How often and when do things go wrong?
Misunderstandings concerning avalanches
When you go off-piste, you expose yourself to alpine hazards that carry inherent risks, both subjective and objective. And yet you have skied off-piste and never had any problems. At least as far as you know. You may have put yourself in a risky situation but escaped without suffering any real consequences. But things go wrong more often than many people think.
Number of avalanche casualties
Each year in the Alps between 90 and 110 people are killed by avalanches. Most of these accidents occur in France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. Suffocation is the number one cause of death. Trauma, or injuries suffered in the avalanche, is the second leading cause of death.
SLF (The Institut für Schnee- und Lawinenforschung or The Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research)
For more clarity, let's take a close look at Switzerland. The Institut für Schnee- und Lawinenforschung (The Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, or SLF) is located in the Swiss town Davos. Since 1931 the SLF has focused on everything regarding avalanches and therefore has amassed a lot of knowledge on avalanche accident. Since the winter season of 1936/1937 they have kept an accurate eye on the number of avalanche fatalitites.
The table above shows that the number of deaths due to road or buildings being struck by avalanches has decreased substantially. Better knowledge of where to build houses and how to protect roadways has greatly reduced such accidents. The number of accidents in the ‘freies Gelände,’ better known as the off-piste terrain, fluctuates a lot, but has risen with the rise in popularity of backcountry skiing and snowboarding. But not as much as you might expect considering the increase in the number of people riding off-piste in the last 30 years, and in particular the past 10. Still, 90-110 casualties per season is too high.
What is the avalanche hazard?
Every day the SLF publishes an avalanche report that outlines the avalanche danger at Swiss ski areas. This is not unique for Switzerland. Each area of the Alps has a similar report. The avalanche report offers valuable information that can help you make decisions. It also includes an avalanche danger rating. This scale starts at 1 (low) and ends at 5 (very high). There will be more on the avalanche scale later in this course.
The image above illustrates that most avalanche deaths occur while the avalanche hazard is at level 3. If the hazard is a Level 1, the snowpack is mostly stable and relatively safe; if it is a Level 5, most people know that they should avoid going off-piste. Level 3 appears to be the acceptable amount of risk for many skiers and snowboarders. It isn't so dangerous that it deters people from going off-piste, but it's also not stable enough that you can do so without exposing yourself to avalanches.
Misconceptions about avalanches
There are many misconceptions about avalanches. Many are harmless, but others can give a false sense of security. One popular myth is that most avalanches happen in the afternoon. Studies show that the time of the day is not relevant at all. A few elements are necessary to cause an avalanche but the time of day plays no part in that. Another myth is that avalanches can happen without a reason. Truth is 90% of skiers caught by avalanches trigger it themselves. Movies often show skiers and snowboarders out running avalanches. Even for the strongest and most skilled recreational skier, this is usually not possible (think of the pro rider as a formula 1 race car and the recreational skier as the old family sedan). Another common piece of advice is that once buried you should spit to figure out up from down. While there have been instances of shallow burials where the victim was able to punch through to the surface, in most cases, the snow is frozen solid and the victim simply cannot move. How and when avalanches originate will be discussed in more detail later in this module.
Each year a number of skiers and snowboarders are killed by other alpine dangers encountered off-piste. They may fall off a cliff or down a steep, icy run, fall into a crevasse, hit a tree or rock, or fall head-first into a creek or tree well. These victims are not counted with the number of avalanche casualties.
During the 2009/2010 season in Austria, about 51 people died while ski touring. Thirty-nine of them died due to avalanches. This means twelve people died from some other cause. This counts for more than twenty percent of the casualties. Another 45 people died that same season on supervised ski runs and ski routes. (Source)
These numbers roughly match those in the United States, where an average of 25 people die in avalanches each season. The number of skiers and snowboarders who die of suffocation without an avalanche is estimated at three per season. Other alpine accidents such as trauma due to a fall are not taken into account.
Based on statistics, avalanches are still the number one cause of death for people who ski or snowboard off-piste, but other alpine hazards also contribute. All potential dangers and how to deal with them will be discussed later in this course.
Every year 90-110 people die in the Alps due to avalanches. In addition some die off-piste due to falls, collisions, hypothermia or suffocation in the snow. Exact numbers of these accidents are not available. But we know a good deal about deadly avalanches. Fifty-five percent of avalanche deaths occur when the avalanche hazard level 3 and another 20 percent when it is at level 2. Chapter three will discuss avalanche danger and the tool to help mitigate it in more detail.