Avalanches in Australia: What you need to know when skiing

There was a time when Australians thought they were safe from avalanches. Back in the days before we became the number one inbound market to New Zealand, Japan and most North American ski resorts where avalanches kill on a regular basis, sometimes taking our own with them.

We have long lived in denial with the belief that avalanches don't happen at home. Traditionally they don't, inbounds, but venture outside the resort boundaries and deaths do occur. In 2008 Tom Carr Boyd died when a cornice collapsed at Mt Twynum and set off an avalanche near Blue Lake. Then in 2014 two snowboarders, Martie Buckland and Daniel Kerr, died in an avalanche on Mt Bogong in the Victorian Alps.

The Australian ski and snowboard community is, by world standards, small. It is hard to get a handle on just how many of us ski or snowboard, figures range from 600,000 to over a million. At the high end that's almost five percent of the population. Chances are when one of us gets caught in an avalanche we either know them or know someone who does.

Which is what made the senseless death of Bondi man Dave Hannagan and his girlfriend Cathy Grimes in Jackson Hole this year all the more harrowing. Reports from the ground say that the former ski instructor and his two friends ventured past the resort boundary through the gates into the backcountry and did so without avalanche beacons.

Even with them you are not 100 per cent guaranteed of safety as the friends and family of Sydney skier Roger Greville know too well. He died last season while heli-skiing with all the safety gear and led by fully-trained guides in New Zealand's backcountry.

Australian Llynden Riethmulle also died while heli-skiing in New Zealand in 2009 when an avalanche buried him and another skier within the group. Sadly the guide, Jonathan Morgan, that saved the buried survivor later died himself in another avalanche two weeks later.

Where there is unpatrolled unstable snow and skiers and snowboarders, avalanches occur. In 90 per cent of all avalanche accidents the slide is human-triggered and of those slides 74 per cent occur on slopes between 34 and 45 degrees. Just how steep is this? Not as steep as you think. More akin to the pitch of your advanced intermediate or advanced to expert runs on a traditional ski resort rather than the mammoth faces of Alaska.

The really shocking thing is that almost 50 per cent of deaths by avalanches occur when the avalanche warning is "considerable". Avalanche risks ranges from low risk to moderate to considerable to high to very high or extreme. Considerable is traditionally considered manageable by those that know what they are doing.

However the improved technology of skis and snowboards allow more people to enjoy true powder skiing and this means an increasing interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Not everyone understands the risks they take when stepping outside of carefully patrolled resort boundaries and not everyone goes prepared.

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There were 29 avalanche fatalities in the USA last northern season and 14 avalanche deaths had occurred in Canada by March of the same season. In Europe up to 100 die each year including two children on a school trip in France earlier this year and a Kiwi-born mountaineer skiing in Chamonix just last month and an Australian in St Anton in 2015. Japan's figures are harder to ascertain; 10 years ago the figures for death by avalanche in the backcountry were around 17 and in Gulmarg ski resort in India, Australian Shaun George Kratzer was killed in an avalanche in 2007.

So, what can you do to reduce your risk while on ski holiday? Never, under no circumstances, leave the patrolled resort boundaries alone. Who is going to dig you out if you get yourself in an avalanche and you're on your own?

Take a qualified guide who knows the area, the terrain, the conditions and how to read the snow for avalanche risk.

Always take an avalanche transceiver and know how to use it and carry a shovel and a probe. Do not venture out if anyone in your group doesn't have one.

It sounds simple but Australian James Mort (see video below) was caught in an avalanche in Switzerland. He had a transceiver on him when he was buried but the others in his group did not. Lucky he knew to and managed to get his hand high above to break the snow to show his position as the snow settled around him. His friends and ski patrol managed to free his face so he could breathe but it still took an hour to dig him out alive.

We all want the thrill of powder and seek the freedom of riding a snow wave in the white room but how much are you willing to risk to get that? It isn't just your life at stake in the outdoors and your ill-informed choices may take another person's life.

Check out the Know Before You Go website and get yourself familiar with avalanche awareness so you can have fun in the mountains without losing your life.

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