Words by Melanie Schönthier, Photos by Alex Roberts
The following story is fictitious but if you often ride in the backcountry it could easily turn into reality for you. Have a look in the Open Mic section in issue 96 and you will find out that even pros do not always detect dangerous situations. Avalanches are incalculable but with some knowledge and some experience you can reduce the risk.
As Tom wakes up at the crack of dawn this February morning, he can hardly wait to get on the mountain as it looks to be a bluebird day. It had snowed for three consecutive days and now 30cm of fresh powder just waits to be shredded. Tom quickly checks the avalanche report – danger level 3. “I will be more cautious today and avoid the steeper run," he tells himself. But his promise is almost forgotten when he meets his friends Alex, Mike and Lisa at the valley station and they manage to bag the first gondola.
Last year they visited an avalanche camp together. After several hours they’d already learnt a lot: how steep a slope has to be to become dangerous and how you find and dig out a buried person. Furthermore, some myths about avalanches were cleared up. “If there is a ski track in the slope it doesn’t have to mean that there won’t be any avalanches," mountain guide Christian had explained to them. “And to race down in front of an avalanche only works in one out of a hundred cases." Throughout the whole winter, Tom and his friends had practised with their beacons from time to time, and now they felt safe when going into the backcountry. But today they ignore an important warning sign – over the last few days the temperatures not only dipped below zero at night but it also stayed very cold throughout the whole day. Thus the fresh powder couldn’t really bind with the old snow cover. As if somebody has put Vaseline between those two layers, this time bomb waited for the smallest concussion to race down.
When the group arrives at the mountain station, they switch on their beacons. It is only a short hike up to the summit from where numerous runs lead down to the valley. They start with some easy runs first. Nothing beyond 30 degrees, as 97 percent of the avalanche accidents happen in slopes that are steeper than this. Tom remembers this number from last year’s avalanche course. There he also learnt how to estimate the steepness of a slope: if you can see an alpine touring skier’s switchbacks, the slope is at least 30 degrees; if you need to jump round during the run, it probably is 35 to 37 degrees; and slopes interspersed with rocks are around 39 degrees.
The group gets more self-assured with every powder run and risk riding the steeper slopes. Experts call this a ‘feedback effect’. It is about 1pm when Tom suggests riding a wide, south-facing chute that he had already kept his eye on for some time. He guesses that the run is about 35 degrees steep, but at least it is not north-facing. During the avalanche camp, their mountain guide had hammered into them the fact that 70 percent of avalanche accidents happen on slopes exposed to the north, and that they could cut the risk in half by avoiding these runs. When they arrive at the top of the chute, Tom notices a small wind-lip that extends into the drop-in. He recalls that his guide had always called the wind the “builder of avalanches", but Alex just laughs. “Come on, there has never been an avalanche on this slope. It will be all right!" It’s a fatal mistake that a lot of freeriders make.
Before Alex drops into the chute, he calls out to the others that they should meet on a little hill at the bottom of the run. “In case of an avalanche, we are safe there," he says, drops from the wind-lip and disappears. A short moment later, he reappears further down. Tom, Mike and Lisa can’t see him, just the huge powder roosters from every turn he makes. Tom’s instant scepticism is gone – after all, nothing had happened, no avalanche came down. He waits until Alex has reached the hill. Knowing his friend is safe, he jumps from the wind-lip. In the very second he wants to do his first turn, he hears a loud whoosh as if somebody has ripped a piece of paper. Then everything happens very fast.
What happens now, experts call foreign activation: with unfavourable conditions like in this case (low temperatures over a long period, big amounts of fresh snow, slope over 35 degrees), a small additional load such as a single snowboarder is enough to cause an avalanche. During this process, a crack within the snow layer spreads out within seconds and the layer above disconnects from the one below. Due to the fact that the cohesiveness within the snow layers varies, there are ‘very good’ and ‘very weak’ areas in one and the same slope. The weak areas are called ‘hot spots’ and explain why it wasn’t Alex, the first, who triggered the avalanche, but Tom.
