Acceptable Risk?

A winter of avalanche tragedies is coming to a close, but new skiing technology and the tourist industry continue to fuel excessive risk taking

News | Christian Cummins | April 2012

Digging for five teenagers in Obertauern, 2006 (Photo: Franz Neumayr/APA)

When Dutch Prince Johan Friso was hit by an avalanche, while skiing off-piste near the Alpine village of Lech am Arlberg on 17 February, high-mountain safety leaped to the top of the news agenda. Buried beneath the snow, the 41-year-old prince’s oxygen supply was cut off for 15 to 20 minutes, leaving him with brain damage from which doctors suggest he may never recover.

It was the most high-profile case in an avalanche-prone winter. In one week alone in mid-February, six separate avalanches caused the death of three people. Many mountain guides have expressed surprise that Friso had ventured off-piste in conditions that, as an experienced skier, he must have known were treacherous: On the day of his accident, the standard European warning system flagged a "high" avalanche risk of four out of five. Yet the problem of dare-devilry is exacerbated by new skiing technology and the temptations of the tourist industry.

Broad-based "fat skis" have made off-piste skiing technically easier and hence more accessible to the masses, while ski resorts attract guests with images of thigh-deep powder snow. When there are tragedies, the mood turns against the professional off-piste skiers depicted in the pictures. They are treated like sirens, tempting lesser-able skiers out of their depth.

"It’s hypocritical," complains Eva Walkner, 32, Austria’s most successful free-skier, who never tires of promoting the need for thorough preparation before venturing into open mountain territory.

Wind, temperature, the strength of the sun, and the condition of the slope are all factors to consider before taking one’s first turn. It takes time and patience to build up this knowledge, but Walkner compares launching oneself into the powder without this investment to speeding off in a car before earning one’s driving license.

While educational camps such as the Risk 'n Fun promote this level of awareness (see "Call of The Wild," TVR Feb. 2010), more should done to reach a broader public, insists Estolf Müller, the head of Salzburg’s federal mountain rescue service. Skiers could be informed of the risks via leaflets in their hotels and real-time smartphone apps, he told the Austrian Press Agency, but complained that resorts were reluctant to communicate the risks fearing they might scare off guests.

Professional skier Flo Wieser says the awareness campaigns need to speak to free-riders in a language they understand. The 28-year-old recently helped make the film Check Your Risk, a glossily produced ski movie featuring spectacular free-riding footage accompanied by no-nonsense safety advice. The mountain athletes don't mince their words when decrying the folly of leaving the groomed run ill-prepared.

"Sometimes the bravest thing is to say no," says Walkner who was taking a break from training because of the unstable warm-weather conditions. The day we spoke in late February, a member of the avalanche commission was killed just up the valley in Obertauern, in Salzburg state. "He was an absolute professional," Walker said. "It shows that nobody is safe."

Still, there are ways to minimise the risks.

It typically takes at least 20 minutes for a rescue team to reach the scene of an avalanche, so free-riders must pack their own rescue equipment. The essential components are avalanche transceivers, which emit and receive signals from other devices below or above the snow line; an avalanche probe, a collapsible metal rod to search for bodies buried underfoot; and, of course, a shovel. Walkner frequently simulates search and rescue situations, repeating the exercise until the procedure becomes automatic. "Never take off your gloves when you start digging," warns snowboarder Cri Maierhofer, "and don’t start digging too fast, you’ll tire yourself out."

To put theory into practice I met up again with Eva Walkner in St. Anton, where deep snow aficionados gather for the end of season Salewa Climb To Ski camp. Spring flowers were beginning to pop up yellow in the valley, but on the viewing platform of the Valluga at 2,800 metres above sea level, it was still icy winter. We headed for the glorious lonely snowfields of the Pazieltal, a free-riders dream, but first had to negotiate a ferociously steep section that angles off towards a sheer cliff.

"Falling is forbidden during this section," announced our local guide, Fussi, without a trace of irony. "Ski safely. It doesn’t have to be aesthetic." I took his advice literally, side-slipping and jump-turning with the posture of an orangutan, loosened snow rushing past my boots towards the cliff. It didn’t look pretty and I didn’t care.

At the bottom, Walkner discussed the plans for the afternoon: There were some gullies of fresh powder in Zürs if we hiked a bit. But the day was warming up and I felt uneasy.

"No I’m done," I panted. "That was enough excitement for me for one winter."

"Well done," Walkner said, "You’ve learned to say no."

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