What about skiing in areas prone to avalanches?

Here is some basic advice issued by the ANENA, the French Association for Research into Snow and Avalanches.

Even if ski touring answers an urge to be in the mountains, facing the elements, trips should not be decided on the spur of the moment.
Having a reliable plan, or rather plans, that you have drawn up in advance and which you can use if you need to adjust your route, is vital in most cases.

The 3×3 method (created by Werner Munter) remains an invaluable tool for decision-making and preparation, as well as during the trip and when faced with a potential avalanche situation.
It forces the group to reason and not merely follow its instinct, with respect to 3 avalanche factors, namely the ski group, the snow and weather conditions at the time and the slope down which you intend to ski.
This involves observation, analysis, decision making, communication and action.
There’s quite a lot involved in successfully organising a ski touring trip to make sure you and your friends and family come home safe and sound in the evening.
Below is a summary of the basics to take into account when organising ski tour.

Know your group

The characteristics (technical level, level of fitness, profile and personality, etc.) of the group setting off together on the ski tour should be a determining factor for choosing the route (Route A, plan B and even a plan C). The route must suit their experience, skills and expectations, not forgetting their risk tolerance threshold.

Use the Bulletin d’Estimation du Risque d’Avalanche

The BERA (Avalanche Risk Estimation Bulletin) issued every day in the winter by Météo-France provides information on the avalanche risk of each mountain area in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Combined with the group’s own local knowledge of the snow and weather forecast and that available on the Internet, the information contained in the BERA enables you to anticipate the snow conditions on the route and the associated risks. In addition to the avalanche risk, you need firstly to mark out the areas announced as being at special risk, due to their exposure, altitude or specific position (ridge edges, passes, away from ridges, etc.). Secondly, you need to list the snow factors that you may be able to observe once in the mountain (thickness of fresh snow, wind speed, moistening, presence of fragile layers, etc.), which will help you confirm or change the choices you made during preparation. The Bulletin will of course also help you to eliminate certain areas, slopes or exposures during the preparatory phase.

Chose objectives that suit the group and conditions

The objectives should be chosen after analysing the snow and weather conditions and the people forming the group. This is the only way to plan routes, using a detailed map, that will meet both the expectations of the group and the requirements determined by snow conditions. The route traced on the map should take into account both the safety and pleasure of the group… Plan A, B (and even C) should be shared with the group and approved by all those involved.

Adjust to the actual conditions

Just before starting out, the objectives of the day should be re-stated, together with general instructions for skiing together and rules of conduct. This is also an opportunity to check everyone’s equipment. Everyone in the group should be carrying a beacon, probe and shovel and they should all know how to use this rescue equipment for searching for a victim buried under an avalanche, locating them, getting them out and giving them first aid. This requires training and practice.
Once you’re ready to go, “adjustment” is the keyword. Whether in the car park, on departure or during the outing, conditions should be constantly assessed (group, weather forecast, snow conditions and terrain)to check they still correspond to the initial expectations. Be ready to adjust the plans accordingly. If there is 20 cm more snow than originally expected, change to Plan B, for example.

Stop and examine slabs of snow

Dry snow avalanches – which account for over 90% of deaths – are triggered by the victims or their group (or even sometimes by third parties) on slopes with angles exceeding 30%. Each time you need to go up, go down, cross or even walk beneath one of these dry slabs, you need to take special care. Stop for a while and think – about the condition of the snow on the slope (stable or unstable?), the condition of the group (exhausted or still full of energy), the behaviour of the group (attentive or distracted) and the options for tackling the slope, going round it or turning back. This pause is essential as it enables us to use our energy to operate the conscious, reasoning part of our brains. If you don’t stop to think, you run the risk of the unconscious part, a source of bias with often harmful consequences in environments subject to uncertainty, deciding for you! This is once again the time to discuss the options and choices with the group, setting guidelines for continuing and rules of conduct. This reasoning can be backed up by a decision-making tool, such as Nivotest, a vigilance method, reduction method or Avaluator. The advantage of these tools is that they make the decision more objective, leaving less room for our subconscious and its dictates, which can sometimes prove to be catastrophic.

Follow some potentially lifesaving rules

Take special care and stop and think when:

  • The slope in front of you exceeds 30°
  • Natural features are a threat and could aggravate the consequences of even a small avalanche: rocky outcrop, ravine, thalweg, river, lake, crevasse, trees, etc.
  • The amount of fresh snow has reached a critical threshold (20% in bad conditions (strong winds, smooth surface, slopes that are rarely skied, cold then warm), more in good conditions).
  • The wind is drifting or has recently drifted the snow.
  • The snow is moistened deep down.
  • Fragile, persistent layers are present in the snowpack.
  • Evidence of avalanches, whether spontaneous or provoked, is visible, together with any noise of collapsing (woomfs) or cracks in the snowpack.

Adopt simple rules of behaviour:

  • Actively communicate the options, choices and strategies for going forward or back with your group… And make sure the group has clearly understood your instructions.
  • Ensure the members of the group are distanced from each other on or under slopes of more than 30%, or send them through one by one wherever possible.
  • Move from one place of safety to another place of safety.
  • Do not loiter unnecessarily on or under slopes.
  • Limit the ski path to a minimum.
  • Turn back or go around any slope you consider to be at risk of an avalanche as soon as your reasoning concludes that there is a risk (danger and consequences) or if you suspect there is a risk.