As we all know, snowsports can be dangerous, and every year seasonaires are injured on the slopes. To help all of you keep safe, we decided to ask an expert for advice, and when it comes to snow safety, the best person to ask is, Henry Schniewind, of Henry's Avalanche Talks, which is why we're honoured that he has written this article for us…
In 90% of avalanche accidents, the slide is triggered by a person - either the victim, or someone in their group sets it off, or someone above them triggers it. It is almost always a dry slab avalanche, not a spontaneous wet snow avalanche that comes down from above. This is good news, because it means that we are in control. We can manage the risk.
If we make good choices we can keep it safe. If we make bad choices we need to remember this quote from Bruce Tremper.
We have already met the enemy... it’s us !
‘Off-piste’ comes from the French ‘hors-piste’: hors which means ‘off’ and piste which means ‘path’, ‘runway’ or even ‘dance floor’. So, when you are ‘off-piste’, you are by definition ‘off the beaten path’.
In our discussions, off-piste and backcountry refer to unsecured areas. Backcountry can refer to more remote areas than ‘off-piste’, but here we will describe remote areas as ‘touring’ i.e. areas where a person needs to walk more than 30 minutes to access.
For an adventurous person, venturing off-piste and touring is where it’s at. It touches the pioneering instinct. It brings us in touch with nature and with ourselves. This is what makes it fun.
Know where the secured places end and the unsecured places begin
The local authorities do not engage in avalanche control (with explosives for example) in unsecured areas. It’s not that you will always trigger an avalanche once you venture out of secured areas. It’s just that this is where you start taking responsibility for your own safety.
So what is the question everyone wants the answer to...
The answer is, it depends… it depends on…
1. Where you go and when.
2. How you go down or up.
3. How well prepared you are.
In the off-piste, if you have an understanding of where to go and when, how to go down (or up) a slope and how to be well prepared, you should be fine. You may get close to danger at times, but at least you are aware of it and therefore you can avoid it.
On nice slopes with fresh powder there is always a risk, but if you are aware then you can manage the risk and make off-piste about as safe as driving your car to work and much more fun!
Slope angles matter: avalanches in Europe don’t release on slope angles less than 28° (about where black runs begin or a very steep part of a red run). In the cold continental climates like North America the minimum angle is 25°.
A slab avalanche can only release on slopes above 28°, but there is a difference between where the avalanche releases and where you actually trigger it. The trigger happens under your skis, but avalanche frequently releases above you - Remember, you can be on a low angle slope and still trigger an avalanche that releases on a steeper slope that is above you.
So, slope angles are critical to think about when you’re deciding where to go.
Snow stability is important: when the snow is stable it takes more than one person to trigger a release. When the snow is less stable, then just one person can trigger a slab, plus there is more of a chance that the slab will release above you, making the consequences that much worse.
Avalanche forecasts tell you about snow stability: reading or listening to the avalanche forecast is essential to understand the risks for the day. It includes a danger rating. To use the avalanche forecast, you must understand the definition for the ratings. You also need to get an idea of where the instability is most acute on that particular day. We do this every day before we go out.
|Danger/Risk level||Snow stability||Probability you can trigger an avalanche|
|Very few unstable slabs. The snow pack is well bonded and stable in most places .||Triggering is possible generally only with high additional loads on a very few very steep slopes. Only a few small natural avalanches (sluffs) possible.|
|Unstable slabs possible on some steep slopes.||Triggering is possible with high additional loads, particularly on the steep slopes indicated in the bulletin. Large natural avalanches not likely.|
|Unstable slabs probable on some steep slopes .||Triggering is possible, sometimes even with low additional loads. The bulletin may indicate many slopes which are particularly affected. In certain conditions, medium and occasionally large sized natural avalanches may occur.|
|Unstable slabs likely on many steep  slopes.||Triggering is probable even with low additional loads on many steep slopes. In some conditions, frequent medium or large sized natural avalanches are likely. Triggering and exposure to avalanches is possible on many lower angle slopes .|
|The snowpack is weakly bonded and very unstable.||Numerous large natural avalanches are likely to reach low angle slopes. Extensive safety measures (closures and evacuation) are necessary. No off-piste or back country skiing or travel should be undertaken due to a high risk of exposure.|
Ask local professionals (piste patrol, guides and instructors). Even off-piste and avalanche experts do this. You should do it whenever the danger rating is 3 or above or you are not sure. You might learn something that saves your life.
Recent avalanche activity is a great clue. If lots of slopes that face one direction have recent slab avalanches on them, you can expect slopes with similar aspect and similar altitude to be unstable.
All the time look for clues and listen for settling and woomphing (that’s a sound the snow makes when it settles). If you hear it, this is another very clear message that the snow is unstable (don’t worry if you’ve never felt or heard it - when it happens you’ll know it).
Start out on low angle slopes whilst you look for clues. Then if there is not a lot of recent avalanche activity around and you do not see or hear any other clues of instability and you have understood the bulletins, you can think about exploring steeper and more varied terrain.
Where is it OK to go? You decide where to go based on a process of elimination. You decide based on where you decide not to go.
Where is the best snow? The nicest powder can be in the most dangerous spots. This is an endless dilemma. We unravel this in more detail in the HAT Club articles and videos.
So you have decided to tackle a slope... you think it will be safe... just how safe depends on you.
"Start out on low angle slopes whilst you look for clues..."