In the moment Tom notices the loud whoosh, he knows exactly what is going to happen. Than he sees how the snow around him starts to move and break into single pieces. He panics and tries to remember what the mountain guide told them to do in this case. “You can’t really do much if you trigger an avalanche. Maybe you are lucky and can escape with a straight line. If you somehow have the chance, get rid of your board as it functions like an anchor and pulls you down." But it is too late for Tom to accomplish any of these tips. He is already in the grip of the snow that wants to bury him. He crashes. “Try to struggle and swim as hard as you can – it is your only chance to stay on the surface," Tom recalls the words of the guide. But at some point he gets carried away head-first and tumbles like in a washing machine. Quick-witted, he draws the arms in front of his face and huddles up to create a breathing hole, but he isn’t even sure if he will survive the avalanche itself or break his neck on the way down.
After apparently endless seconds that seems to pass like hours to Tom, the avalanche slows down and finally stops. It is deadly silent, pitch-black dark and Tom feels as if he’s been buried alive. He knows exactly that his friends only have 15 minutes to dig him out alive. In his mind, he imagines the graphic that the guide had projected on the wall during the theory lesson: in the first 15 minutes, the buried person has a 90 percent chance to survive but with every additional minute it reduces dramatically. After half an hour, only 40 percent of the victims can be rescued alive.
The avalanche stops about 20 metres in front of the safe staging area. Alex has roughly kept in mind where Tom has gone under the snow. He waves to Lisa and Mike, and gives signs that they should ride down on the side of the avalanche. Meanwhile he makes sure that no hand or board stick out anywhere, but he can’t find anything. Than he gets out his mobile phone and calls the mountain rescue. As his friends arrive, Alex has already pulled out his beacon and switched it from ‘send’ to ‘receive’. So do Mike and Lisa. They hope to get a first signal but… nothing. Okay, in this case they had often practised walking across the avalanche area 20 metres apart as quickly as possible towards the point where the person had disappeared and hope to get a signal. Then, after two minutes, Alex receives a number on his display: 35 metres! He shouts to the others to switch off their beacons as from this moment only one person should concentrate on the search. His beacon is one of the newest models on the market and direction arrows should lead him easily and quickly to Tom. He follows them – 30 metres… 25… 18… 10. Alex gets more and more nervous, tumbling through the avalanche. Maybe Tom is already dead? Choking is the most common cause of death in avalanches but second is the serious injuries the victim can suffer while the avalanche is still moving. 8… 6… 5 metres – now he has to continue with the precision finding. Alex kneels down and holds the beacon slightly above the snow surface. He ignores the direction arrows and only concentrates on the distance now. Only 4 metres! He steps back a little bit – 4.3 metres. Okay, then again a little bit forward – 3 metres… 2 metres… 1 metre. Damn, 1.5 metres – back again. Now to both sides and suddenly the beacon displays 0.5 metres on the right side, the shortest distance Alex’s device can display. “I got him", Alex shouts to the others, takes off his backpack and gets out his shovel and probe. Tom has been buried for 11 minutes now.
Starting from the outside of one square metre around the point with the lowest distance, Alex punctures the snow with his probe. Suddenly he runs against something. Is this a just a rock or is it Tom? The probe backs down a little bit, it has to be a body. Mike and Lisa start digging together with Alex. “How long has he been buried?" Lisa asks. “15 minutes," Alex answers gently. After a few more minutes, Tom looks into the relieved faces of his friends.
Tom was fortunate. The avalanche that buried him was about 200 metres long and 70 metres wide, and the height of the crack was half a metre. But he wore his beacon on his body and thus could be found by his friends. Although they had all attended an avalanche course and had regularly practised with their equipment, they still needed about ten minutes to locate him. Tom was only buried 50cm under the surface but it took them more than five minutes to completely dig him out. 30 minutes after Tom had triggered the avalanche, the mountain rescue arrived. If his friends hadn’t had avalanche equipment, he probably would have been found only after 45 minutes. Statistically only a quarter of all avalanche victims are still alive then.
