Learning Lessons From Avalanche Accidents

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People from outside the world of off-piste skiing may wonder about our fascination with reports of avalanche accidents. Mistakenly they may view this as a morbid curiosity for the death and tragedy that accompanies such incidents. But it is part a fear that friends or acquaintances may be involved and part a desire to learn from the mistakes of others. Sites such as the Avalanche Centre provide us with much detail of incidents, who was involved, where, the aspect of slopes, the weather and snow conditions. It was in a similar quest for knowledge that the French ANENA’s publication: Neiges et Avalanches, looked into the detailed reports of the Swiss Avalanche Research Center. This article is based in part on that work and hopes to inform English speaking back-country skiers on the lessons they learned.



  1. The Late Hour of Avalanches
  2. Visible Clues and Avalanche Rescue
  3. Ignoring Advice
  4. The Degree of Local Avalanche Risk
  5. Bad Route Planning
  6. Avalanche Search and Rescue
  7. Localization with an Avalanche Transceiver
  8. Burial Depth
  9. A Very Unusual Day
  10. Off-Piste versus Backcountry
  11. Lessons Learned


Parts of this article are based on "Lessons of Avalanche Accidents" written by High Mountain Guide Gilbert GUIRKINGER which first appeared in French in volume 80 of 1997, ANENA

Every year the Swiss avalanche research institute publishes a report on the avalanches that happened on Swiss territory during the previous winter. It is a wealth of interesting reading: eye-witness accounts, stories from victims, 1:25,000 scale maps, photographs, weather predictions for the previous days, profiles of the snow mantle. All of which can help answer the question of why the ski playground can sometimes turn into nightmare, or at least an adventure few would wish to repeat.

Learning to ski or snowboard off-piste and in relative safety is a continuous process. It is something that leads us to consume avalanche bulletins in avid detail to see if we can deduce some common factors that will shed light on the steps that lead to a disaster. The fact that even skiers with a wealth of experience get caught shows that there is always more to learn and at the same time no silver bullet to slay the avalanche monster. This article attempts to extract the maximum amount of information from the Swiss report, whether it concerns off-piste skiing, snowboarding or ski touring/mountaineering.

The differentiation between the two disciplines is important. Off-piste skiing takes place over lift served terrain outside of the controlled areas of a ski resort, climbing is usually limited to less than an hour. Off-piste skiers are consequently less likely to have a good knowledge of mountain and snow conditions and are often not so well equipped as their ski touring cousins. They also lack the benefit of having already ascended the mountain and having watched the evolution of the snow mantle over a number of hours.

Reading the Swiss report and the victim's accounts two elements stand out, the late hour of avalanches involving off-piste skiers and boarders and the actions taken when the skier or a piece of equipment is visible on the surface of the slide.

Categories: Snow Safety