The avalanches

Avalanches: Essential Information and Tips

The risk of avalanches remains a constant concern for enthusiasts of powder-snow skiing, ski-mountaineering, and ski station management. While some off-piste skiers and ski-mountaineers are vigilant about avalanche risks, others may overlook them due to a lack of awareness, incompetence, or overconfidence. It is crucial for those venturing off-piste to consider the risks before attempting a descent, emphasizing that improvisation should never replace basic caution. Above all, skiers who frequent the same areas should be conscious of the tendency to underestimate the danger of avalanches in familiar settings.

Each winter brings unique challenges, with some years seeing the formation of particularly fragile snow layers, increasing the likelihood of slab avalanches. As you read through this page, you will realize that predicting the risk of an avalanche is possible. However, some level of risk always exists unless you forego the pleasure of off-piste skiing altogether. Therefore, it is imperative to take responsibility for your safety. If self-reliance is not feasible, consider relying on the expertise of an experienced guide.

The question to ponder is, how much risk should you be willing to take? This is a crucial consideration before embarking on off-piste descents, especially after a prolonged period of inactivity, when the allure of good weather and fresh snow may tempt you to hit the slopes.

The response to this question is not simple because when it comes to avalanches, the margin between medium and high risk is quite narrow.

Numerous factors can transform an enjoyable day of skiing into a potentially hazardous situation, and chance plays a significant role.

Without delving into the intricacies of various snow studies, let’s explore a set of general principles related to avalanches. By adhering to these observations, you can mitigate potential risks.

Lastly, we will discuss appropriate actions in the event of an avalanche.

Numerous factors can turn a fantastic day of skiing into a dramatic situation, and chance plays a significant role. Without delving into the intricacies of various snow studies, let’s explore how adhering to a series of general points on avalanches can help mitigate risks based on these observations. Lastly, we will examine proper behavior in the event of an avalanche.

General points

  • There is always a risk of an avalanche or snow slide each time you venture off the piste, and this risk persists even long after the last snowfall.
  • Examining case studies of avalanches reveals that, in most instances, skiers trigger them themselves.
  • Sudden atmospheric changes occurring at medium or high altitudes can significantly alter the snow cover’s structure. Wind and temperature are the two primary elements influencing these changes.

Several scales exist to measure avalanche risks, and different countries issue “bulletins” based on these scales. Always check the avalanche bulletin. Regarding the Dolomites, read the bulletin here. It’s crucial to learn how to interpret these bulletins, bearing in mind that no scale claims to be perfect. It is the skier’s responsibility to make choices based on factors such as weather, route, time, skiers’ experience, and the specific mountain. Depending on the altitude and exposure, the risks outlined in the bulletins can vary considerably from one mountain to the next.

Now is an opportune moment to highlight the distinctions in the risk of avalanches for off-piste skiers and ski-mountaineers:
  1. In the case of powder skiing, many slopes are frequently traversed by a significant number of skiers, aiding the settling of different layers of snow. Additionally, in numerous resorts, explosives are utilized after substantial snowfall to induce controlled mini-avalanches in the most precarious areas. However, even with these precautions, caution is crucial, especially at the beginning of the season when the snow cover is not yet stable or after windy periods or temperature changes.
  2. For ski-mountaineering, the actual ascent with skins often exposes individuals to the risk of avalanches, particularly when traversing extended distances across slopes. Less-frequented slopes, early morning descents, and the imprudent techniques of some ski-mountaineers all contribute to heightened natural and man-made risks. It is essential to highlight that many off-piste skiers follow trails without considering the route, time, and the necessary technical knowledge to avoid avalanche risks.

Conversely, some skiers see it as their privilege to create the initial tracks on the most exquisite slopes of the region after a substantial snowfall. It is crucial not to mimic their actions, and one must recognize when to exercise patience and even relinquish the endeavor at the slightest hint of uncertainty. Weekend ski-mountaineering plans, meticulously arranged in advance, may need to be promptly altered or canceled in the face of potential danger.

Snowslide: General Rules

Equip yourself with an ARVA (Avalanche Victim Search Equipment) and, of course, learn how to use it proficiently by practicing regularly. Avalanche airbag packs are rapidly becoming the fourth essential piece of gear for backcountry travelers, alongside beacons, shovels, and probes.

Never ski alone and avoid overly large groups. Inform someone in the valley precisely about your skiing plans.

Skiing down gullies is generally less risky than descending open slopes with an average gradient, except during significant temperature increases.

Summer knowledge of locations allows you to choose rocky areas, which are safer than mowed pastures and meadows because snow does not adhere as well to the latter.

Carefully select areas to stop and avoid lingering beneath large outcrops or crests where dangers can emanate from above, including natural or artificial avalanches triggered by other skiers who may have cut the slope just above, leading to snow sliding. When there’s a fresh snow blanket of around 60 cm, it’s crucial to choose your tracks carefully, preferably opting for convex areas—slopes interspersed with very steep inclines and flatter or undulating sections.