DOs & DON’Ts
Dos - Always check the avalanche report before riding in the backcountry. Further down this article you will find the relevant websites for different countries. - Always – ALWAYS – take your complete avalanche equipment with you: beacon, shovel and probe. The beacon is useless if you can’t dig out your buddies! - Only go into the backcountry with people who have avalanche equipment and know how to use it. It is your life that is on the line in case of an emergency. - Carefully watch your environment: are there warning signs like wind-lips, ’whomp’ noises or fresh avalanches? If so, the avalanche danger is pretty high and you should avoid runs in the backcountry. - If you have a bad feeling, don’t go. - Drop into a run one after another – never go all together. This puts less pressure on the snow coat and you avoid multiple people getting buried in case of an avalanche.
Don’ts - Avoid slopes steeper than 40 degrees if the danger level is 2. With 3 you shouldn’t ride slopes steeper than 35 degrees, and with 4 don’t even think of anything above 30 degrees. Going into the backcountry at danger level 5 is perilous. - Don’t switch to the forest only because the avalanche danger is too high for open slopes. Avalanches can also happen in the forest and here the danger of injury is even higher because of all the obstacles. - In case of low visibility, immediately go back to the piste or the park. - Avoid steep runs if the conditions are unfavourable, even if you already rode some in other slopes that were flatter and nothing had happened. Avalanches are unpredictable and often it is only one degree steepness or one more turn that triggers the catastrophe. Equipment
Standard equipment: Beacon (250-350 euros), probe (55-120 euros), shovel (55-70 euros), first-aid kit (15-25 euros), cell phone and maybe a bivouac sack.
Additional equipment: ABS backpack (two huge inflatable airbags that are integrated into the backpack keep you on the surface of the avalanche), Recco System (but you can only get located but can’t search with it), Avalung (a special tube system enables you to breath under the snow), Avalanche Ball (fixed to the backpack, you can activate it in case of an avalanche – it stays at the surface and helps people to find you quickly).
Avalanche camps The more often you visit a camp, the more confident you will get in handling your equipment and in judging dangerous situations. Most of the camps are free and quickly booked up – sign up early!
SAAC offers free courses for beginners (2 days) and advanced freeriders (3.5 or 5 days) in resorts all over Europe. Equipment and lift ticket for the practice day are included!
Safety First - Christoph Weber, Fips Strauss or another member of the Ratiopharm snowboard team is always on location for one-day lessons in European resorts to tell you more about their own backcountry experience.
Freeride College - Although it’s not free (one-day inclusive lift ticket and equipment costs 69 euros or 129 CHF in Switzerland), you do get more dates (at least one every week) and resorts (in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland).
Avalanche warning service: For Germany: +49 (0)89 9214 1210, www.lawinenwarndienst.bayern.de For Austria: Each state has its own service number, listed at www.lawine.at For France: +33 (0) 892 68 10 20, www.meteofrance.com For Italy: +39 (0) 461 23 00 30, www.aineva.it For Switzerland: +41 (0) 848 800 187, www.slf.ch/avalanche/avalanche-de.html Telephone numbers and websites for all other European countries: www.slf.ch/laworg/tab.html
All over Europe you can call 112 for the mountain rescue. http://nsidc.org/snow/avalanche/ - Here you can glean how avalanches develop, what you have to watch out for in the backcountry and which equipment you need. Furthermore, you’ll find some interesting graphics and statistics.
'Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain' This book has been written by Bruce Temper and provides you step-by-step instructions for determining avalanche hazards, using safe travel techniques, and making effective rescues. Victoria Jealouse recommends it as well and that is probably the best decoration a book about backcountry can get, right? (The Mountaineers Books, 2001)
Facts Every year, an average of 106 people die in avalanches in the Alps, according to IKAR, the International Commission for Alpine Rescue Services,
About 50 percent of the buried persons die despite carrying a beacon.
With beacon, probe and shovel, it takes an average of 11 minutes to locate and dig out a buried person. Without a probe, it takes 25 minutes. If you have to dig a person out with your own hands, you can be lucky if it only takes an hour.
A crash (for example at a backcountry kicker) burdens the snow coat six or seven times as heavy as your body weight.
Especially dangerous is the first bluebird day after a big dump.
97 percent of all avalanche accidents happen in slopes that are steeper than 30 degrees.
70 percent of all avalanche accidents happen in north faces.