Freedom, fresh air and adventure in the mountains. We will get to experience this again!

In the meantime, whilst we are locked down, we can prepare and be ready to make the most of it. HAT will keep producing advice and guidance to help us all. Knowing what we’re doing and applying key safety points can open doors for us – both on and off the slopes. But as soon we know what to do, we need to do it – even if the danger doesn’t seem clear and present.

Safety is Freedom

Why do we say Safety is Freedom? Off-piste skiing is not just for experts. Anyone who loves skiing and can get down a red (medium difficulty) run in Europe is good enough to start going ‘off-piste’. No doubt you already have if you’re a bit adventurous. However, what many people don’t realise is that even when you just ski next to the piste, you are going ‘off-piste’. In most European resorts the secured ski area ends at the point where the marked part of the piste ends. This is why you need to start taking responsibility for your own safety as soon as you leave the piste. If you think of learning about off-piste safety as opening the door to a whole new free and unconfined side of skiing, it can be a truly liberating experience.

The call of the mountains JC Souillac

I definitely don’t suggest that you learn about off-piste safety like I did though – by trial and error! If you try doing this in the way we learn about most things (i.e. watching, following and imitating others) off-piste skiing and touring become very dangerous. Avalanches are the main risk in off-piste / unsecured areas. This ‘trial and error’ approach almost killed me on a few occasions. You can read one of my stories about where I went astray on this link.

I often define off-piste skiing as being acceptably ‘safe’ by comparing it to an hour’s car driving. This is primarily because avalanche risk experts have done comparative studies with adventure in avalanche terrain. Secondly because driving is a risk we all accept and understand. These expert studies set the risk level of an hour’s car driving the same as the risk (or danger) to which we expose ourselves in unsecured areas off-piste and touring if we apply risk reduction measures. For more info see Bruce Tremper’s article What is the Risk of Riding in Avalanche Terrain?

In summary, if we apply the same type of risk reduction measures in avalanche terrain as we do in everyday life, off-piste skiing and touring can be ‘safe’.

The human factors problem

The off-piste / touring /avalanche terrain context throws a very subtle trick at us. This is that nothing happens most of the time, even when we are not applying risk reduction measures. So we stop taking these risk reduction measures seriously, or, at least, too often we don’t apply them when we should. The result is that it’s easy to develop dangerous habits without knowing it.

In addition, as many other skiers are doing the same thing and getting away with it, dangerous behaviours can easily be confused with ‘safe’.

Skiers practising distances and risk reduction (in the fall-line strait above) being ‘ambushed’ by a more risky style of off-piste skiing shown by skiers coming down on top of them from the steeper 35° slope on the above right. Triggering avalanches on top of other people has resulted in numerous charges of manslaughter and criminal negligence in the last few decades. JC Souillac photo

Professionals and other experienced people also get caught out by this ‘nothing happens’ or ‘low-feedback’ trick. We, too, are human, and this sort of context is conducive to leading the best of us towards human error. One of the worst traps is: We think we’re getting good, but really we’ve just been lucky! We see the results of this all the time in the aviation, surgical and financial sectors where many accidents are avoidable and can only be put down to human error – even by the most competent and intelligent.

One thing we know for sure is that in avalanche terrain, unchecked assumptions, opinions and intuitions are what lead to accidents…often involving experienced people who “should have known better”. They did know better, but they weren’t applying their experience and knowledge at the time.

Another reason why very many off-piste skiers start doing dangerous things is because of a common misconception about where/when most avalanche accidents happen. Most people are unaware that the vast majority of avalanche accidents happen in December, January and February on North facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere.

When I deliver talks and courses, I often start by asking people about when and where they think avalanche accidents happen. The response from almost everyone is: “Springtime on South facing slopes, of course!”. Yes, they’re right in that this is when/where many natural avalanches occur. However, the Springtime snowpack and South facing slopes, with their melting/settling and then freezing, are so much easier to predict than the Winter snowpack. There are consequently a lot less avalanches with human involvement during Spring and on South facing slopes.

This common misconception is another of many examples of where intuition leads us/humans astray.

Our solution to the human factor problem

The good news is that this human error side of things can be held in check by using techniques which help us apply risk reduction measures. These techniques include memory aids, having a ‘co-pilot’, and working as a team to keep each other aware. These ‘tools and techniques’ help to prevent us from being led astray.

