Skip to content

Avalanche!!! – Survival Training

The Observer, Sunday 28 September 2008

He may feel at home on the London art scene but could Ekow Eshun, artistic director of the ICA and a keen snowboarder, cope with a snowslide?

If you are caught in an avalanche you have a 95 per cent chance of survival – if you get help within 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the average time for a helicopter rescue crew to arrive on the scene is 45 minutes, which gives you less than a 30 per cent likelihood of making it out alive.

These kind of odds are at the forefront of my mind when I find myself buried up to my neck in snow on a remote slope somewhere in western Austria – even though it is only part of a training demonstration and help is readily to hand. The experience is still sobering and, if I’m honest, slightly scary.

One cubic metre of snow weighs 500kg and the feeling of helplessness engendered by having it piled on top of you is enough to induce rapid panic. Worse, trying to fight your way free – which feels like a rational response to such a situation – will only make things more fraught. While kicking and shoving creates marginally more space for you in the snow, in the thinner atmosphere of the mountains it proves quickly exhausting. And with each breath you take between exertions, the snow collapses further into the cavity around your body: the more you struggle for freedom the more surely you’ll entomb yourself. By the time I am dug free only a few minutes have passed, but I am eager not to repeat the exercise. It is a salutary reminder that we place ourselves in inherent danger each time we venture into the mountains.

So far this year, 100 people have been killed by avalanches in the Alps, making this one of the worst years in Europe since the ‘Winter of Terror’ in 1951, when 649 separate avalanches over three-months in Austria and Switzerland killed 265 people, laying waste to dozens of towns and villages and burying thousands of acres of forest under snow and rubble.

The Snow and Avalanche Awareness Camp programme was launched in Austria in 1997 in the hope of reducing the annual death toll. The camps, open to anyone aged over 14, take place on weekends at 16 resorts across western Austria including Mayrhofen, Kühtai and Westendorf and are free – in the hope of encouraging participation, especially among young skiers and snowboarders who are thought to be least likely to heed the hazard signs posted on the edge of the piste. Tuition, day lift passes and specialist equipment are all included, courtesy of corporate sponsors and the regional tourist board. Although it is aimed primarily at Germans and Austrians, anyone can take part and the tutors speak excellent English.

I join a small group at Mayrhofen. We begin with a morning of theory in which Robbie Schellander, our guide, talks us through the basic science of avalanches and the common risks involved in going off-piste. He also punctures a few of the more prevalent myths on the subject. So, for the record, I can now report that while avalanches can’t be triggered by shouting (the sound waves aren’t strong enough to do so) you will not save yourself from one by ducking behind a tree. Trees bend or snap in the face of an avalanche and they can actually help cause them by acting as points of weakness in the packed snow on a mountain slope.

In the afternoon, Robbie leads us away from the piste. We take out our collapsible shovels from our rucksacks and dig down until we reach the wet earth and grass beneath, exposing a metre high face of snow. Robbie points out the different strata it contains, including a 15cm tier of soft powder sandwiched between two layers of more densely packed snow.

On a steeper slope higher up the mountain, such conditions could lead to an avalanche if the powder layer, unable to bond to the harder snow beneath, were to slide off down the mountain, taking the slab of denser, surface layer snow with it. This type of ‘slab avalanche’ is the most common form of snowslide, though there are others caused by wind, steep terrain and temperature. But the camp’s main lesson is that all avalanches are potentially lethal and best avoided.

The camps are about learning to spot the danger signs on a mountain: a ridge bearing a teetering wind lip of snow; a patch of glimmering powder whose ostensibly inviting surface is the only clue to the unstable layers of snow beneath it; the ‘hot spots’ that can set off manifold fissures across a slope like cracks in a mirror as you ski over them.

We also learn what equipment to carry and how to use it if we get into trouble. Above all, that means wearing a transceiver that sends out a constant radio signal of your location and can also pick up that signal from other nearby devices. If you are skiing with a group and only one is left standing after an avalanche, the transceiver could lead them to their buried colleagues.

While the programme advocates the importance of safety and preparation, it also stresses the sheer joy of escaping the crowded slopes and heading – with due precaution – deep into untrammelled off-piste terrain. On our last afternoon, we hike up a mountain ridge and stand looking into an empty valley below. From there, we can see the potential danger areas on the mountain face and even the sites of recent small avalanches. We follow a narrow line to avoid disturbing a heavy, steep bank of snow directly below us and drop into solitude and silence, the slope before us untouched and inviting.

Overhead, a thin ribbon of cloud drifts across the empty blue sky. On the mountain, nothing moves. For a moment at least, it feels that there is nothing on the Earth to fear.

Comments are closed.