White death

The terrifying truth behind avalanches – and what you can do to avoid disaster on the slopes

Searching for a buried transceiver on an avalanche training course, VerbierYou are being swept away by an avalanche. What does it feel like? Swimming in white powder, a mountain-sized pillow fight, surfing on snow?

Think more along the lines of a mafia burial: poured into freezing, quick-setting plaster, and left to suffocate.

I am on a course in mountain safety and avalanche awareness, and our instructor, Peter Mason – an American-born mountain guide based near Chamonix – is explaining how a falling avalanche releases energy. This melts some of the snow – which refreezes on coming to a halt.

Pete tells us about the time at guide school in Italy when his group set off an avalanche. “It wasn’t a steep slope. We were ski touring through the trees, climbing on skins, when one of the students got caught. He was somewhere flat, but above him was a little slope – and the slope went whoomph, making almost zero noise. We saw him being knocked over, and then completely buried.

“His hand was sticking out, so we could get to him and clear the snow away from his face quickly. We dug down to his torso and tried to pull him out, but we couldn’t. Even when we cleared one leg completely, and the other leg down to his boot, we couldn’t pull him out – he was screaming ‘you’re twisting my leg.’ We only released him when he was 100 per cent clear – the snow had set solid.

“He was under for only about 30 seconds, but he was already scared and choking and freezing cold. That was it for the day. But it was only a very small slide.”

Digging a snow hole on an avalanche training course

We dig a hole to examine the snow layers

According to the SLF, the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos (www.slf.ch), about 25 people die in avalanches every year in Switzerland alone. Ninety per cent set off the avalanche themselves. Your chances of surviving fall sharply the longer you are buried: from 80 per cent after 15 minutes, to 40 per cent after 30 minutes, and just 25 per cent after an hour.

This winter began badly. Six died in the Trentino region in Italy during Christmas week when two skiers went missing – and four mountain rescuers sent to find them were killed in a second avalanche. Just after New Year, 11 ski tourers were buried in an avalanche in the Diemtigtal in Switzerland: six died, plus a rescuer killed in a second avalanche.

Pete reckons that, paradoxically, the avalanches are the result of there being less snow this season, rather than more. Early in the winter, snow insulates the warm, moist ground from the cold, dry air. If the snow layer is thin, moisture escapes easily from the ground; when it comes into contact with the snow, it freezes, forming bridges between the crystals. “The more humid the snow, the bigger the crystals; like Jenga blocks, the bigger the crystals, the worse the cohesion. And typically you’ll find the biggest crystals at the bottom.”

We dig a snow hole to look for evidence, using our collapsible snow shovels – part of the essential safety kit for skiing off-piste. Soon we have a smooth, sheer wall, about two metres deep, down to ground level.

Peter Mason, mountain guide, demonstrates snow layers on an avalanche training coursePete brushes his hand down the wall (picture, right); there are distinct layers where he can push his hand more easily into the snow. Here, the snow granules are larger; and sure enough, right at the bottom, we find the largest granules of all: a slippery layer that makes the whole snowpack unstable.

Skiers can get an idea of what is underneath their feet, says Pete, by upending a ski pole and pushing it into the snow. “It should start off easy and get steadily harder,” says Pete. “But today I can feel there are layers. And the more hard layers you find, the less stable the snow.”

We also learn how to use avalanche transceivers, before putting a couple in backpacks, burying them in the snow, and then practising homing in on the signals (picture, top of story). To pinpoint the backpacks precisely, we use collapsible probes – the third key piece of kit.

Ideally you should never need to use them. “If you’re looking for a beacon, you’ve screwed the pooch,” says Pete. We look puzzled. “If I set off an avalanche, that means I’ve made a wrong decision.”

