Avalanche awareness and mountain safety guide


AVALANCHE AWARENESS & MOUNTAIN SAFETY GUIDE

Following our hugely successful The North Face Avalanche Awareness Lecture Series, British Mountain Guide and Head of Snowsports at Glenmore Lodge, Andy Townsend, tells us how to prep for the season, how to spot hazards and what safety equipment we need on the mountain:


What are your top tips for avoiding potential hazards?

Really good observation skills are key to avalanche avoidance. The mountain gives us all the clues we need, but often we’re too preoccupied to see them. Starting with good pre-trip planning is essential, and thorough research will give you lots of info.

Looking at the weather in the valley and your surroundings as the lifts whisk you up is also key. Is the wind moving snow about, and if so, where? Look at the piste – which side is the snow on? Poke the snow lots as you do your warm-up runs – how does it feel and sound?

Tip: ‘Wind slab’ often squeaks and sounds hollow when hit with a ski pole.

Make these observations in a safe place that is a similar aspect to your intended slope. Making them halfway down your run is too late!

How can skiers/snowboarders prepare before leaving the chalet?

Just before you leave, check that everyone in your group is properly equipped and that they have all turned on their transceivers. Too many riders wait until they are on the slope or at the top of the lift to turn on their transceiver, but this is not the place to discover that your batteries are low.

Once equipment is checked, look at your riders – is everyone fit, well, alert and observant? Your lives will depend on every team member being able to do their part.

What safety equipment is essential to be fully prepared?

Transceiver, shovel and probe are all essentials. These items should be regularly checked and drilled with – quick assembly of shovels and probes is an essential lifesaving skill.

Digging a casualty out is by far the most important, time consuming and difficult part of the rescue, so a big, strong, metal shovel with a long handle is really important.

Tip: Research has shown that a team of diggers working together and rotating so that no-one gets too fatigued is the best way to excavate a casualty.

A robust pack is also really important, as this will give you expedient access to critical safety kit. It also needs to be big enough to carry more than just the basics; strapping items on the outside of your pack is unacceptable – these will be easily torn off and lost in the event of a fall or avalanche.

 

Spare clothingfirst aid kitsurvival shelter, food and drink are just as important to your survival. You will also need to be able to contact rescue services, so a fully-charged mobile phone is also essential. To help emergency services locate you, you will need more than one map in your group (just in case one gets buried).

Tip: Mobile phones, cameras and anything electrical will interfere with your avalanche transceivers; keep these at least 50cm away for your transceiver at all times.

How exactly do avalanche transceivers and probes work?

An avalanche transceiver emits a pulse which can be tracked by another device in search mode. With modern triple-antenna/digital devices we can very easily search and locate a casualty. Probes are long, thin poles which can be pushed into the snow to assess how deep and in what position the casualty is buried.

 

What must you remember in the event of an avalanche?

Safety is first and speed second – you don’t want to become a casualty yourself. Proceed only if you feel it is safe enough to do so. A lookout could warn searchers in the event of a secondary avalanche.

Speed, or more importantly efficiency, is critical in any avalanche rescue, and a casualty’s best chance of survival is what his companions do in the first 10 minutes.

Appoint a leader – having an individual in charge will make a team far more efficient and will prevent jobs being multiplied. They can also call for professional help while having an overview of the rescue. You’ll all be stressed beyond comprehension, so diligently follow well-practiced and rehearsed plans.

Your aim is to find, probe and dig out the casualty as quickly as possible. Expect to work harder than ever before! You only need to dig out the casualty’s face and chest, so that you can clear their airway and do basic first aid. They may have other injuries, so it is a good idea to not fully excavate them until the rescue services arrive. Keep the casualty warm and give them lots of reassurance.

What drill can riders do to improve mountain safety skills?

Lots of resorts have transceiver training areas, and the ski patrollers are usually only too happy to help and offer advice. You can also practice at home, in the garden or in your local park.

Try searching in the dark or with thick gloves on, as this will help mimic the difficulties of a real search.

As a warm-up, ask everyone in your group to assemble their shovels and probes. It’s amazing how we bury this critical safety equipment in our packs, so stash it where it can be easily and quickly accessed! Whoever is slowest can buy the first round après ski!

British Mountain Guides also provide avalanche training courses or are available for a day’s refresher.

Glenmore Lodge offers a wide range of avalanche awareness courses based in Scotland and the Alps.

When winter mountaineering in places like scotland, what must walkers and backpackers remember?

Scotland is a unique environment, because the weather and snow pack changes at a phenomenal rate.

Lots of spare clothing that can cope wet and windy weather is important. Don’t forget gloves; you will require at least three pairs (and perhaps a fourth for emergencies). I never leave home without a pair of good quality goggles with a low light lens.

A well packed rucksack is also critical – try to envisage in what order you will need your items, so that you don’t have to repack on the top of a mountain while the wind loads your backpack with spindrift!

 

ALWAYS TAKE AN EXPERIENCED, LOCAL MOUNTAIN GUIDE WITH YOU INTO THE BACKCOUNTRY, STAY SAFE AND HAVE FUN THIS WINTER!


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