What to do when a playground in white turns into a killer zone

This year’s avalanche toll is set to be a record, but still most skiers ignore the risk. Huw J. Williams signs up for the course every off-pister should take

Massive snowfalls across the Alps last weekend have helped make this one of the best ski seasons for years. It’s also been the most deadly. Avalanches have killed at least 44 people so far this winter in France alone, up from 26 for the whole of last season. Around the world at least 224 winter sports enthusiasts have perished.

The big snows are only part of the problem. New ‘fat’ skis are making off-piste skiing far easier and encouraging people with little mountain experience to hike out to the big white playground. What they should do is leave the powder alone for a few days and take a course in minimising the risk of becoming an avalanche statistic.

In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a resort famous for its off-piste, I knuckled down to take my lesson. Our instructor, Eric Henderson, has spent 11 seasons guiding at Jackson, has worked in British Columbia and Alaska and led expeditions to China and Tibet.

For four days we leave the resort behind. We hike and climb, we ride, we listen, we practise. We learn to use our avalanche transceivers, our lifeline if we were to be buried by a slide. In ‘transmit’ mode, they constantly emit a radio signal. If someone is buried, the rest of the group switch their transceivers to ‘receive’ mode, which searches out the signal from the victim. A buried skier only has a few minutes before he or she stops breathing.

The next step is using the probes – long, collapsible poles – in a methodical pattern to hit the body. Under Eric’s guiding eye we see that the snow pack is a delicate series of layers. He shows us a crystalline layer called surface hoar, the dusting of frozen dew you often see. Buried, it creates a highly unstable layer, just waiting to slide. We learn to recognise signals of lurking danger. We see snow in detail, rather than a white mass.

Some slopes hold more dangers than others; the worst have angles of between 30 and 40 degrees, and leeward slopes are less stable than windward. We discuss the best way to climb or slide down, which slopes should be avoided, where the islands of safety are if an avalanche started above us. Where would the debris go? Gullies or depressions are more dangerous to be caught in, as a victim will be buried deeper.

We treat each slope as if it posed a risk; single file, stopping behind a rock or out of the path of a potential slide, watching the others as they move so if they are taken we could find them quickly.

The course instills respect. No matter how strong the siren call of pristine snow, the backcountry dangers are very real.

A survivor’s story

‘I’m an avalanche forecaster. That involves going out and testing the snow pack to try and assess the risk. There were three of us on this particular day and we were about 10 miles into the backcountry. There were some aspects we were concerned by but conditions had stabilised. We were doing everything right. We always carry rescue gear, we chose what we thought was the safest way to descend and we skied one at a time. I was the last one down.

All at once the snow shattered into a hard slab avalanche. One of my colleagues described it as like someone throwing a rock at a windowpane. It took me off my feet like someone pulling a rug out from underneath me. I slid about 150 feet. I was on the surface for most of the way but then the snow above me started to ride over me and I was buried. I tried to get one hand up to my face to create an air pocket but it solidified so quickly the only thing I could move was the very tip of my fingers. I was very panicked. I was out of breath from the fall and there was very little air. I knew my ski partners knew what they were doing yet it was still utterly horrifying – I can’t imagine what it would be like to be lying there buried and not knowing someone was coming to get you out.

My colleagues were able to watch me till the very last moment. As soon as it was safe they came over. When I heard them starting to dig it was an immense relief. I was consciously trying to slow down my breathing so I could last as long as possible; I was pretty close to blacking out. I felt a shovel hit my pack. I knew then they would get me out.’

– Janet Kellam, Director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Centre, Idaho, USA


Backcountry courses at Jackson Hole cost from £265 for four days. Contact 00 1 307 739 2663 ; www.jacksonhole.com. Ski Independence ( 0845 310 3030  ;www.ski-independence.co.uk) offers seven nights Jackson Hole from £849 per person including flights, transfers and accommodation.


The Observer, Sunday 12 March 2006 [read it here]

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