Backcountry skiing and snowboarding is growing. And it's growing fast. It's totally understandable. From the first moment you create your own line in fresh powder you're hooked. But after talking with lots of people in the mountains, I don't think that the majority of them ever took an avalanche course. Too bad, because it's better (and safer) to venture out in the backcountry if you have the knowledge to make the right decisions. But hey, why should you take an avalanche course in the first place? Nothing ever happened to you right? These are the ten best excuses why you don't want to spend around 30 euro's to learn more about avalanche awareness.
We've heard that quite a lot and hopefully it's true. But don't rely on the decision making of self proclaimed experts. The fact that they have more knowledge than yourself doesn't mean they always make the right decisions. Unless you're friends are UIAGM mountain guides of course, in that case you're pretty safe. If not, take control in your own hands and dare to challenge decisions taken on the mountain.
Around one hundred people die because of avalanches every season in the Alps. The chance is quite small that you'll be part of that group. But chances of winning the lottery are even smaller. The psyche of a human being is something strange. The small risk of an avalanche is considered meaningless, the small chance of winning the lottery is enough for many to buy a ticket again and again and again.
This one's a classic. Recco wonderfully managed to take a position in the avalanche safety market. The reflecting plate is part of many ski jackets. But... Recco is no more than a reflecting plate that reflects a signal from the rescue services. It works well, but the only problem is that the emergency services normally aren't there within 15 minutes. That is exactly the time you have for an acceptable chance of surviving underneath the snow. In our opinion Recco is the perfect tool for locating a corpse. It should never be a substitute for an avalanche beacon (and of course shovel and probe).
That's a start, but there's a reason why avalanche safety level 0 simply doesn't exist. The avalanche danger rating scale runs from 1 (low) to 5 (extreme). Remember that 49% percent of the avalanche victims in Switzerland were caught by an avalanche when the avalanche danger level was 3 and 29% of the victims were caught when the level was 2. A mountain rescuer we once spoke is right: 'you can die every day in the mountains'. With the right knowledge and adapting your actions to it, you minimize your chances of getting caught by an avalanche.
That's a great first step. Don't forget to carry a shovel and a probe as well, because you need to locate the victim and dig him out as well. It's a MUST to carry that gear, but it won't tell you which slopes to avoid that particular day. It's always better to keep yourself out of trouble, especially in the mountains.
The fact that you stay close to the groomers and lifts does not ensure that you are safe. Once you leave the marked slopes you expose yourself to alpine dangers and you are responsible for your own safety. Ski patrol only checks the marked slopes and ski routes. Many accidents in the Alps happen close to the lifts and slopes. The risk of getting caught by an avalanche isn't necessarily smaller than the risk further away from the groomers.
When you visit the Alps a week, maybe two weeks per season, than this knowledge is worth close to nothing. Even older people in the village are sometimes surprised by avalanches coming down in places where they haven't came down for fifty years.
That's great, let's keep it that way. Movies like the one below don't really help. They'll give you the idea that getting caught by an avalanche is practically the same as surfing a wave. I can assure you that it is something totally different. Once in an avalanche you pretty much lose all control. This movie might look cool, but talk to anyone who's ever been in an avalanche and they'll tell you the opposite.
It's always a good idea to ride between the trees. Slopes that are full of trees that are a hundred years old, are certainly safer than slopes where young plants are caught every winter by avalanches raging down. But even among the trees, or on the steep slopes above, avalanches may occur. If you want to ride powder between the trees, you'll need to have a lot of technical bagage. The trees have to be pretty close to each other to make the snowcover a little bit more stable. When you ride between the trees on lower parts of the mountain, the avalanche danger might be a bit lower than in the higher alpine. If that's the case, you can read it in the avalanche forecast. Trees don't guarantee that you're safe from avalanches.
This is another classic. Slopes that already have some tracks on them are safe. Well, think again. You might hit a sweet spot that the other riders just missed. It's simple: when there are tracks on the slope, it's not a guarantee that it's safe.