With the beginning of the ski tour season, the topic of avalanche safety also becomes important. What equipment do I need? How do I behave in the event of an avalanche? How do I go about searching for victims?
Deep snow, untracked slopes and fantastic descents – hardly the first snow falls, every enthusiastic tourer, freerider and freetourer is inexorably drawn to the mountains. But if you want to enjoy the fun away from the marked slopes and in unsecured terrain, you should also know exactly about the possible risks and dangers.
A lot has happened in the field of avalanche research in recent years. The individual factors that play a role in the occurrence of an avalanche are continuously analyzed and better understood. It is still essential to find out exactly what the current avalanche situation is before the next ski tour and only start with the required avalanche equipment. If you really want to move responsibly on the terrain, you can also attend an avalanche course to deepen theoretical knowledge with the necessary practice under expert guidance.
Safely away from the slopes on the way
The basics for a safe and accident-free deep snow adventure are explained below by Markus Höß, who alongside his job in the Bergzeit customer service team is a mountain and ski guide.
Preparation: Before each ski tour, I inform myself about the expected avalanche situation with the current avalanche report (LLB). The LLB is published online every morning and provides information on the avalanche warning level from 1 (low risk) to 5 (tours are generally not possible). It provides information on which slope and slope exposure are most likely to cause avalanches and why avalanches can be easily triggered there. With an exact area map (AV card), I try to find out as much as possible about the terrain shape and orientation of the target area in order for route planning to be as safe as possible. Small planning aids such as the SnowCard are highly recommended for planning and on the go.
Equipment: A short check ensures that my safety equipment consisting of avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel is complete and functional. I carry the avalanche transceiver in a lockable bag directly on the body. In any case, I prefer a 3-antenna device, which shortens the search time considerably and is much easier to use in an emergency. My probe has a quick release system and is ready to use in one easy step. When it comes to the shovel, I value a stable metal blade and a telescopic style. In an emergency, it has to work absolutely reliably. The first aid kit is also an absolute standard. A bivouac sack protects the victim from cold and wind, is a signal that can be seen from a distance for the rescue workers, and can be very useful for evacuation. In order to be able to organize rescue quickly, no responsible winter sports enthusiast leaves the house without a mobile phone (charge the battery beforehand and carry it close to your body).
Device check: At the start, each device in the group is tested to determine whether it is sending and receiving correctly and whether the battery power is sufficient for the upcoming tour. Every tour partner must also have a shovel and probe with them and be able to handle it. The equipment and above all the skills of my companions are my life insurance!
Airbag: A backpack with an airbag system can provide additional protection, which I have to deploy in the event of an avalanche. The airbag increases the volume of the skier and backpack. Through inverse segregation (also called: Brazil nut effect) larger parts move upwards in a flowing avalanche. Ideally, the backpack floats on the surface of the avalanche, since the smaller snow crystals “crawl under” it. You can imagine it like a piece of wood on water, only the physical principle behind it is different. However, an airbag is definitely not a replacement for an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe or a proper avalanche course. It is just an additional safety factor!
If the worst comes to the worst, practice makes perfect
If, despite all the precautionary measures, an avalanche goes off and you are caught, you try to get out of the avalanche as quickly as possible. If it is not possible to escape, you try to get rid of skis and sticks. Then you put your hands in front of your face to protect your airways. At best, such a breathing cavity forms and you have enough oxygen to wait for your rescuer. Avalung (a snorkeling system that separates the exhaled CO2 from the fresh air we breathe) is an invaluable advantage. Anyone who is not caught in the avalanche observes everything very carefully and notes where a person was caught and where they disappeared. So you can say relatively exactly where a buried subject will be found. Then an emergency call must be made immediately.
Avalanche stop. And now?
When the avalanche stops, the search begins. The most experienced takes the command and all available avalanche transceivers are switched to the search mode. You start with the signal search: in 20-meter-wide search strips, you run quickly over the avalanche cone and keep your eyes and ears open. Avalanche victims are often not completely buried. This eliminates the need for further searches and you can immediately start digging out.
The avalanche search is ongoing
If the avalanche transceiver receives a signal, the rough search begins. Mark the point at which you received a signal and follow the instructions of the avalanche transceiver. As soon as the device shows a distance of less than ten meters from the victim, you move more and more slowly until the distance display disappears at two meters. Now you are in the fine search. You cross, that is, you move the avalanche transceiver slowly in one direction just above the snow surface. Where the device beeps loudest, move it on a line at right angles to the first. On this new, second line, the device is also driven to the loudest reception. Then you follow a third line parallel to the first 90 ° to this line. If you have the best reception here and have done everything correctly, you will be right above the victim. It is important not to turn the device during the entire fine search, but to keep it static and to move it slowly.
Fine-tuning the search for victims
Now comes the pinpointing. You stab the probe with the best reception and try to locate the victim. If you do not hit him the first time, you stick in a spiral around the first puncture with the probe until you hit the victim. Now you leave the probe in place and start shoveling. For example, if the victim is 80 centimeters deep, you start shoveling 80 centimeters from the probe. This avoids standing on the victim.
The emergency can be trained
You can train well if the worst comes to the worst. Take a day at the beginning of each winter and practice! I strongly recommend a weekend seminar to anyone who has never completed a course or who has had the last course with them for a long time. Remember: you do it not only for yourself, but also for your friends!