Avalanches - Backcountry gear

As a fundamental safety rule, it is crucial not to venture into off-piste areas immediately after a heavy snowfall (80 cm of fresh snow or less if the snow has drifted). If off-piste skiing is necessary, opt for tree-lined areas or zones with abundant undergrowth.

Beware of the warm Föhn wind, as it contributes to an overall melting of the snow.

Following a snowfall accompanied by strong winds, particularly at higher altitudes, the risk of slab avalanches persists until the snow cover overheats. Contrary to common belief, cold weather does not assist in settling snow, except when the pre-existing layer of snow is very wet.

In spring, it is advisable to ski on east-facing slopes and avoid late-day skiing on south and west-facing slopes, as the sun rapidly alters the snow, creating the risk of wet-snow avalanches.

Avoid traversing a slope in the middle, but if there is no alternative, take the following precautions:

  • Keep in mind the risk of small landslides, which can be significant if they carry the skier down the valley, potentially across rocky outcrops or seracs. Always assess the potential risks of the route based on snow quality and the time of descent.
  • In the case of small avalanches, it is better to leave the line of that descent after a few turns to limit the size of the landslide. You need to be extremely attentive and not get carried away by the thrill of the descent when there is the possibility of danger.

Emphasizing the significance of skiing with an ARVA is crucial. Before commencing skiing, it is advisable to verify that the ARVA is activated and the batteries are adequately charged. However, it’s important to understand one key aspect: the ARVA does not prevent avalanches.

For ski-mountaineering, it is always prudent to carry a snow shovel to facilitate the rapid excavation of a buried person. Statistics show that survival chances diminish significantly after 30 minutes of being buried.

Distinguishing Surface and Base Avalanches

  1. Surface avalanches occur when only the top layer slides, as it has not adhered to the layer underneath. The thickness of this sliding layer can range from a few centimeters to well over half a meter.
  2. In contrast, base avalanches occur when the entire snowpack slides due to the extreme instability of both the snow cover and the ground, revealing the underlying terrain.

These avalanches can manifest in various forms:

Powder-Snow Avalanche

Following an abundant cold snowfall, this layer becomes highly unstable as the snow crystals fail to adhere. The risk is significantly heightened on large slopes, as powder-snow avalanches can occur rapidly, reaching speeds of up to 200 kilometers per hour.

The snow, blending with the air, forms an extremely hazardous mixture. Anyone enveloped in it faces the peril of death by asphyxiation, as the snow crystals can penetrate the lungs through the nose and mouth.

In the event of a powder-snow avalanche, swift escape is imperative, as the movement of air and lightweight snow can cover remarkable distances.

Wet-Snow Avalanche

Wet-snow avalanches, occurring at the base level, result from rising temperatures due to sunlight and warm winds. The entire snow mass loses cohesion, becoming wet and slippery. Although the speed of the avalanche is slow, the mass of snow is substantial, and its density can reach 400 kilometers per meter squared.

Descending in the form of numerous snowballs, the avalanche carves a pathway, scraping the ground like a bulldozer. Upon halting, the snowballs press against each other, posing a suffocation risk to anyone caught underneath. The snow hardens rapidly, akin to cement, complicating rescue efforts. This type of avalanche is typical in spring and is also relatively easier to predict.

Wind-Formed Slabs

The wind exerts pressure on snow crystals, compacting them and disrupting their structure, resulting in fine granules. These granules accumulate to form highly unstable slabs that do not adhere to the lower layer, remaining separated as if there were a cushion of air.

These slabs frequently develop in windy areas, beneath cornices, in crags on slopes, and in bowls overloaded with snowdrifts. This snow easily collapses, impacting the entire slope upon the breaking of the slab.

The speed of this type of avalanche depends on the slope gradient and the thickness of the slab (ranging from approximately 30 cm to 2 m). The dangers of slab avalanches are the most unpredictable and require a lot of caution, as they account for 3/4 of the incidents.

It’s important to note that certain avalanches are mixed, as the quality of the snow varies with altitude. For instance, powder avalanches can occur at high altitudes, triggering a wet-snow avalanche at a lower altitude. Similarly, a slab avalanche on a large slope has the potential to transform into a dangerous powder-snow avalanche.

10 Rules to Remember

  1. Wear the avalanche transceiver (ARTVA) and check its functionality before starting the activity.
  2. Move along ridges and spines as much as possible, using safe points on the terrain, such as rocks, trees, and flat sections.
  3. Avoid windward areas and/or those dominated by snow cornices.
  4. Open and uniform slopes, or those with abrupt changes in steepness, should be considered suspicious.
  5. In the case of an unstable snowpack, do not venture onto slopes with an inclination greater than 30 degrees.
  6. Avoid crossing open slopes.
  7. When crossing is unavoidable, the slope should be cut as high as possible.
  8. The ascent and descent of a couloir should always occur vertically and along the edges.
  9. Absolutely avoid crossing areas that converge into crevasses, rock jumps, exposed scree, or other hazards.
  10. Old tracks are not an indication of safety, as conditions may have changed. Animal tracks also do not provide guarantees.