And the best way to avoid doing that is to take a specialist course. You need to learn to identify the telltale signs of avalanche risk in the landscape; find out how the likelihood of avalanche varies with the gradient of a slope, and the direction it faces; learn to interpret the daily avalanche bulletins, and to use large-scale maps to navigate safely. You need to find out how to move safely in a group over the snow, how to identify safe zones, and how to ski in such a way that you put the minimum stress on the snowpack.

Mastering these skills could save your life. You can learn them in various ways: as part of a touring holiday with Ski Freshtracks (www.skifreshtracks.co.uk), operated by the Ski Club of Great Britain; on a dedicated course with Mountain Tracks (www.mountaintracks.co.uk); or through a local specialist mountain-guide agency such as Chamonix-based Wilderplaces (www.wilderplaces.com).

Ski instructor course 4: End of week one

Learning the secrets of skiing in a kilt – and more

"Mad Jocks and Englishmen", who have been skiing together for 25 yearsOur first week of training to become ski instructors is over.

We now have an inkling of how big a challenge it will be. We have worked on our technique, tried to rediscover how it feels to ski as a beginner, and taken first steps in learning how to teach others. And one of our little group has taken a tumble, shattered a dream, and flown home. But I am getting ahead of myself …

At the beginning of the week we are still finding our ski feet, and getting used to our new life in the Alps. Many course members are staying in chalets: eating breakfast and dinner together, sharing bedrooms, getting to know one another’s fancies and foibles. A few of us, including me, have rented our own space, for a variety of reasons.

Staying in touch, both with each other and folks back home, is cheap. A pay-as-you-go mobile costs from just £17.80 at the supermarket Migros. And that includes £8.90 of credit – towards calls that cost 17p a minute to the UK, or texts for 6p worldwide.

You do need to show your passport, though. A Swiss diplomat in London told me that they stopped selling them for cash to unknown buyers when it was discovered that al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East were calling each other on Swiss mobiles.

My favourite shopping find is Michelod, a patisserie at the foot of the slopes that sells mouth-watering cakes – and I resolve to get to know a new one every day.

I am surprised at the variety of ski tips I pick up. Such as how to ski without trousers or underwear. One morning I come across a group of men dressed in everything from a morning suit to full hunting garb, who tell me they have been skiing together for 25 years and call themselves Mad Jocks and Englishmen. Mike McTighe tells me the secrets of skiing in a kilt: “Rub Deep Heat into your knees. Ski slowly and very precisely, and try to avoid falling over. Above all, keep well clear of button lifts.”

Students on the WSSA gap-year course 2010 warming up before class.At the Academy, our days follow a set pattern. We meet at 10 at the gondola, and head up to the slopes for a warm-up. This involves 40 of us swinging legs, arms and then hips, before lying on our backs on the snow to perform exercises to activate our core stomach muscles. With skis all around us and ski poles planted vertically in the snow, the scene looks like the aftermath of a medieval battle in which soldiers felled by arrows lie scattered among the broken lances.

We then split off into our groups, and for the next five hours – with a quick break for lunch – work on our technique. Over a week, our instructor Jordan has us doing all manner of exercises. He teaches us braquage turns – spinning 180 degrees on the flats of our skis while barely moving downhill – and shows us how to use them to tackle moguls, before taking us to the top of a long, steep mogul run. And we all descend successfully – cautiously at first, having just watched a couple of skiers who have ventured beyond their technical ability tumble down the mogul field like rag dolls.

We work on our pole-planting; make big carving turns, sweeping wide across the piste; and practise skiing on one leg. Jordan talks us through the basics of teaching beginners how to ski, for next week we will take the first of our two ski instructor exams. And on two days during the week, he videos us: those same evenings, we gather in one of the chalets for a forensic examination of our skiing style.

But one event casts a shadow on the week. Ian, the former ski rep, soldier and landscaper, now antique currency dealer, took a tumble and twisted his ankle. He thought it wise to have an X-ray – only to be told he had broken a bone, and that he would have to fly home to have pins put in.

