Avalanche Awareness

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.

Avalanche Bulletins

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

Courses

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.

The Club Touring Programme normally has one or more courses each year. There are many other courses available, including those provided by Avalanche Geeks, Glenmore Lodge, Mountain Tracks.

Books

There are a large number of books available on avalanche awareness.

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

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).

A Chance in a Million?

Overview Articles

There are many online articles which provide an excellent introduction and overview of avalanche awareness. Examples include:

Videos

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
  • Terrain
  • 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 

Snowpack Stability

Shovel Shear TestThis 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.

Transceiver Search

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.

A practice avalanche searchFurther details on transceiver searching are given here and here.

The Mammut site also has a useful introduction to transceiver searching.

A more advanced method for searching for multiple burials in close proximity - “micro strip searching” is described by Manuel Genswein in this paper and in this video.

 

 

Shovelling

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.

The Backcountry Access site contains a useful video on “strategic shovelling” as well as a paper on the subject and a one page summary.

Post Avalanche First Aid

An article by Declan Phelan in the Eagle Ski Club Yearbook 2014 provides an excellent summary of actions to take once you have dug out an avalanche victim.