We need to accept that errors in judgement are going to happen and that we need to apply techniques to avoid the errors that lead to accidents. Research has shown that we all (novices to experts) make around thirty errors a day. Making errors is not a reflection of lack of competence. However, not introducing clear controls to prevent errors is negligent.

… Safety is Freedom Framework

Our response to all this is to present off-piste skiers with a simple framework to bring their attention back to actually applying risk reduction points when they go out into potential avalanche terrain. It’s the same idea as those risk reduction lists used in operating theatres and in aviation.

Download the Safety is Freedom Framework Summary in PDF

The Framework is relevant for all levels of off-piste skier: beginners to professionals. For those just starting to go off-piste it’s a great point of departure; for those with some experience it’s a point of reference and a guideline for keeping you on track with what is most important as you continue learning; and for professionals it’s a client training tool plus a quick reminder to help avoid the errors that cause accidents. Clients out skiing with professionals should be made to feel at ease bringing up these points in the Framework with the pros – thus acting like a ‘co-pilot’.

For those who are just starting out, it’s a good idea to stay in the ‘risk avoidance areas’ in and around slopes of less than 30° and only venture on to steeper slopes with a professional or someone who truly does know what they’re talking about, i.e. not the local pisshead who ‘knows’ everything! …plus there’s nothing like local professional knowledge for getting the best out of your day on the mountain.

Here’s a quick summary of what the points in The Framework refer to:

WHERE YOU GO is making a decision about whether or not you go on or around steep slopes of >30°:

Measuring the snow angle
  • Slopes steeper than 30° are where slab avalanches release when there’s an accident (avalanches are sometimes remotely triggered ‘from a distance’ below, to the side or above). 30° is about black run steepness in Europe. Yes, avalanches with consequences only release on steep slopes! You can get a cool little gadget to measure slope angle from these guys at Slope Angel.
  • Avalanche Rating and Bulletin indicate the current conditions that help us to decide if going on to steep slopes can be ‘safe’
  • Recent avalanche activity demonstrates clear clues about stability on/around steep slopes

HOW YOU GO is risk reduction once you are on or around slopes of >30°

  • Stay away from Terrain Traps (areas like holes, cliffs, trees, even streams and lakes, that can make being taken in a mass of snow much worse…)
  • Keep Distances of 10-20 metres between each other so as not to put too much weight in one place and not to have more than one person caught and buried
  • Safer(r) Zones, ‘Safe Zones ‘and ‘Safer Zones’. ‘Safe Zones’ are totally safe from anything coming down from above – they are completely and totally out of the track/path of any possible avalanche. ‘Safer Zones’ or ‘islands of greater safety’ are places in the track/path where you are better protected from steep slopes above than if you were in a totally exposed place – e.g. a massive mound that is big enough to deflect the flow of an avalanche that is bigger than you expect. Judging ‘Safer Zones’ takes experience and careful assessment.

PREPARED FOR A RESCUE is preparation for crisis management. (Victims have 15 mins to live under the snow. Death and injury come about due to 70% asphyxiation, 20% trauma, 10% hypothermia)

  • Have Equipment: transceiver, shovel, probe
  • Get Training with it…
  • Human Factors that complicate rescue and lead to accidents can be held in check by working as a team to train for effective rescue under pressure and by always applying all the key accident prevention points in this Framework. Prevention is the best rescue technique… which brings us full circle, back up to the beginning of the Framework!

You don’t have to be perfect!

If you are simply making a true effort to apply these points, research shows that you will be infinitely safer than if you don’t. We are imperfect, we make errors. The best we can do is to try and limit our errors to minor ones. Every time I finish a day, I think back about all the things I could have done better and safer – and that’s after 30 seasons of off-piste and touring adventure. I now know I can’t get it perfect, so I just try my best to not be too stupid. It’s the same with limiting exposure to the current virus risk. If we take even imperfect steps to socially distance, wash our hands and wear a mask when we should, then there’s less risk and chance of constraints on our lives and other people’s lives in the future.

In short, Safety is Freedom.

If you are keen to find out more, HAT is running our Safety is Freedom Tour with ORTOVOX this Autumn/Winter with outdoor transceiver training sessions, in-depth training courses in small groups, virtual talks and on-snow adventure when that all opens up!

ORTOVOX Free Touring Image