a printed version - you may want to get a copy for everyone on your tour.
- SLF also produce the White Risk website and app
- “The White Reaper is Stalking You” – article by Andy Perkins in the Eagle Ski Club Yearbook 2012
- “Avalanche Notes for Skiers” by Rob Collister in the Eagle Ski Club Yearbook 2001
- Alpine Ski Club – Avalanche / Defensive Mountaineering / Planning Checklists / Avalanche Risk Factor / Search and Rescue
- Ortovox - Safety Academy Avalanche Basics and 35 page booklet on basic avalanche knowledge
- Avalanche Canada – Online Avalanche Course
- US National Avalanche Center - Encyclopaedia
- 'Know before you Go' is a collaborative initiative from North America with an excellent video.
- “A Dozen More Turns” A documentary about backcountry skiing, avalanches and how "human factors" can have dire consequences.
- "Wisdom from Wounds" - 24min video of an avalanche incident in Canada.This is a great example of how excitement and passion for skiing can take over rational decision making.
- Avalanche Accident in Engelberg
Avalanche Risk Management
An excellent article by Karl Klassen on Avalanche Risk Management is in the 2014 Eagle Ski Club Yearbook.
The Munter 3 x 3 system is a well known approach which provides a structure for assessing risk in 3 areas:
- Snowpack & Weather
- Human Factors
at 3 stages in a tour:
- Regional – planning before the tour starts
- Local – on the day of the tour
- Zonal – at the exact location of a questionable slope
A useful summary of the 3x3 method is provided on the Alpine Ski Club site
This video from Bruce Jamieson describes the different types of tests which can be performed to help assess the stability of the snowpack (Compression Test, Rutschblock Test, Shovel Shear Test etc).
This presentation describes the circumstances in which the various snowpack tests are best used. This presentation describes how noting the type of fracture in a compression test can provide useful information.
This paper by Alain Duclos & François Louchet describes mechanisms for triggering slabs.
Human Factors / Heuristic Traps
Many avalanche incidents happen to people who understand the risks and if they had been thinking logically would have avoided the situation, but who have used simple rules of thumb (“heuristics”) which have short circuited the decision-making process and led to accidents. This paper by Ian McCammon examines 4 “heuristic traps” – familiarity, social proof, commitment and scarcity. This presentation provides a thought provoking insight into human factors.
Equipment – Transceivers
The most important thing with any avalanche transceiver is to make sure you get lots of practice using your own device. However, transceiver technology has advanced a great deal over the last 10 years or so, and if you have an older model, it is well worth updating to a modern three-antennae version. These newer models make fine searching and multiple-burial searching easier - a minute or two saved in locating a victim could well be the difference between life and death.
The technology of avalanche transceivers is described in this article by Ken Marsden in the Eagle Ski Club Yearbook 2014
Beacon Reviews provides a useful comparison of the different transceivers which are currently available.
Equipment – Shovels and Probes
In addition to an avalanche transceiver, it is important that every member of the party carries a shovel and a probe.
Although it is quite old, this paper describes tests on some avalanche shovels and gives some indications of what to look for in a shovel. It makes it clear that plastic shovels should not be considered for use ski touring – they are simply not strong enough to dig through avalanche debris.
The chance of a live recovery of a completely buried avalanche victim drops very quickly after 15 minutes, so the only real hope of survival is rescue by companions during this initial period.
A transceiver search follows 4 stages:
- Signal Search – Up to the point where the first signal is picked up.
- Coarse Search – Use of transceiver to locate victim to within about 3m (e.g. by following flux lines).
- Fine Search – Search with transceiver within final 3m (e.g. by criss-crossing to find the maximum signal).
- Pinpointing – use of probe to locate victim.
The Mammut Avalanche Safety Centre also has a useful introduction to transceiver searching.
With modern transceivers, locating an avalanche victim with transceiver and then probe can be relatively quick. Actually digging them out can take much longer - so it is well worth practising to make sure that your technique is efficient as possible.
Post Avalanche First Aid
In 2014 Catherine Mangham developed the ESC Avalanche First Aid card giving an easy to follow algorithm for companion rescue first aid in an avalanche situation. This has been revised in 2018 and can be downloaded for printing here ESC Avalanche First Aid Algorithm 2018
An accompanying article by Declan Phelan ESC Avalanche First Aid revised 2018 provides an excellent summary of actions to take once you have dug out an avalanche victim.
Navigation - GPS Buying Guide
Good navigation through the mountains is one part of avalanche risk management. Rick Shearer, an International Mountain Leader and a navigation trainer for the Club, has produced a detailed GPS buying guide. The guide looks at a wide range of options, including whether to go for tap-screen or touch-screen technology, and how new technology is likely to develop in the next year or two. The recommendations made in the guide are the personal opinion of Rick but they will help all of us to make more informed choices when buying a GPS.
Other Useful Information
The Data Avalanche! site run by a group led by the French avalanche guru Alain Duclos is a database of over 2000 avalanche incidents (mainly in France). It also has other useful background information on avalnche awareness.