Avalanche safety: Winter's hidden depths
An avalanche safety course will teach you how to deal with the dangers of off-piste skiing, as Kate Pettifer discovers in the Austrian Alps
Wednesday 12 December 2012
"You can hear everything going on around you, but you cannot move and no one can hear you." A tall, bespectacled 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).
The risks are very real: in the past week skiers have been rescued from avalanches in Tignes in France and the Swiss resort of Verbier. Heavy recent snowfall means that avalanche warnings are in place throughout the Alps.
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 – a high valley in the Stübai Alps, 45 minutes from Innsbruck airport – to experience one of the first courses to be run in English rather than German. This season, there is a course in English the first weekend in February, to be held in the resort of Füssener Jöchle Grän (alternatively, English-speaking instructors can be booked to help you follow the courses that are run in 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. 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 as a one-off, 13 winters ago, in part to redress snowboarding's reputation as a reckless sport with irresponsible riders. To achieve their goal, they needed to target cash-strapped young snowboarders. With the help of international pro riders from the Burton/Red team, 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 – and neither are my classmates, who look similarly cowed by Stefan's presentation, full of statistics about fatalities and ways to die in the snow. I'm not sure the photograph of someone lying face down with a bloody nose helps much either. But the tutorials do: Stefan teaches us where to find avalanche forecasts, useful websites and apps, plus how to read the mountain geography for potential avalanche hotspots.
An early flight from Britain will get you to the resort in time for Saturday's three-hour theory session, which starts at 4pm. Landing in a very snowy Innsbruck, we were lucky to be able to travel onwards: many of the roads to other Austrian resorts had been shut because of the (wouldn't you know it) high avalanche risk. As the wind blew swirls of snow up the Sellrain valley, I began to realise just how much had fallen over the past 24 hours: about a metre. My heart quickened at the prospect of just how much fresh powder would be waiting for us.
Day two of the course is a six-hour practical session. Saac provides each student with a transceiver, shovel and probe for the day. We are split into groups of no more than 10 per instructor and, at the base of the hill, learn how to use our transceivers (small devices that will send and receive a traceable signal, helping fellow skiers or rescuers pinpoint your location under the snow).
Stefan takes our group to the top of the mountain. The conditions are too dangerous to go into the back country today, so instead 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, more than a metre high, 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 to the subject – as do his efforts with a shovel to dig down one metre into the snow, exposing its different layers.
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 (you need nothing more sophisticated than two matching ski poles and some basic geometry). We identify wind-blown ridges and optically scour steep gullies for tell-tale pillows of the white stuff, likely to give way under the pressure of skis. I learn to look at the mountain in a whole new way.
The Saac course does not teach you to ski in powder. For that, I turn to local ski instructor Egon Anderle. Our luck with the snow continues and another 50cm has fallen overnight, so that by day three, although the avalanche risk is at its peak (level five), there is plenty of powder to fall over in on the piste.
Egon, a twinkly-eyed fortysomething who seems to have learnt his gentle English from Yoda, 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.
Kühtai has certainly lived up to its reputation as a snow-sure destination. At 2,020m in the village centre, it's 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 Chalet Hotel Elisabeth right next to the slopes, but Kühtai remains a quiet, unspoilt resort. Even the original church is tiny – a pint-sized onion-domed chapel at the far end of Kühtai.
A larger, modern church – the Church of the Visitation – was built in the mid-1970s. Skiing with Egon on our last day, I ask him about it. A local boy, he explains, died in an avalanche and his family commissioned the church in his memory. It's a fitting reminder of the course that has brought us to Kühtai. The Snow and Avalanche Awareness Camp may not make me an expert, nor will it guarantee I never get caught in an avalanche. However, 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. I leave Kühtai better prepared to venture off-piste, equipped with the knowledge that should help me decide when and where it is safe to ski.
The writer travelled as a guest of Inghams (020-8780 4447; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven nights' half board at the Chalet Hotel Elisabeth from £549 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes flights from Gatwick to Innsbruck and resort transfers. Flights from regional airports are available at a supplement.
EasyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) both serve Innsbruck from the UK.
Schi Schule Kühtai (00 43 52 39 52 31; schischule-kuehtai.at/en) offers lessons from €170 for adults and €148 for children for three days (four hours per day).
Sport Heidegger (00 43 52 39 52 72; verleihski.at) offers six days' ski and boot hire from €120 for adults and €60 for children.
A six-day area lift pass is €172 per adult, €86 per child aged 10-15, under 10s ski free.
Snow & Avalanche Awareness Camps (Saac) operate throughout the season in over 20 ski resorts across Austria. Register online; translators available for German sessions (saac.at/english).
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