At the Thursday video analysis we see him for the last time, his leg in plaster. What a cruel blow for his nine-week adventure to be cut short on day two. We say our sad farewells – and those of us staying on resolve to make the very most of every day we have here, whatever it brings.

Verbier, with Catholic church "Station"

Ski instructor course 3: Killer of the Alps

Cute little creature or bloodthirsty killer? There may be more to the European marmot than meets the eye.

Looking from the top of the Mont Fort cable car towards Mont Blanc

Looking towards Mont Blanc – a field of moguls or of marmot homes?

“The biggest cause of death in the mountains,” says Jordan, our coach on the ski instructor course as we ride the chairlift to lunch, “is marmots.” He is talking about the fat rodents more familiar to summer hikers in the Alps. Usually you hear them first, whistling a warning to their neighbours, before you catch a glimpse of brown fur disappearing into a burrow.

In winter they hibernate – or so I always thought. According to Jordan, they lurk under the blanket of snow, waiting for skiers to take a face-plant. “They can strip your body of flesh in an hour,” he says. “They’re the piranhas of the mountains.”

My fellow skiers on the lift are sceptical. “Well, that’s what I tell the children in my classes anyway,” says Jordan. He also tells them that these fiercely territorial creatures hunt in packs, and that they are the real cause of death when skiers get caught in an avalanche. “You don’t asphyxiate,” he says, “you get eaten alive – fatty bits first.”

WSSA Gap-Year course 2010: Craig Roberts (left) and Jordan Revah (instructor, right)

Jordan (right) with Aussie financial wizard Craig

We think he’s telling porkies. I come up with another story: that the Swiss use them for massages. Craig, the Australian financial wizard, is incredulous. “What, they rub each other with marmots?” he asks. No, I say, they extract the fat and turn it into massage oil – to warm and relax muscles. My companions don’t believe me either. But it’s true – and to prove it, here’s a website that sells the stuff: www.murmeli-kraeutersalbe.ch.

Susie, the physiotherapist from Jersey, says that when she worked a season in Méribel as a chalet girl (“or chalet bitch, as they called us”), a colleague told American visitors that moguls, the bumps on ungroomed slopes that intermediate skiers tumble down like rag dolls, were marmot homes. The guest was horrified. “Isn’t it real noisy for them?”

Two summers ago in the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, I thought I would have a chance to see a marmot up close. Other guests reported that they were so tame they would eat carrots out of your hand. So one afternoon I set off up the mountain, found some burrows, and waved some freshly peeled carrot in the doorways.

Not one marmot came out. I concluded it was because of my attire: a hi-tech mountain jacket that just happened to be carrot-coloured. Presumably any semi-dozing marmot glimpsing a 6ft vegetable loitering outside its burrow would assume it was having a dream induced by a piece of undigested lunch – and would quite reasonably ignore it.

The night after Jordan tells me his marmot story, I too have a dream: I wake up to find myself in bed with a giant marmot. And it’s gnawing at my leg with its big yellow teeth.

Jordan tells me he has eaten marmot (“er … nice”), but doesn’t know any good recipes. I do some research. I can’t find anything Swiss, but learn that marmot is a popular quarry for hunters in Mongolia, and that they barbecue it to make “boodog”.

Roast marmot, Mongolian-style

1. Catch your marmot
2. Heat some stones in an open fire
3. Chop off marmot’s head and gut it; put kidneys and liver back inside, with onions and salt
4. Put hot stones in body cavity, tie up marmot again
5. Singe off fur and top layer of skin (use blowtorch if handy)
6. Stab holes into flesh, so marmot does not explode
7. When you see fat bubbling out of holes, after 1-2 hours, marmot is ready
8. Cut open. Give a fat-covered stone to each guest in your yurt to hold – said to revive spirits
9. Serve marmot.

I have yet to try this recipe, so I cannot vouch for it. But I can say that it provides happy material for opening a conversation when you are hungry and stuck on a slow chairlift with strangers. Bon appétit!

