11
Jan-2016

Avalanche risk 4 in Verbier: Safety & Ski Tips

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With lots of snow falling recently in Verbier, it’s looking like this season is set to be a great one after a slightly slower start in December. However, although the snow is very welcome after the initial drought at the start of the season, with the powder comes a new responsibility.

Fresh snow encourages many people to venture off the beaten track, but it is important to remember that when you leave the pistes you are entering an uncontrolled area, and your safety becomes very much your responsibility.

How do we decide if it is safe to ski? This is the big question we should all ask ourselves when skiing off-piste. Remember, 90% of all avalanches are set off by the skier themselves!

Current situation

Given the current snow conditions in Verbier there is high risk at the moment associated with skiing off-piste. Throughout the Alps we have already seen some very dangerous conditions over the last couple of weeks, and unfortunately as a result of this, recent reports of people being caught in avalanches in France and Switzerland and not surviving.

On the slf.ch website (a very useful site for looking at the avalanche danger, snowpack and weather in your region), the avalanche risk in Verbier is reported to be 4 with a high risk on all slopes on all aspects above 2.200m (Ruinette lift station is 2.200m). This danger is a consequence of all the fresh snow that has recently fallen, strong winds and weak layers within the snowpack. These weak layers and new snow mean that natural avalanches are possible, and when they start they are likely to penetrate down to the ground and reach a dangerously large size. These avalanches can currently be easily released by a single skier, so great caution is advised.

How to check the avalanche risk?

The avalanche risk can be checked online at www.slf.ch or every day at the Le Chable and Ruinettes lift station. White risk also has an app which is updated each day at 8am.

Warnings

Last season witnessed a considerable amount of fatalities throughout the Alps, and already this year we are seeing warnings from the Police Cantonal du Valais urging people to be extremely cautious. On the 5th January someone was caught and injured in an avalanche in Nendaz! The Police Cantonale du Valais posted the following warning on Facebook:

‘The Valais has experienced significant snowfall and the danger of avalanche is 3 “marked” to 4 “Fort”, on a scale of 5 according to the regions and the slopes. This means that avalanches may be triggered spontaneously or distance when passing a skier. Moreover, it is known that the first days of after significant snowfall are the most dangerous.
It is strongly recommended that you take advantage of good snow conditions on the secure slopes and not to leave the ski areas or surround yourself with the powers of the guides of high-Mountain.’

Understanding the snowpack

Avalanche risk 4 verbier

The SLF website contains very useful information on the current snowpack.

Currently, the snowpack is very unstable. All the new snow that has fallen has been settling on widespread areas on top of faceted, loosely packed snow, and as a result, new snow layers are poorly bonded to the old snowpack beneath. With the weather forecast predicting more snow in Verbier all week, plus the already unstable conditions, it looks like it will be quite some time before the off-piste slopes become more stable.

Avalanche safety tips

* The first day after snowfall is critical so be very careful
* 9/10 Avalanches are ‘slab’ avalanches, triggered by the victims own weight
* Fresh snow and wind increases the risk of avalanche (as we have seen in Verbier the last few days)
* Be prepared and have all the correct avalanche kit
* Steeper and shadier slopes are more risky
* Be aware of temperature changes – a rise in temperature increases the risk in the short term
* Practice using your avalanche safety equipment to avoid panicking at the crucial time! (don’t underestimate how important this can be!)
* Pay attention and be aware of slope gradients
* Make sure your ski buddies know how to use their equipment safely
* Do not ski closed itinerary runs in Verbier thinking they are risk free– people have made this mistake and not survived!
* Even if you are buried under only 5-10cm of snow, you can’t dig yourself out!

Developing off-piste technique safely

There are still some great opportunities to be had over the next few days to enjoy the fresh powder snow, depending of course on your experience and knowledge. Currently fresh tracks can be found on all pistes ; if you are the first on the lift, and as the freezing point drops over the next few days, the lower slopes will also become more enjoyable to ski first thing in the morning. Failing that you will find some nice snow over in Bruson where it is quieter and the trees will help the visibility.

In Verbier after a big snowfall and when the ski area starts to open up above Ruinette, the itinerary runs Tortin, Gentianes and the Vallon D’Arby provide a great introduction to the world of off-piste skiing in a relatively safe environment. When skiing itineraries always look out for the single line of yellow poles in the snow; the itinerary routes run 20m on each side of the yellow poles.

Always check the official status of an itinerary run before departing – in the event of poor weather or dangerous snow conditions they are frequently closed. Do not ski closed itinerary runs in Verbier thinking they are risk free– people have made this mistake and not survived!

Beginner off-piste tips

Brought to you by the ‘Freeride Verbier’ Altitude Ski School’s Off-Piste Team

* Learn good piste technique prior to venturing off-piste
* Try to make flowing rounded turns on a gentle off-piste slope
* Make the turns rhythmical and always plant the pole
* Ideally practice on a groomed piste after a fresh snow fall
* Choose a slope without distractions such as rocks, trees, etc.
* Get some big ski baskets on your poles

Freeride Verbier (Altitude Ski School’s Off-Piste Team) specialises in off-piste lessons for beginner and intermediate skiers looking to improve and explore Verbier.

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