What you should know about Avalanches, whilst in a Ski Resort

Many people who are setting off on their first ever ski holiday often ask about the risk of avalanche danger. Occasionally in the news there are stories about skiers being caught up in avalanches and it is only natural that beginners become concerned by such possible danger.

Although avalanches can be unpredictable forces of nature there has been a huge amount of research into where they occur and how to prevent them. Many ski resort towns have been there for hundreds of years and are protected from any possible avalanche risk due to their natural location. If the resort is relatively new or has new areas built around the original hub, there are strict guidelines about where to build any structure. These areas are called ‘safe zones’ and will be carefully planned using computerised models of where avalanches might occur. Like anything, there can be exceptional circumstances when it comes to the forces of nature, but in general you are very safe from avalanches in any ski resort.

As a skier, I have personally experienced many avalanches. Some have been very small and others very large. I have been caught in many small to medium sized avalanches. Most of the time I have avoided being swept away or buried. But all of these experiences have occurred ‘off piste’. That is, outside of the controlled zone of the ski resort and away from the marked ski runs.

Ski resorts are very active in protecting their customers from any potential avalanche danger. There are several different categories of avalanche risk ranging from one to five. Number One is at the lower end of the scale where avalanches occur very rarely and number five is at the upper end which represents a very high probability of avalanche.

When the level of danger becomes too high then the ski resorts will close any potentially dangerous slope or area of the mountain. If you are a beginner, then you will be skiing within the controlled boundary areas of the ski resort at all times. It is not recommended that you leave these controlled areas, even if you feel confident enough to do so. In fact, leaving the controlled or marked runs of a ski resort increases your danger of avalanche risk immensely. Any skier of any level should never venture outside the controlled boundary area without a professional mountain guide.

As a recreational skier who stays within the controlled or marked runs of a ski resort, you are relatively safe from avalanche danger. The decisions that are made by the professionals who run the ski resort are based on the level of danger that is being accessed at all times. It is very rare for marked ski runs to close due to high avalanche danger, but if there is a possibility of avalanches hitting ski runs, the resort should close them down.

The ski resorts employ mountain professionals who are often highly qualified mountain guides to access and look after the avalanche safety on a daily basis. They are often referred to as Ski Patrollers. One of the ways that ski patrollers make the terrain safe is to set off controlled avalanches before the ski runs have opened. Dynamite is commonly used to trigger avalanches, so that the excess snow is sent down the empty mountain, where they might descend onto any controlled ski run. You might hear load bangs in the morning as you eat your breakfast, this is the ski patrol hard at work.

There are no promises or guarantees,from anyone, to prevent all avalanche danger but as a recreational skier who stays within the boundaries of the marked ski runs, you are making the risk of being caught in any avalanche a very low one.

The subject of avalanches is a very complex and serious issue and I will continue to post articles on various topics concerning them.

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Robert Stewart

Ski Editor at Snow.Guide

Rob has extensive knowledge and experience of winter sports and has been qualified to instruct and teach Alpine Skiing for over 25 years. He is also an experienced off-piste and backcountry skier and has competed in freestyle and freeride events around the world. Now a full-time ski writer and Director of Ski Press, Rob is Snow.Guide’s Ski Editor and contributes to many other snowsports, national and lifestyle publications.

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