How to survive an avalanche

Learn how to combat the dangers of off-piste skiing with an expert course, says Katie Pettifer
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The Independent Online

I soon forget the doom of the weekend's course and remember why we take the risk in the first place

"You can hear every- thing going on around you, but you cannot move and no one can hear you." An Austrian mountain guide, Stefan Rössler, is describing what it's like to be trapped inside an avalanche, to a classroom full of students. As a teenager, Stefan was buried in an avalanche and rescued by his father. He is a walking, talking testament to the importance of knowing about mountain safety, and the perfect man to lead our two-day Snow and Avalanche Awareness Camp (Saac).

Around 30 weekend Saac courses are run in mountain resorts across the Austrian Tirol throughout the winter season. Places are open to anyone who wants to learn how to reduce their chances of triggering, or being caught in, an avalanche.

My friends and I have come to Kühtai – 45 minutes from Innsbruck airport – to experience one of the first courses to be run in English rather than German. Sponsored in part by the Tirol tourist board, plus companies such as BMW, Vaude and K2, the courses are free.

"The fewer the number of people who die in avalanches in the Tirol, the better it is for everyone – including the tourist industry," says Irene Walser, of Saac, pragmatically. But the desire to educate free-riders goes deeper than that: Saac founders Flow Daniaux (a snowboarder) and Klaus Kranebitter (a mountain guide) organised the first camp in Innsbruck 13 years ago, in part to redress snowboarding's reputation as a reckless sport with irresponsible riders. They rolled out the free camps across the region, not only engaging with young snowboarders but making avalanche awareness "cool" in the process.

Looking around the classroom, I'm not feeling very cool, just cowed by Stefan's presentation, full of statistics about fatalities and ways to die in the snow. Stefan teaches us where to find avalanche forecasts, useful websites and apps, plus how to read a mountain's geography.

Day two of the course is a six-hour practical session. Saac provides each student with a transceiver (a small device that will send and receive a traceable signal), shovel and probe for the day and we are split into groups of no more than 10 per instructor.

Stefan takes our group to the top of the mountain. We make good use of the groomed but still powdery slopes, and Stefan hops off the side of the piste to demonstrate various lessons. His first exercise involves climbing on to a bank of packed snow and jumping up and down on it in his skis, to demonstrate how unstable it is. His cool cartwheel to the ground as the snow collapses around him leaves us in little doubt of his commitment.

We learn how to measure the gradient of a slope – vital knowledge, used together with the avalanche risk, to assess the chances of snow following you down the hill. We identify wind-blown ridges and scour steep gullies for tell-tale pillows of the white stuff, likely to give way under the pressure of skis.

The Saac course does not teach you to ski in powder. For that, I turn to local ski instructor Egon Anderle, who patiently teaches us exaggerated jump turns and how to keep our skis together in the deep snow. I soon forget the death and doom of the weekend's course and remember why we take the risk in the first place – for the childish joy of skiing through sweet snow as light as sherbet.

At 2,020m (6,627ft) in the village centre, Kühtai is one of the Tirol's highest resorts, but must also be one of its smallest. It consists of maybe 50 buildings, mostly hotels, and – seasonal workers aside – has a resident population numbering only in the teens. Inghams is bringing in more British visitors, with its exclusive Chalethotel Elisabeth right next to the slopes, but Kühtai remains a quiet, unspoilt resort.

The Snow and Avalanche Awareness Camp may not make me an expert, nor will it guarantee I never get caught in an avalanche. But, as our instructor Stefan told us, "That's why we call it an Awareness Camp." The more you know, the less likely you are to take unnecessary risks.