How to Behave in Case of an Avalanche

Swiftly assess the situation: for instance, if a powder-snow avalanche is imminent, attempting to descend along the steepest path is futile, as you will be swiftly engulfed by the air and powder movement.

It is more effective to escape to the side, traversing quickly while descending.

If caught by an avalanche, regardless of its type, remain calm. If you find yourself in the higher part of the avalanche, it is crucial to attempt to cling onto the slope, grabbing hold of a tree or a bush.

If it is not possible to cling onto the slope, attempt to ride along on top of the avalanche. Staying on the surface increases the chances of emerging from it without injury.

If you become buried, at the very moment you are buried, you must do the following:

  • In the moment you are caught, do not breathe and keep your mouth closed: in the case of powdery snow, a scarf can be very useful. Curl up with your arms closed against your body and your legs bent.
  • At the same moment the avalanche stops, you must push the snow as far away as possible with your knees and elbows to create a kind of cavity.
  • Finally, focus on staying calm, without wasting energy by shouting, in order to conserve oxygen.

How Avalanche Rescue Should Be Organized

  • Notify the mountain rescue as soon as possible, as the longer time passes, the lower the chances of finding companions alive.
  • The person seeking help must remember the incident location well and provide the following information: the exact name of the location, approximate altitude, and the name of the nearest ski lift or slope.
  • Assign someone to monitor the slope above, as a second avalanche may occur. One should always be equipped with an ARVA, as this will expedite searches, provided one has consistently practiced using the device.
  • Try to pinpoint the approximate location where the missing skiers were last seen; look for a trace: a ski pole, or a hat, plant a ski at this spot (to signal and remember the point), and conduct a brief probe with the probes.
  • Conduct searches preferably in flat sections immediately below natural obstacles and on the edges of accumulation cones.
  • Proceed systematically by marking the locations already probed.

While waiting, continue the search by carrying out a more precise survey:

  • Form a line with individuals positioned 60-70cm apart and, at every step, conduct a ground probe using the avalanche probe.
  • It is advisable to carry out the search on level stretches immediately beneath natural obstacles and on the edges of fans/cones of accumulated snow.
  • Avoid brushing or disturbing the snow in any manner that could disrupt the scent for avalanche dogs that might arrive with the rescue workers.

In Case of Helicopter Intervention

If a helicopter is involved, locate a clear landing space devoid of obstacles. When the helicopter is prepared to descend, position yourself with your back to the wind and arms crossed to assist the pilot in maneuvering. For more information on helicopter rescue, click here.

If you happen to locate a skier on your own, place the victim on warm clothing cautiously, as there could be a potential injury. If the rescued skier is unconscious, immediate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation must be administered.

Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation Techniques

  1. First of all, clear the airways of snow, earth, liquids, and mucus, either with your finger or by turning the victim onto his front and hitting him between the shoulder blades.
  2. Next, pull the victim’s tongue free using a tissue (as it often blocks the throat) while resting the head back on a folded wind jacket.
  3. Position your mouth around the widely-opened mouth of the victim.
  4. Prevent air from escaping by pressing down firmly. With the help of your finger, close the nostrils to ensure that air does not escape.
  5. Always ensure the head is extended backward.
  6. If the oral cavity cannot be cleared or if the jaw is blocked, perform mouth-to-nose resuscitation. In this case, you must first suction the nose, immediately spitting out any water and mucus, and then begin to breathe.
  7. Perform twelve breaths per minute.

Important: vigorously rub the victim without interruption.
Continue artificial respiration for an extended period; resuscitation has been successful in some cases approximately an hour and a half after initiating the intervention.
If the victim appears to be lifeless and there is no audible heartbeat when resting your ear on the left side of the chest, perform an external cardiac massage simultaneously with artificial respiration.

External Cardiac Massage Technique

The rescue worker, squatting next to the injured, with his two hands crossed, one on top of the other, resting on the front of the chest, must push down hard following a rhythm of 60-80 compressions per minute, roughly one compression per second.

If you are alone, you need to carry out the two operations alternately, providing one mouth-to-mouth breath for every five chest compressions.


Important Recommendation!

A skier buried under a light layer of snow may be found unconscious. Even if you are not a professional rescue worker, you must act quickly and perform resuscitation techniques with confidence.
Finally, it is worth noting that not all avalanches result in fatalities. However, incidents involving snow are complex and sometimes unpredictable, even for the most experienced. If all off-piste skiing or ski-mountaineering enthusiasts take the time to understand the relevant information and adhere to the basic rules mentioned above, off-piste skiing would undoubtedly result in significantly fewer victims.