The 1999 avalanche disasters in the villages of Galtür in
Austria and near Chamonix in France were the result of truly
exceptional snowfalls and weather conditions. Never in living
memory have there been such tragic accidents and hopefully
there never will be again. But these events should heighten
awareness of the dangers of the mountains.
In normal circumstances, you should be safe in villages and
on marked and open pistes in Europe and open areas within
the ski area boundary in North America. But as soon as you
venture outside these avalanche-controlled areas, the risks
The vast majority of avalanche victims are holiday skiers
or riders who have gone off-piste. And, according to the Swiss
Federal Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research, almost all
fatal avalanches are set off by the victims themselves. Of
the 600 cases it studied in a recent report, 80 per cent were
set off by off-piste or cross-country skiers. Snowboarders
and hikers accounted for the other 20 per cent.
If you are unlucky enough to be taken by an avalanche, try
to escape to the side or grab a rock or a tree. If you are
knocked down, try to ditch your equipment and swim to try
to stay on top and avoid obstacles. As the avalanche slows
down, try to swim to the surface or make an air pocket around
your mouth and nose. Try to keep your mouth shut at all times.
It is imperative that you are found and dug out as rapidly
as possible. A study of avalanche accidents by researchers
at the University of Innsbruck showed that 92 per cent of
skiers completely buried by snow were still alive after 15
minutes. After 45 minutes the survival rate had dropped to
25 per cent. The last 25 per cent survived for one more hour
on average. So rescuing avalanche victims quickly is the key
to saving lives. Carrying and being able to use the proper
safety equipment off-piste is essential.
Avalanches occur when the stress trying to pull the snow downhill
(gravity) is greater than the strength of the snow cover (the
bonding of snow crystals).
The four ingredients for an avalanche are:
A steep slope - 90 per cent of all avalanches start on slopes
of 30-45 degrees.
A weak layer in the snow cover - fresh avalanches or cracks
in the snow indicate unstable snow cover. Snow that has become
wet from thaw or rain can be dangerous.
Snow cover - more than 80% of avalanches occur during or just
after heavy snowfalls and strong winds.
A trigger of some sort - a skier or boarder's weight on the
unstable snow pack can often be enough of a trigger to set
off an avalanche All resorts do their best to minimise the
risk of avalanches. Pistes that could be at risk are closed
and they often trigger off explosions on any potentially dangerous
areas - cornices etc. Daily avalanche hazard ratings are posted
for skiers and boarders to better assess the conditions (in
Europe these are done on a scale of one to five, while in
North America, they use colour coding).
1. LEVEL ONE (GREEN) indicates
LOW RISK - natural avalanches
are very unlikely. The snow is generally stable. Travel around
the mountains is generally safe although normal caution is
2. LEVEL TWO (YELLOW) indicates MODERATE RISK
- natural avalanches are unlikely, although, human-triggered
avalanches are possible. There may be unstable slabs on steeper
terrain. Use caution on steeper terrain on certain aspects.
3. LEVEL THREE (ORANGE) indicates
CONSIDERABLE RISK - natural
avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches are
probable. Unstable slabs are probable on steeper terrain.
Use increasing caution and be aware of potentially dangerous
areas of unstable snow.
4. LEVEL FOUR (RED) indicates
HIGH RISK - natural and human-triggered
avalanches are likely. Unstable slabs are likely on a variety
of aspects and slope angles. Travel in avalanche terrain is
not recommended. The safest travel is on windward ridges or
gentler slopes without steeper terrain above.
5. LEVEL FIVE (RED WITH BLACK BORDER OR BLACK) indicates EXTREME
RISK - widespread natural
or human-triggered avalanches certain. Extremely unstable
slabs on most aspects and slope angles. Large destructive
avalanches are possible. Travel in avalanche terrain should
be avoided and travel should be confined to gentle terrain
well away from avalanche-path runouts.
It is even more important to protect yourself from the sun
at high altitude, where you run even more of a risk of burning
than at sea level. Ultraviolet rays are more powerful at altitude.
So, you need to wear a protective sunscreen, even on overcast
days as ultraviolet rays still penetrate the cloud cover.
What protection factor you will need is something that you
have to judge. Bear in mind that the sun is much stronger
at glacier altitude (around 3000m) than low valley slopes
(maybe as low as 600m), and that the sun gets gradually stronger
from Christmas onward.
Because of the intensity of the sun at altitude - the glare
is especially intense when reflected by the snow - good eye
protection is also essential. Snow blindness is particularly
dangerous and painful - sufferers run the risk of permanent
eye damage depending on how extreme it is. Even in less severe
cases, though, the sufferer will not be able to see properly
for a number of extremely painful days before sight returns.
Always wear good-quality sunglasses or goggles to avoid damaging
your eyes. The lenses should not only cut the glare but filter
the strong UV rays as well. Most good skiing and snowboarding
retailers stock a wide range of sunglasses and goggles.
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