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Mountain Safety Series - Part 1 - Get to know the Mountain

Posted by Jennifer Ashton on
Mountain Safety Series - Part 1 - Get to know the Mountain

With so much snow falling (even if for most of us the idea of skiing right now is a dream), it seems really fitting to have a look at gear you need (and what it does) to keep you safe while out on the mountain.

Over the next three blogs we’ll take a look at some of the important pieces of equipment you should be thinking about as your adventures off piste begin and progress. We’ll also start looking into some of the basic information you need to know about mountain safety and avalanches.

Remember, whether you are on or off piste to always ski within your limits and don’t be afraid to turn back (or say no). All it can take is one wrong move, trying to keep up with your ski mates for things to go horribly wrong. At the end of the day, you want your day to be enjoyable, memorable, but most importantly, repeatable! Never be afraid to back out!

Knowing what you’re skiing (or boarding) in for the day is important. Resorts in Europe publish an avalanche danger rating. The rating system gives the mountain a score out of 5 based on how safe the conditions are. Starting at 1 being the safest, working its way to 5 out of 5 being the most dangerous. You should remember, level 1 doesn’t mean that there’s a 0% chance of avalanches- resorts just can’t guarantee that. According to the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) based in Switzerland, just over half of all avalanche fatalities occur when the danger rating is 3. Unfortunately, the idea that avalanches only occur far away from pistes in hard to access areas just isn’t true.

When a rating is given to the resort’s chance of avalanche, a host of factors are taken into account. These can include the general steepness of the mountain you are skiing at, the weather (both expected and previous snowfall and rain), which direction the mountain and slopes face, the snowpack condition and amount of snow, which direction the wind has been blowing and any vegetation on the mountain are all factors that will effect mountain daily ratings, as well as the type of avalanches that may occur. Forecasters measure and document the snowpack (all the layers within the snow) and combine it with the weather conditions to give the mountain its daily score out of 5. The forecast will also take into account what potentially might happen in terms of the size and type of avalanche and how likely it is to occur.

Over the next few blogs, we’ll give you a little more information on mountain safety. We take a look at some of the equipment you should be carrying to ensure you have a safe day out of the mountain and many more days to come:

Your Number one Purchase: A Transceiver

Called a transceiver because the device that sits strapped to your chest both transmits and receives a wavelength specific signal. This is the most essential piece of equipment anyone can have when heading off piste (even for short adventures).

When you are skiing the device, that’s about the size of your mobile phone, should sit on a harness around your chest (underneath your jacket), continuously emitting a signal that can be located by other transceivers.     

When needed, the transceiver can be switched from transmitting a signal to receiving one.

Transceivers all operate on an internationally recognized frequency, so there is no worry when different brands are used amongst your skiing group

Transceivers will vary in price with varying features.

  • Antennas - Most will have 3 antennas to them now days, allowing searching to be far easier. Previous (or basic) models will only have two antennas. The two antenna system means that you will need to locate a signal. The signal will get faster the closer it is to the transmitting device is. It means that you need to use a lattice system to work over and pinpoint the buried individual which can be more time consuming and more difficult to use (especially if you’ve never practiced with it before)
  • The display screen will vary. Basic models will have a simple display screen to them- they will point you in the direction of a buried transceiver (within a range of 180 degrees) and tell you how far from that signal you are. It may display more than 1 victim, but will not let you pinpoint more than 1. More advanced screens will point you in a 360 degree field toward a buried victim (even if they are behind you). They’ll display battery life and will often be backlit. 
  • Your ability to pinpoint more than one burial at a time. Multi burial search will allow you to pin point a victim, tag that location and move on to finding the next victim. It could save your group precious time in locating all victims.
  • The range of signal reach. It’s not always the case that a more expensive transceiver will give you a better range, but you want to be checking the range of the device you are buying is at least 20m.
  • Backup transmitters. Should you be really unlucky and caught out in a subsequent slide, some transceivers will have a backup transmitter so that you can still be located after you’ve switched your device to search mode

Make sure each day you ski you test your transceiver before you head out skiing. Make sure your batteries have more than enough to last for your trip (remember batteries go flat faster in the cold).

A transceiver really is something that you should be aware of how to use. The confusion of being caught out in an avalanche will make life stressful, let alone when you don’t know how to use the device. Wrap a transceiver in a plastic bag and hide it under a pile of leaves or some sand before you head away (or if you’re at the snow under a little snow) and practice locating the transceiver.

Make sure you follow the user manual on best practice on how to wear the transceiver. They’ll all come with a pouch and harness to fasten it to your body.

Most importantly, make sure everyone in your party has a transceiver (and the battery life is strong!). It’s no good saying that it’s ok as most of you have one. Should you get caught out, that person without a transceiver will be extremely hard to find (and time makes all the difference in chances of survival). Or if the only member of your group not to be caught in the avalanche doesn’t have a transceiver, they’ll struggle to find any of you before it’s too late. You should also have a very basic understanding of how to operate it, but practice with it is key.

If you’re unsure on what you should buy, speak to a ski tech in your local shop. Knowledge is power! And this really is the one piece of kit you don’t want to be heading off piste without

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