Powder: who doesn't love it? Epic snowfalls give us rooster tails, face shots and ear to ear grins, but it's rare to experience ultra fresh conditions straight after a fresh dump, especially as poor early snowfall and warm temperatures over the last few years has left most of the European Alps with poor bases and varied snowpacks.
But that's not stopped many people getting out into the backcountry and getting their fill of fresh lines - in fact year after year more people are reportedly enjoying what the mountain has to offer away from the piste. Sadly, every year there are what seems like more and more avalanche-related deaths, and the toll is only going to grow higher.
So to help you this winter, and in future winters, here are some backcountry and avalanche safety tips for you to take in before your season or holiday this year. It’s scary stuff but well worth taking in - it could just save your life.
As a disclaimer, I would in no way call myself an off-piste or avalanche expert. This is a collection of essential information I have collected over my years in the snow, but it is in no way complete or a substitute for proper avalanche training. If you’re really serious about going off-piste this year you should invest in a professional course, alongside some reading material (I’d recommend ‘Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain’ by Bruce Tremper) and regular practice with your gear.
The Essential Bits of Kit
If you’re searching out freshies, the absolute minimum you and everyone else in your party should be taking with you is the following holy trinity:
They come in many varieties but you should be after a digital, multi-antennae beeper in case of multiple burials. You should carry it strapped to your chest underneath your jacket but on top of your other layers so that you can get to it ASAP. They allow you to be found should you be buried, and likewise help you find your buddies if they’re the unlucky one.
You should be absolutely comfortable using it before venturing out with it, so why not get a friend to bury theirs and then take turns in finding it over a large area like a park? (Be wary, electricity and also metal object like cars can interfere with radio signals so find a deserted place.)
Essentially a long and sturdy tent pole used for poking around in the snow once your transceiver has located the nearest place to a signal on the surface of the snow. This should be as strong and long as you can afford (also avoid the ones that can be stored inside a shovel handle; they’re weaker and take longer to get to). Again, make sure you know how to properly extend it; each brand has a different quick-draw method.
Should be metal with space to put your boot on top to dig down with and ideally should have a ‘D’ grip in case you decided to wear your mittens on the day you have to use it, then it’s less likely to slip out your grip.
You should also have a lightweight backpack to carry all this in, keep all your gear inside the main compartment, there’s always a chance anything mounted on the outside could get knocked off in a particularly spectacular tomahawk, and keep this space as empty of other stuff as possible; you don’t want to be digging through camera gear and sandwiches to find your probe. ABS bags, which you can inflate if you do get caught in a slide to assist in bringing you to the surface, are expensive, but recommended.
The cost of this stuff can mount up, but you really should not be considering going off-piste without it; better to have spent the money and never need to use it than to need it and not have it.
Things to Think of Before You Head Out
So you have all the gear, been taught how to use it and you’re finally in the mountains, yeah! It’s been snowing for days and you wake up to fresh bluebird conditions, fuck yeah! On your way to the lift you happen to notice the bulletin saying the avalanche risk category is a mere three out five, WOOOOYEAHBUDDY! That pretty much means it’s safe yeah?
In classic health and safety campaign style, WRONG; QI klaxon alert. Half of all avalanches deaths occur when the ‘Cat’ warning is three. A quick Google search will yield a detailed picture of what the European avalanche danger scale means but a glance it can be summed up as the following:
5 – Resort will be closed, stay in bed or get the Monopoly set out.
4 – Gnarly conditions, too scary to go off piste, anyone who does is stupid, or possibly French.
3 – Sketchy at best, the snow is only moderately or weakly stable. Avalanches can be triggered by light loads, like you. Or your fat friend above you. Give the steep stuff far away from help a miss today.
2 – Pretty good, but not fantastic. Slides can be triggered by large forces, like you landing a big drop into a steep slope.
1 – You’ll be about 99% safe today, but not 100%.
Always check the avalanche rating before you head out and give some thought to what it might mean for your plans. Time strengthens the snow pack, so you could just leave the scary ridge line hike to that back bowl you were going to hit up until a Cat. 2 day, who actually cares if you don’t get the first line down anyway?
For more information on avalanche categories, take a look at our guide on how to read an avalanche forecast.
Some Essential Do's and Don'ts
Even with all the gear, knowledge and training imaginable there is always a risk of getting caught out, but there are a few things you can do to make your experience survivable, if not pleasant; number one being don’t ever ride alone. As I've previously pointed out, riding alone sucks, but in no way would it suck more than if you got trapped up to your neck wishing you’d waited for your buddies to get ready. No friends on a pow day anyone?
Almost as important is being aware of the terrain you’re riding, not just in terms of the risk of it sliding but what might be in your path if you get caught. It’s a total myth that aiming for trees or boulders is a safe bet, you won’t have any control of where you’re going anyway but being crushed against a tree trunk at 30mph sure won’t do you any favours; if it’s a risky day simply avoid runs that end in terrain traps such as cliffs, gullies or heavy obstacles.
It also pays to ‘listen’ to the mountain, as the man himself, Jeremy Jones points out. As well as obvious signs like warning flags and visible avalanche activity, seeing the snow crack in front of you, feeling it shift around or hearing the distinctive ‘whoomphing’ noise of air pockets collapsing underneath you are great signal for you to get the hell out of there fast.
For more information on avalanche types, take a read of our guide to slab avalanches.
What to do if the Worst Happens
If you do trigger a slide, the best thing you can do is to switch to warp factor 10 and high-tail it out of there as fast as you can, not in a hero line straight to the bottom but at about a 45° angle to the side to get out of the avalanche’s path. If you do get caught, your best bet is to try and ‘swim’ to stay at the top of the sluff, and if you go under keep waving your arms in front of your face to create an air pocket for yourself for when it stops, avalanche snow will lock up like concrete as soon as it stops moving. The closer you stay to the top the better as even a glove sticking above the surface will give a clue to your rescuers where you are.
Equally disastrous, if you see someone get caught in a slide you should do the following as quickly as possible, survival rates drop off rapidly for people not recovered within 15 minutes, so every second counts:
- - Call for help and do not leave the area
- - Wait for the avalanche to stop and check that it is as safe as possible to get to the area, it’s no help to anyone if youtrigger another avalanche
- - Get to the place where the victim was last seen and set your transceiver (and everyone else’s) to ‘search’ mode.
- - Begin sweeping the area for a signal and close in on it (just like you learned and practised...)
- - When you get the closest signal, mark that spot and begin to probe the surrounding area
- - Leave to probe in the snow where you find the buried victim.
- - DIG! Searching for someone is a scary and panic-inducing experience, which is why it’s best to practice beforehand. You might even want to elect someone to be in charge of the situation if you find yourself in one, but above all try and keep a level head and be as time-efficient as you can.
Read more here about what to do if you yourself, or someone you're with, is caught in an avalanche.
Just Say No!
Just like my biology teacher said to me in sex-ed, ‘play with fire and you’ll get burned.’ I’m not sure what kind of kinky stuff Mr Beasley was into outside of school hours, but it’s pretty obvious that if you don’t ride gnarly faces on risky days, you won’t die in an avalanche.
It can be hard to turn down the steepest, deepest powder when there’s a huge queue at the lifts and you’re near the front, but if your gut is saying no then it’s worth listening to. Especially with groups of inexperienced guys, the tendency is to be macho and take the risk, but not going for it will significantly increase the chances of you being around for next year’s trip.
Like I said before, just reading this article is not enough; get the gear and get trained. Remember that this could be one of the worst winters for avalanches in Europe ever, so make sure you stay safe.