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September 29, 2016

Avalanches – The Silent Killers

by Chris Werren

“Avalanches don’t discriminate. They are equal opportunity killers, and they affect everyone on the mountain! All people engaging in snow sports activities in the backcountry must, thus, be aware of them.”

Freeriding and ski touring have by now become trend sports activities. An increasing number of people decide to enjoy their snow sports activities in the backcountry. They want to stay away from the hectic and the chaos on the groomed slopes.

Avalanches in the Himalayas

Avalanche Crown on Mt. Apharwat at 4’200m in Gulmarg, Kashmir

Skiing and snowboarding in deep snow are indeed fantastic leisure time activities. They help to forget the day to day routines and provide opportunities for self-fulfillment. Besides, freeriding, ski touring and snowshoe hiking give us a chance to test our limits and to learn to overcome our fears. And they allow us to share unique experiences and unforgettable moments with family and friends. 

Yet, besides the many great experiences offered, these winter sports activities also include a number of serious risks!

Freeriding, ski touring, and snowshoe hiking above the tree line are risk sports activities. However, most people who perform snow sports activities outside of the groomed slopes are often unaware of the dangers they face, or they ignore them!

I have been skiing in the backcountry as a private person and a guide for many years and since 2006 I am running freeriding and powder snow programs in the Himalaya. In my life, I was able to enjoy many beautiful moments in the mountains, but unfortunately, I observed and experienced many critical situations there too. From serious accidents with tragic consequences, however, I have fortunately been spared until now. This is mainly because I always adhere to the following principles:

  • Never ski in the backcountry without the proper safety equipment “Only the best equipment is good enough!”;
  • Making sure that my guests and I master the products and are capable of applying the proper rescue methods at any time “Practice until you can do it in your sleep!”;
  • Always execute a comprehensive and conscious risk management “Reducing risks without eliminating the fun!”.

Life is too short to avoid investing in avalanche equipment and training or to tolerating negligence on the mountain!

Guided Ski Packages in Gulmarg

Himalaya Powder Snow Terrain in Gulmarg, Kashmir

More than 1’000 guests from all over the world joined our programs in Gulmarg, Kashmir in these past years. Many of them were good skiers and also possessed the recommended safety equipment for skiing in avalanche terrain. With regard to avalanche training and the usage of the relevant products, however, there was a lot of room for improvement.

Training Level and Danger Awareness of our Guests in Gulmarg

People who perform snow sports in the backcountry, alone or in the company of a guide, must meet the following requirements:

  • People must be capable of assessing and evaluating the terrain and its dangers;
  • Everyone must be properly and completely equipped and capable of using the avalanche beacon;
  • Everybody should know what to do in case of an avalanche incident.

It was encouraging to see that more than 80% of our guests in Gulmarg were properly equipped. Most of them were in possession of avalanche safety products which meet today’s standards. Many were also able to operate them, but only a few were sufficiently prepared to act properly in case of an avalanche accident.

Unfortunately, most guests were not very proficient in the handling of their products and were unaware of the real dangers the mountain presents. They also had little or no training on how to evaluate the terrain and to assess the avalanche risks.

backcountry skiing in switzerland

Powder Skiing Hinteres Eggli Gstaad

Here is an overview of the most important findings from my job as guide and manager of backcountry skiing programs in the Himalaya:

  • A large part of our program participants arrives now with their own avalanche safety gear;
  • Not or only partially equipped are beginners or people who only occasionally ski in deep snow;
  • Since 2013 about 30% of our guests join our programs with their own avalanche backpack;
  • Many participants possess their proper safety equipment but lack the knowledge to handle it properly and would be unable to act efficiently in case of an accident;
  • The majority of our guests has never participated in a formal avalanche training or engaged in an intensive beacon drill;
  • Many are aware of avalanche bulletins; some know the danger levels, but only a few are capable of interpreting them correctly;
  • Hardly anybody would have been capable of intervening in an effective way in case of a real accident.

Even though the training level of our program participants has improved since 2006, it is frightening to realize that only a few skiers would be capable of intervening successfully in an avalanche accident and of rescuing buried victims.

gulmarg ski trips himalaya

Chris Werren – Extreme Freeriding in the Himalaya

Because statistics show that only a few people are killed in avalanches every winter, skiers, and other snow sports enthusiasts get the impression that the risks of being caught by one are low. Furthermore, people believe that most accidents resulted from gross negligence and, therefore, such situations would never arise for them. The fact is, the mountains are unpredictable, and avalanches can hit everyone, everywhere and anytime.

Snow sports are fascinating leisure time activities – but because of the avalanche dangers they are also activities with a high potential for tragic experiences.

“Avalanches are like monsters in horror films. They are waiting for somebody to trigger them! Avalanche accidents are violent events. There is hardly any chance to escape an avalanche or to rescue oneself from it!”

Properly Equipped in the Backcountry – A Matter of Reason and Responsibility!

Having the right equipment is a must for all snow sports enthusiasts entering the backcountry in winters. It increases the chances to survive avalanches and of being able to save other people. It is, however, no reason to abstain from doing a sensible risk management.

For all snow sports enthusiasts (skiers, snowboarders, snowshoe hikers) who plan to enter the backcountry the following components are mandatory, always and everywhere:

  • A practical daypack including ski/snowboard strapping options, 22l to 28l, (airbag ready)
  • A digital avalanche beacon
  • An avalanche shovel with a long handle and pick function
  • An avalanche probe, min. 280cm length
  • A complete first aid set

There is a wide variety of products customers can choose from. The most important manufacturers are Ortovox, Mammut, BCA, and Pieps.

