Call of The Wild

In the Tyrolean Alps: respecting the power of snow

On The Town | Christian Cummins | February 2010

For snow lovers the call of the wild is getting ever louder as more and more of us seek respite from the madding crowds. During the upcoming high season of the Austrian ski winter, congestion on the groomed ski pistes can sometimes resemble rush hour in Tokyo.

That’s not what we have been sold on in the advertising that seduced us with glossy pictures of serene skiers floating through the deep snow in splendid isolation. No wonder then that we chose to follow the Call of the Wild, the siren song of the wide-open snow basins outside the secured areas.

But that freedom to roam the untracked mountain slopes sometimes comes at a terrible price. The latest reminder was a spate of avalanche deaths in the Alps over the Christmas holidays. In many areas, heavy December snowfall had been followed by warm weather and rain. Skiers and snowboarders had ignored the well-established warning systems and ventured out in those treacherous conditions. When nine people were swept away in the Diemtig Valley in Switzerland, the newspaper Le Matin declared off-piste skiing in the prevailing conditions "an act of recklessness," while posters on the papers’ on-line version suggested that warnings should be put on skis as they are on cigarette packets. "Off-piste Kills" was one recommendation.

But according the Austrian Alpine society, the Alpenverein, "Ignorance Kills" would be a more appropriate warning. For the past ten years, they have been running training weeks in off-piste safety called "Risk n’ Fun" camps aimed at sensitizing winter sports enthusiasts to the dangers that accompany the delights of free-riding.

In this jubilee year, I joined one of the camps in Austria’s highest ski village, the Tyrolean resort of Kühtai.

During our first night in a cozy corner of the Alpenverein’s Dortmundhütte, our trainer Fritz Köck and mountain guide Heli Dühringer outlined the philosophy of the Risk n’ Fun concept. It’s all about keener awareness and self-empowerment. The learning process is designed to be active rather than passive. We would be trained to identify the Alpine dangers ourselves and make our own decisions about where we could and couldn’t ride. Our trainers would share their experiences of snow conditions, advise us what signs to look out for and put in the vital presidential veto if we made the wrong choice. They saw themselves as our safety net. The onus of responsibility was definitely on us.

One of the best things about acquiring new skills is the bushel of fun tools to go with them. Here it was all deliciously hi-tech, staging scenes straight out of James Bond. First were the beeping radio beacons, strapped to our bodies in holsters. Next a bag on tent poles, that turned out to be a sensitive probe, extendable to 2 meters with a flick of the wrist, to allow us to feel through the snow for the buried avalanche victims.

Admittedly, only I could get excited about a foldable shovel, but the special ABS (avalanche airbag system) rucksacks we were given would have had 007 raising more than an ironic eyebrow. A rip-cord released a pair of airbags to the side of the rucksack, looking like a pair of huge orange angel’s wings. In the event of an avalanche, the extra buoyancy would keep the free-rider near the surface of the snow slide and massively improve the chances of survival.

The phrase "all the gear and no idea" did come to mind the next morning as I trooped off up the mountain. To be honest, until Kühtai I had spent years tethered to the pistes, carving ever neater turns in the perfectly prepared snow. So it was with an unnerving feeling of inferiority that I trooped behind the seven other participants and two coaches with my short racing carver skis over my shoulder.

But here the concept of Risk n’ Fun comes into its own. By making a focus of teamwork and shared responsibility, they reduce that potentially lethal mixture of machismo and competitive rivalry. It didn’t matter who carved the best curves; we were going up and coming back down as a unit and no-one was going to be pressured into situations in which they felt uncomfortable. If my first turns down the deep stuff made me look like a rather timid Alpine cow, no one let me feel it. Team-building exercises, including one where we let ourselves fall backwards into the arms of our colleagues, helped cement that.

Together we learned how to use the radio beacons to locate avalanche victims. We dug a snow cave, hid Risk n’ Fun’s fearless intern Tobi inside and prodded him with our probes to get used to the feeling of finding a human form under the snow. Together we located and dug out hidden rucksacks – my joyful triumph at rescuing an inanimate object surprising even myself. And together we simulated a real avalanche situation, including calming down a hysterical survivor and calling in a helicopter.

On the last two days, the camp split into two groups and planned a session of free-riding for each other. We checked the daily avalanche bulletin, decided which slopes would have the safest but also most enjoyable snow. We planned how to get up to the top (depressingly often by strapping our skis and boards to our rucksacks and hiking up), looking out for dangerous wind-slabs and hazards that were imperceptible from below. We decided how to avoid the danger zones, and what line to take on the way back down. Remaining devoutly anti-authoritarian, the trainers Heli and Frizz gave us a long leash, tugging gently only when I suggested a long march up a field of thigh-sinking powder.

You can’t learn how to avoid all avalanches in five days, of course, particularly because few rules are 100% dependable. If tragedies are caused by ignorance, some are also caused by the sheer unpredictability of the way snow masses either hold or give. But in five days you can begin to think about that risk, to assess it and your readiness to take it. It’s the thought process that is important, not the green or red light.

When asked that first night what I expected to gain from the course, I had said ‘adventure’ and ‘self-confidence’. I certainly got enough adventure with our hikes through the snow of Alpine ridges, but I got a generous helping of self-confidence too. I had come expecting to learn about what I couldn’t do. Instead, to my great delight, I learned that I could do things I had never dreamed possible. Like dropping into a 40-degree slope of deep virgin powder snow.

With my first turn, the snow exploded around me, and I was buried knee-deep in powder. The snow that I had disturbed skidded down the slope ahead of me. Two cautious, cowardly turns and then finally, belatedly, I started to embrace the snow instead of fearing it and pointed my tips downwards. The acceleration at that speed is about 70% of free fall and my jaw dropped open in momentary panic. But I remembered what my powder guru Heli had told me, kept my weight further back than I was used to and pulled a wide-arcing turn to the right, carving deep into the sun-glistened snow basin. It was pure joy – as if all the birthdays of my life had come at once. Now that’s what I call empowerment.


Risk n Fun’s next camp is at Hochkar, Lower Austria Feb. 13-17.

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