Image: Off-piste – Iloveski. Avalanche safety tips.

With your head rather than your heart. Analysing the situation and the risk of avalanche before descending that pristine slope of virgin snow is essential in the manual of the good skier who value their physical integrity to a minimum.

Videos of skiers descending virgin snow flood the social networks making it all look easy. However, in high mountain situations and depending on the snow cover, we must always take precautions and know how to say no, turn around and go down a marked piste.

1. Knowing the avalanche risk scales 

Being familiar with the 5 possible avalanche levels is extremely necessary in order to be able to easily interpret the official indications and communications of the responsible organisations in each country.

In Europe, the European Avalanche Warning Services (EAWS) unanimously agreed on the use of a uniform scale with five degrees of avalanche danger. On the other side of the pond, there is the North American Avalanche Danger Scale, which also includes five hazard grades with many similarities to the European method.

  1. Low Risk Level
  2. Moderate Risk Level
  3. Considerable Risk Level  
  4. High Risk Level
  5. Very High Risk Level

The previous nomenclature, published in a 2016 article, was replaced with the following due to changes in avalanche size names. The updated scale is as follows:

* Avalanche-prone locations are described in more detail in the hazard bulletin (altitude, slope orientation, terrain type):

  • Moderately steep terrain: slope less than 30°.
  • Steep slopes: slope steeper than 30°.
  • Very steep and extreme terrain: particularly adverse terrain related to slope angle (greater than 40°), terrain profile, proximity to ridge, ground roughness.

** Additional overloads:

  • Weak: individual skier/surfer, smooth running, no falling; racquet-surfer, group respecting the safety distance (minimum 10 m).
  • Strong: two or more skiers/surfers, no safety distance, snow groomer, explosives.

Natural: no human influence.

If you want to learn techniques to get out of an avalanche, here are some tips from a high mountain guide.

2. Know the avalanche report and the types of avalanches for greater safety

Read the official avalanche risk report for the area where you are going to ski in the morning or before leaving your accommodation. The general report and the specific one for the ski resort will provide you with relevant information, such as altitude, slopes and areas of the ski area where the risks are highest. Knowing the types of avalanches can be useful in case of avalanche risk. Avalanches can be divided into three main groups: powder avalanches, slab avalanches and melting avalanches.

3. Enjoy powder snow in company

Always be accompanied by at least one person with order and prudence. The ideal is to go in a group of four or five people, taking turns descending, timing the diagonals and always being aware of the specific location of each of your companions.

Descents and diagonals are normally done in turns, avoiding that the weight of several skiers together may cause excessive compression of the upper layer, generating an avalanche. The first to descend must wait for the rest of the group in a “safety zone”, a place that must meet the following conditions:

  • We visualise the descent of our companions
  • We are outside the risk zone and there is enough space for the others to arrive.
  • We have escape routes in the event of an avalanche.

4. Avalanche risk? Always equipped

For greater safety in the event of an avalanche, the necessary equipment for off-piste skiing is: a shovel, a probe and a DVA victim detector. RECCO systems or ABS airbag backpacks are highly recommended when you want to enjoy a day in the snow as safely as possible. Remember that 15 minutes after being buried by an avalanche, the chances of survival decrease drastically.


5. Familiarise yourself with the equipment

Having the equipment and knowing how to use it quickly and efficiently is not easy and requires some training. There are many solutions. Familiarising yourself with the tools by carrying out simulations in the form of a game with friends or family members with whom you are going to ski is extremely useful for anticipating possible incidents. It is essential to check the battery level and to check that the systems are active and working before descending.

6. Plan and report your itinerary

Inform any family members, friends or people at the resort. If you are going downhill on virgin snow, it will be useful to inform at least one person of the area where you will be skiing. Likewise, having the telephone numbers of everyone who is going down off-piste will be useful in the event of an avalanche and should be given to the rescue services.

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7. More than 30º slope? Risk

Most avalanches occur on slopes with an angle of 30º or more. Calculating the degree or getting information beforehand will be extremely useful in deciding whether the slope to be descended is adequate or whether we are taking too many risks.

8. Talk to the locals

Locals, instructors and staff employed at a ski resort know the ski area and the areas where landslides and avalanches “normally” occur. Get information and advice on safety and avalanches from local experts before making a life-threatening decision.

Two years ago, we conducted an interview with a French mountain rescue guide, where he told us the basic precautions and tips for an amateur skier in avalanche risk situation, if you want to know his advice, do not hesitate to read the article.

You may also be inerested in this other article about dogs trained to save our lives in an avalanche, or this one about mountain rescuers.

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