Gulmarg Backcountry Skiing

Gulmarg Drang Run, 1’800 vertical meters of untouched terrain

Yet, there are a few points which need to be taken into consideration to make sure that the product suits its purpose.

Freeride Backpack

There are many good backpacks on offer. For me, it is important that they feel comfortable and that they are big enough to carry all essential items (spare gloves, cap, drinking bottle, snacks, first aid set, warm clothes). In addition, they should dispose of a separate and easily accessible pocket for the avalanche shovel and the probe.

Skiers who buy a new backpack now should make sure that their pack is “airbag ready” so that it can be upgraded to a full avalanche backpack later.

For me, it is also important to being able to strap skies vertically and diagonally on the pack. This is one of the reasons why I use the Mammut Ride Removable Airbag (Ready) backpack.

Avalanche Beacon

There are four manufacturers who propose suitable products, Ortovox, Mammut, BCA, and Pieps. All their beacons offer the required functions. Yet, before deciding for a product people should be aware of the following: The more a beacon costs, the more complicated it is to use and the more training it requires. The cheaper a beacon is, the easier it is to use.

For ordinary backcountry skiers, products in the mid-range price category are usually the best choice. We rent the Ortovox 3+ beacon to our guests and are pleased with its performance.

I recommend to test the functionality of the avalanche beacon regularly and to adapt or upgrade it as required. It is also important to update the software of digital beacons and to replace analog beacons with modern products!

Avalanche Probe

Thanks to the exactitude of today’s beacons, the probe has lost some of its importance. However, it is still an indispensable component of a complete avalanche safety pack. We always have to be prepared for situations where people without beacons are caught in an avalanche. Some people also carry their beacon in an outer pocket of their ski dress and may lose it in the avalanche.

We see many skiers who are equipped with probes with a length of 240cm. In my opinion, these probes are too short for an effective search. The snow of an avalanche is very hard, and its depth easily exceeds 100cm and, therefore, longer probes are recommended, 280cm or preferably even 320cm.

To our guests, we rent Ortovox 320+ PFA probes.

Avalanche Shovel

In earlier times we welcomed guests who brought shovels with plastic blades. Fortunately, this type of product has nearly disappeared from the market. A serious avalanche shovel is made of aluminum and disposes of a handle of min. 80 cm length. Ideally, the shovel can be converted to a pick thanks to a 90° easy-plug clearing function.

I use the Ortovox Kodiak shovel, to our guests we rent the Ortovox Beast shovel.

Avalanche Backpacks

Let me begin by stating that an avalanche backpack should be a mandatory component of a complete avalanche safety pack. I hesitated for some time to make this recommendation as I heard many skiers say that thanks to the avalanche backpack they are fully protected. This is certainly not the case! Yet, the avalanche backpack can prevent burying or reduce the burying depth and, thus, increase the chances of survival. Some statistical information you find here:

Customers have the choice between a number of products. One manufacturer is ABS; its system is also sold as part of backpacks of some other manufacturers. However, there are a number of other manufacturers with equivalent products, such as Mammut with the snowpulse system, Ortovox, Scott, Black Diamond or BCA.

My guides and I use the snowpulse Guide Backpack or the Mammut Pro Protection with snowpulse airbag.

Gulmarg Avalanche Accident

Rescue Operation on the Mountain – The Monster Struck

Without Training the best Equipment is Useless – Avalanche Classes are a Must!

We know that the biggest danger in the backcountry are avalanches. It is, therefore important, that people dispose not only of an adequate avalanche safety pack but are also trained in methods of searching and rescuing victims and in assessing avalanche dangers.

“In an avalanche incident, the first 15 minutes are critical for the survival of the victims. In order to be capable of saving lives, snow sports enthusiast must be competent in the usage of their avalanche beacon and know how to probe and shovel properly.”

Presently an increased number of outdoor sports persons are aware of the benefits of a formal avalanche training. However, most people are still only testing the functionality of their products after the purchase and reading the corresponding operation manual. Some engage in basic search exercises, either with their friends or on fixed training installations.

Search exercises on fixed training installations with friends are well suited to improve the skills of handling the device, but they never replace simulated rescue exercises in the field. But fixed training facilities are also ideal to deepen and enhance learned search capabilities.

Himalaya Backcountry Skiing

Chris Werren Powder Skiing in Gulmarg

Avalanche training participants not only learn how to use the products but also execute simulated search and rescue exercises.  Furthermore, they are also taught the skills to interpret the avalanche bulletin and learn basic rules on how to act in the terrain.

In addition, the participants will be introduced to the 3×3 risk management method and will be instructed how to evaluate avalanche dangers and how to execute snow stability tests.

Avalanche trainings are today offered in most ski resorts. I also run avalanche classes, in Gstaad, Switzerland and also avalanche classes in the Himalayas, in Gulmarg.

Those who are properly equipped and well trained can fully enjoy their snow sports activities in the backcountry. They will be capable of intervening in the case of an accident and contributing to saving lives. Those who ignore these recommendations and decide to follow the motto “Nothing will happen to me” have a good chance to experience some nasty surprises in the snow.

In the video below “Know Before You Go” you will hear valuable tips from backcountry professionals and watch some beautiful and impressive scenes from the terrain.

I wish you a safe winter with many inspiring experiences in the deep powder snow.



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