20 / 12 / 2013

Let’s be careful out there

The fatal avalanche this week in Lech once again focuses the attention on safety in the mountains. It is sometimes easy to forget that the stunningly beautiful environment in which we enjoy our winter sports can be extremely dangerous and we have to pay it the utmost respect. The lift company and the patrol do their best to keep us safe by issuing warnings and fencing off potential danger areas but we also have to take responsibility for our own actions and heed the warnings that are there.

This start to the winter season is seeing very unstable conditions throughout Europe due to good early snow in October and November followed by periods of unseasonably warm weather. This shift in temperature alters the characteristics of the snow reducing the bonding qualities of the individual crystals. When this happens avalanches become common.

Sauze d’Oulx and the Via Lattea hasn’t escaped the warm weather over the last few weeks but thankfully we now have a period of sustained winter conditions thanks to a low pressure moving in from the Atlantic. Great news for the snow depths but potentially dangerous in off piste areas. The base in many areas of Europe is considered unstable and its sugary quality means that it would struggle to support heavy snowfalls.

Most avalanches happen 24hrs after a fresh snowfall and so whilst we’re all chomping at the bit to lay down first tracks we really have to just step back and assess the risks. I’d like to see a sustained period of consistent temperatures and then leave any fresh snow enough time to settle before hitting the powder. The problem with that is by then all the good lines have probably been taken.

If you ski or board off piste anywhere in the Via Lattea you have to by law have a transceiver, shovel and probe. Technically you should also be accompanied by a fully qualified guide. A lot of the off piste though is just off to the side of the piste so many people disregard the requirements thinking its safe. Avalanches happen anywhere where there is fresh snow which means that nice looking powder a couple of meters off the groomed run is just as dangerous as the wide open back bowls.

Airbags are another bit of kit that are becoming a more common site due to them being neatly incorporated into backpacks. A recent study claims that 97% of people that deployed an airbag in an avalanche survived. A great endorsement for the product. It almost had me reaching for my wallet. However as a money careful Yorkshireman I thought I’d just do a little more research. I wanted to find out what the survival stats were for those that didn’t wear airbags. A quick search on Google and I found the answer, 81%. Lower but admittedly still pretty good odds. By wearing an airbag your survival chances get a boost of some 16 percentile points. So from thinking that I’m 97% sure of survival if I buy the airbag technology I’m now thinking that I’m only 16% more likely to survive.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we may have all the equipment the industry can through at us, including helmets and back protectors, but that doesn’t make us invincible. Just because your wearing a helmet doesn’t mean you can ski like Franz Clammer. In the words of Sgt Esterhaus of Hill Street Blues fame – ‘Let’s be careful out there.’

PS as well as physical protection we also need the added protection of a specialised winter insurance package. Our friends at ERV are offering a 15% online discount. Click here for more details.

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