By Dale Western on 01 January 2010

Avalanches are a way of life in the mountains. There are many risk factors but, if you take note of some sensible pointers, you will have minimised any risk as much as you possibly can.

Avalanches occur because snow is deposited in successive layers during the winter and then, subsequently, one layer slides on another - when the downward pull is greater than the overall snow cover.

It is worthy of note that studies have confirmed that virtually all avalances are set off by off piste or cross country skiers and to a lesser extent snowboarders and hikers.

It is therefore important to follow all safety notices and signs and stick to the clearly designated areas and away from closed pistes. Though nothing is ever certain, you should be safe in these areas.

80% of avalanches also occur during or shortly after heavy snowfall or winds. Snow that is wet from thaw or rain can also be at risk.

Avalance risk ratings are displayed daily in ski resorts and are rated 1-5 in Europe and are correspondingly colour coded in North America.

If you are in a group off piste, make sure all members are carrying a transceiver and that mobile phones are switched off, as they can interfere with them. The group should also have collapsible shovels in the event of an emergency.

Should the worst happen and you experience an avalance here is some general advice:

  • Try to escape to the side and grab hold of something e.g. a rock or a tree.
  • Avalance survivors have spoken of 'swimming' to stay near the surface. Try this when the avalance slows down - it may create an air pocket around your mouth and nose at the very least.
  • Keep your mouth shut at all times during an avalance.
  • Get rid of your equipment and any other unnecessary items as soon as the avalance strikes.
  • Evidence has shown that 92% of avalance victims are still alive after 15 minutes under the snow. It is therefore imperative that any victim is reached quickly. After 45 minutes only 25% are still alive.

And of course, ensure you are adequately covered with Ski Insurance or Snowboarding Insurance before you go!

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