A mountain guide’s guide to packing

Have you ever puzzled over what you should put in your backpack for a day’s off-piste skiing? Here are some tips from a professional.

Peter Mason, American mountain guide based in the French Alps

Peter Mason gives courses in mountain safety and avalanche awareness

Peter Mason is a 35-year-old mountain guide based in St. Gervais in the French Alps. Originally from New York state, he moved to France in 2003, and gained full qualification as a mountain guide in June 2009 – only the second US citizen to do so through the French guide programme.

He told me what he considers to be the day pack essentials for off-piste skiing and for ski touring. Those planning to stay on piste will find some handy ideas too.

This is the list – including his explanations – of the gear he carries:

Standard avalanche safety equipment: “Shovel, probe and transceiver, which I’ll put on before setting out.”

Duct tape: “Although it’s actually on my ski pole. I cut off a length and wind it round and round the shaft. With that and a Leatherman you can solve just about any problem. If your binding breaks, you can even tape your boot to your ski and hop out. Sounds ridiculous, but if you’re in 1½ft of fresh snow, it’s better than walking out in your boot.”

An extra layer: “A big warm fluffy one, which I can give to someone else if they need it. I’m a guide, I have to prepare for the worst.”

Water: “Your performance drops significantly when you are dehydrated. In a worst-case scenario, you have to get out of somewhere and you are tired – if you haven’t eaten or drunk anything for a while, your mind can start to play tricks.”

Headlamp - a useful piece of kit for multi-day ski tours

Headlamp – useful for multi-day ski tours

A headlamp: “The ones with LED lights weigh nothing. If you take the wrong turning and drop down into another valley, it can easily be a 1½ hour taxi ride home – and first you might have a long pole down to the valley, in the dark.”An extra pair of gloves – thick and warm: “If someone drops a glove, it can be drastic in the wrong situation – we can be talking frostbite, losing a finger.”

An apple, and a power bar or granola bar: “I prefer natural-fruit bars to candy, which just gives you an instant rush, but your energy drops off again afterwards.”

A wipe for goggles, and a chammy for sunglasses

Sunscreen: “Not just because you could get skin cancer, but because the sun takes it out of you. If I get too much sun, my eyes are tired, my face is cooked. I just want to sleep.”

Chapstick

An extra pair of goggles: “On a powder day, they can easily get wet or fogged up. In my experience, if you screw a pair of goggles, you’re screwed for the day. If you can change them for a dry pair, it’s awesome – so bring a second pair, for you or your friends.”

A spare hat: “I bring the ugliest hat I can find. That way if I loan it to someone, I’m sure to get it back. Plus it smells.”

Leatherman multi-tool - a useful piece of kit for ski touring

Leatherman multi-tool – a useful piece of kit for ski touring

A Leatherman multi-tool

First aid kit: aspirin, Compeed (for cold sores and blisters), bandages, alcohol wipes: “You can be in a situation where you would have to go back to the lodge to put a Band-Aid on, but if you have some with you, you can keep skiing.”

Space blanket: “It weighs just a few grams, but it can make all the difference. You can cover yourself with it, build an igloo with it, even use it as a splint. Some are really cheap and light, almost disposable – better to get one that is a little tougher.”

Cash: “If you unexpectedly have to pay for a taxi home, it’s good to have money.”

Spare snack: “Right at the bottom of my bag there’s a snack. It’s supposed to stay there, I don’t eat it. But if I forget to pack one, or if someone else forgets, there’s always a spare.”

  • Peter Mason was teaching mountaincraft skills as part of a ski instructor course with the Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com).
  • Further information: the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com) and the local tourist office (www.verbier.ch).
  • Train tickets from the UK to major Swiss cities are available through Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk); onward travel within Switzerland through the Swiss Federal Railways (www.sbb.ch)
  • Equipment rental through Ski Service (00 41 27 771 67 70; www.skiservice.com).