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Avalanche Safety in Verbier: A Guide
27th September 2016
Avalanches – the rapid flow of snow down a hill or mountainside – pose a severe threat to the safety of skiers and snowboarders in the Alps.
They can be caused by numerous factors, including terrain, slope steepness, weather, temperature, and snowpack conditions.
The time of year can also play a role, with spring being particularly prone to avalanches as the weather warms up; but even so, this phenomenon has been recorded all-year round.
While marked runs in European ski resorts present no threat from avalanches, off-piste and backcountry skiers and snowboarders may be at risk. Throughout the Alps, the mountainous terrain and excessive snowfall has attracted thrill-seekers from around the world, looking to venture off the beaten track.
If you are one of the many off-piste or backcountry skiers visiting Verbier this year, it is absolutely imperative that you have the knowledge and equipment to deal with potential avalanche terrain.
The first day after snowfall is critical – be very careful
9 out of 10 avalanches are ‘slab’ avalanches, triggered by the victim’s own weight
Newly settled snow and wind increase potential of avalanches
Steeper, shadier slopes are more risky
Be aware of temperature (warmer weather can increase possibility)
Practice using avalanche safety equipment to avoid panic
Be aware of varying slope gradients
Avalanche risk classification
The risk of being caught in an avalanche increases the further off the beaten track you venture, so it’s fundamental that you are aware of all hazards and keep your wits about you when skiing in uncontrolled areas. The European Avalanche Hazard Scale, a flag-based warning system, is used in the region to indicate the level of avalanche danger. The scale used a 1-5 warning measurement – 1 being low, 5 being high risk.
European Avalanche Hazard Scale
1 – Low (little restrictions on off-piste and backcountry skiing)
2 – Moderate (generally favourable – but select routes with care)
3 – Considerable (should be carried out by experienced individuals, with critical avalanche training
4 – High (restricted access to low-angled slopes; be aware of hazards at the bottom of slopes)
5 – Very high (no off-piste or backcountry skiing or travel should be undertaken)
The scale should be used as an overall indication and does not necessarily mean an avalanche will not occur if a low warning is recorded. Read and understand the avalanche information that is available in your area before heading off piste.
Avalanche survival tips
Skiers and snowboarders can ensure they are prepared for going off-piste by participating in an avalanche awareness course. These courses are usually provided by local mountain guides.
Generally, it’s best to avoid unstable terrain, and learning to judge for yourself the potential dangers will keep you safe. However, in the unfortunate event of an avalanche, there are some important search and rescue techniques that can be adopted to increase your chances of survival. Below, are some useful tips for surviving an avalanche:
One of the best strategies for surviving an avalanche is to quickly move sidewards, as the centre of the avalanche is where the snow moves fastest. Move immediately away from the event will increase your chances of staying alive.
90 percent of avalanches are caused by skiers themselves, and as an unfortunate result, many have lost their lives. If this is the case, it may be that you are high enough to jump upslope beyond the fracture line and avoid getting caught in the slide.
Hold on to something
Trees, rocks, ledges – anything you can grab at the time. This might only be feasible during smaller slides, and major avalanches have the potential to destroy trees and rocks or bury them completely.
Avoid getting caught in avalanche debris by swimming against the slide. Roll over onto your back, dig yourself into the bed surface and perform the backstroke. This will help to ensure you stay above the surface.
Create an air pocket
One of the biggest threats when buried by a slide is asphyxiation – there will typically be a 15 minute survival period. Cupping your mouth can increase survival time by up to 30 minutes during the slide. Once the slide has stopped, dig out a hole around your face. Alternatively, you can use one arm to cover your face to create an air pocket, and use the other arm to penetrate the surface.
Important avalanche search & rescue equipment
An avalanche transceiver transmits radio frequencies to another beacon. The beacon sends out silent pulses and the information it produces means that you are more easy to locate in the event of a slide. Everyone in your group should carry avalanche transceivers at all times when off-piste or backcountry skiing.
Collapsible probe poles are an important piece of equipment in a search and rescue. The tool can be easily carried in a backpack, and is used to locate the buried victim, saving critical time.
A shovel might just save a victim’s life. Used to unearth snow surrounding the victim, a shovel can dramatically increase your chances of survival by saving time. The sturdier the shovel the better – metal ones are much stronger.
Other essential safety equipment
Air bag system (ABS)
During an avalanche, larger objects are more likely to stay towards the surface. An ABS is a backpack containing two large inflatable bags that are deployed by pulling a cord. The aABS increase your chances of remaining on the surface, eliminating chances of burial.
A device worn outside clothing, an Avalung can be used to help a buried victim breathe under the snow. It has a small snorkel-like mouthpiece, and helps to draw oxygen from the surrounding snow, enabling the victim to stay alive under the snow for up to an hour.
If you are considering a ski or snowboarding trip to Verbier this year, and plan to go off-piste and into the backcountry, we recommend that you seek professional advice from the appropriate boards. In addition, it is strongly advised that you complete an avalanche training course whilst you are here. Ensuring your safety is very important to us – but we also want you to have fun!