A study by Tobias Jonas, a researcher specializing in Alpine Ecology with the Swiss Avalanche Research Institute in Davos, has answered a question which has long puzzled backcountry skiers. How do Ibex (bouquetins) avoid getting caught in avalanches?
The research group studied the behaviour of Ibex (a kind of mountain goat) in the western Swiss Alps, including equipping them with GPS tracking units and installing automatic cameras. What he found was that the animals, once hunted to the point of extinction, have a canny sixth sense for avalanche conditions.
His team noticed that they avoid fresh snow, even 10cm was enough to restrict their activities. “After every large snowfall the Ibex hunker down, finding niches in steep cliffs where snow cannot settle and which protects them from wind and avalanches. The absolute snow depth didn’t play any role. They will then only move in a limited area of some 20 to 50 meters from a number of days to a week, they only leave their shelter once the snow has stabilised. Except for very exceptional events, where a whole group is caught it is very rare for an Ibex to be taken by an avalanche.”
Ibex sticking to ridges at avalanche risk 2
Another observation is that the Ibex studied only move during daylight in winter, whereas in summer males will travel many kilometres at night. It is apparent that they avoid walking on snow when they cannot see clearly. Ibex live above the tree line in Europe, between 1,600 to 3,200 meters. In winter their territory is very restricted and tends to avoid the bottom of avalanche couloirs.
So what lessons can we learn from the canny Ibex? Well seeing as fresh snow is one of the major attractions to off-piste skiing it would seem, not a lot. However there is maybe some wisdom in returning to the habits of our grandparents and not making fresh tracks the second the snow has fallen.
Have mountain goats a sixth sense for avalanches? (German site)