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A beginner’s guide to avalanche safety

With stunning, snow-capped peaks and awe-inspiring views, it can be easy to lose yourself in the beauty of the mountains. However, as you explore the Alps in winter, it’s vital to be aware of the possible dangers that surround you, and one of the primary risks is encountering an avalanche.

In this guide, we share some key information about avalanches, how to avoid them and what to do if you are caught in one.*

*(The information in this guide is just an introduction to avalanche safety. If you are heading to the mountains, specifically for off-piste/freeriding, make sure you go with a professional guide who is trained in mountain safety.)

An avalanche thunders down a mountain in France
Nature can be as deadly as it is beautiful © Futura Sciences

What is an avalanche?

Imagine a mass of compact, heavy snow suddenly breaking away from a steep slope, gaining speed and power with every passing moment. An avalanche is just that, a surge of snow sometimes mixed with rock, that can engulf everything in its path. This natural threat often appears in the Alps during heavy snowfalls or rapid changes in temperature.

According to Météo-France’s Centre d’Études de la Neige, avalanches can be triggered spontaneously by weight accumulated on a slope, or they can be caused by external factors such as the movement of a person, a change in temperature or vibrations.

To minimise the risks, it’s essential to understand how avalanches work, stay informed and follow the safety measures laid down by the authorities and mountain experts.

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Risks linked to avalanches

An avalanche at Mont Blanc
An avalanche at Mont Blanc – photo by Krzysztof Kowalik

The risks associated with avalanches are extremely serious and can have dramatic consequences. The speed of the dislodged snow often exceeds 100 km/h. It can weigh several tonnes and cause an alarming number of deaths. These devastating natural events are a reminder of the need to take adequate precautions when you take part in mountain activities in winter.

It’s important that you can recognise the warning signs of an avalanche if you want to stay safe in the mountains. Cracks in the snow, thumping noises or the breaking up of the snow surface are potential indicators. Steep slopes and areas where recently accumulated snow has settled present an increased risk. Make sure you check out the terrain and use resources such as avalanche bulletins from reliable sources, for example, Avalanche-Report, which can help identify areas at risk.

What to do if you are caught in an avalanche

Initial crisis procedure

When faced with an avalanche, quick action and knowledge can mean the difference between life and death. It’s crucial to stay calm and act quickly. Here are some things you can do to increase your chances of survival:

  1. Move out of its path: Your natural reaction when you see an avalanche approaching will be to try and outrun it. However, avalanches travel at extreme speeds, therefore, the safer option is to run perpendicular (to the side) of the avalanche. If the avalanche starts underfoot, try to move above the fracture line.
  2. Hold on to something sturdy: Depending on the size of the avalanche, holding on to something sturdy such as a boulder or large tree can help.
  3. Protect your face: If you are buried, try to keep your face above the surface. This makes it easier to breathe and reduces the risk of suffocation. If possible, “swim” towards the surface in order to stay on top of the avalanche. This action can give you a better chance of staying in the open air, but if it’s impossible, aim to avoid sinking by thrashing your arms around.
  4. Raise one arm: If you can, try to raise one arm up so that rescue teams can spot you more easily.
  5. Create an air space: As soon as you stop moving, create an air space in front of your face by spreading your arms and holding your hands in front of your mouth. This can give you some air to breathe until help arrives.
  6. Try to stay calm: As difficult as this may be, aim to stay as calm as possible. Maintaining your breathing gives you the best chance of survival and breathing too quickly will fill your breathing space with too much carbon dioxide instead of oxygen.
Three climbers roped together head up a snow-covered rock face
Mountaineering is a delicate balance of conquering the summits and respect for nature ©Le Point

Preventative equipment

Having the right equipment is absolutely critical in this situation.

An Avalanche Victim Locator (AVL) is an essential device for locating people buried under snow. By using electromagnetic signals, an avalanche transceiver can help rescuers find victims quickly. A shovel and probe are also needed to free them once they have been located.

Every second counts in the event of an avalanche. As soon as the avalanche stops, try to free yourself quickly from the snow. Keeping a pocket of air gives you a better chance of survival until help arrives. Once outside, seek medical help immediately, as hypothermia and lack of air can present serious risks.

What action is taken to prevent avalanches?

Mountain resorts have put in place various measures to minimise the risk of avalanches. Teams of specialists carry out regular checks of the slopes and, if necessary, trigger avalanches in a controlled manner to reduce potentially dangerous accumulations. Avalanche bulletins are published daily and provide vital information for assessing the level of danger.

Resorts in the Alps have been heavily involved in avalanche prevention for many years. Chamonix, for example, deploys teams of experts who regularly carry out meticulous checks of the slopes. They also trigger avalanches in a controlled manner when snow accumulations threaten safety. The resorts provide up-to-date avalanche bulletins, enabling mountain enthusiasts to assess the risks before setting off. These measures help to create a safer environment for visitors and minimise potential avalanche hazards.

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Similarly, the resort of Val d’Isère has a team specialising in avalanche risk management. They carry out regular patrols to monitor the state of the slopes and identify high-risk areas. In addition, Val d’Isère offers training sessions to make skiers and hikers aware of the potential dangers of avalanches and the safety measures to take.

Avoiding mountain avalanches

If you want to avoid the risk of avalanches in the mountains you’ll need to make sure you are well-informed. One of the best ways to avoid avalanches is not to venture off-piste unless you are with an experienced guide.

Guides have in-depth knowledge of the terrain and can assess the risks accurately, reducing the chances of ending up in high-risk areas. Compliance with the rules and recommendations issued by local authorities and ski resorts is also crucial.

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Assessing the terrain and staying safe

It’s a good idea to set off with an experienced guide, as they have more reliable knowledge. However, this isn’t always enough.

Careful assessment of the terrain and knowing how to identify the warning signs of an avalanche is essential. Keep an eye out for accumulations of fresh snow on steep slopes, and avoid areas where snow has gathered rapidly. This buildup can become unstable and slide down the mountain.

Avoiding avalanches requires caution, education and the right equipment. Despite their danger, avalanches can be avoided with proper preparation so that you can enjoy your visit in complete safety.

In the event of an emergency, keep mountain rescue telephone numbers to hand, such as 112. To find out more about emergency numbers, read this article.

Snowy mountains against a blue sky
Take the time to breathe in and enjoy the scenery – photo by Denis Linine

The risk of avalanches in the mountains should not be underestimated. However, thanks to thorough education, careful preparation and compliance with safety instructions, the risks can be considerably reduced. Plus, local authorities and industry professionals work tirelessly to ensure the safety of mountain enthusiasts.

For more information, consult reliable sources such as the Avalanche-Report website and the recommendations of the Haute-Savoie ski resorts. Enjoy the wonders of the mountains in winter while keeping safety in mind.

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