Route Finding is vital to safe travel in the back country. Always listen and watch the mountain for activity and try to avoid narrow valleys or gullies as they can channel avalanches. Note the profile of the slopes, are they straight, convex or concave? How steep is the area and what features exist? Gullies, bowls or ridges? Do you know what landscape lies under the snow? Grass, bushes, rocks or trees?
Avoid travelling along routes after heavy snowfalls where you can see previous avalanche activity, such as damaged trees, snow cookies or dirty snow slopes. If possible, always travel high and stay above large stashes of snow. If walking along a corniced ridge stay to the windward side as the cornices edge may well be unstable and could fracture with your extra weight.
Descending or crossing a face should be done one at a time so as not to overload the slope. You should always try to enter a slope or snow stash at its top, if you enter its middle and it slides all the snow from above could come down on you. When choosing your line down try to keep it narrow, don't cut across the whole slope if there is a trigger point you're much more likely to find it by traversing across the whole thing. Once you've got to the bottom move to a safe place to watch you friends descend, if they set off a slide and your standing in its path your in trouble. Never ever cut across a slope if someone is on it below you, if you do then you deserve the smack in the mouth your likely to get. Once your friend has descended safely take a line next to theirs. Avoid jumping on a suspect slope as the extra weight from the landing could trigger a slide.
Avalanches are the biggest killer of back country boarders. If you don't know about the power of avalanches then you shouldn't even start to think about going off piste. The 12 people who died in their chalets on 9th February 1999 in the Montroc Avalanche Chamonix France probably felt safe, until 300,000 cubic meters of snow travelling at 60miles/hr destroyed 14 buildings. If a building can be flattened think what it could do to you.
As a guide slopes less than 30 degrees aren't steep enough to slide and slopes over 60 degrees normally can't hold enough snow to slide. 38 is the magic number, slopes of 38 degrees are the most likely to slide, can you tell the difference between a safe slope of 30 and a potentially dangerous one at 38?
No so get a slope inclinometer a handy little piece of kit for measuring slope angles. Snow pits are the best way to assess a slopes stability learn how to dig one and how to read the snow pack. Look for indicator slopes a slope of similar angle and position to the sun as the one your thinking of descending. If it has avalanche debris on it then it's highly likely yours will slide to. Rain on fresh snow leads to a high avalanche risk as does high wind and severe temperature change. Get as much information as you can, piece it all together and make a decision.
If you get caught in an avalanche try to board out of its side. Try to grab at a grounded object such as a tree. If you get knocked over swim with the slide trying to stay near its surface, if you feel the slide slowing try to clear an air pocket around your mouth and reach for the surface.
Transceivers save lives. They are a small device which sends out a signal and can be switched to receive if one of your party gets buried. You and all the people in your party must wear them and know how to use them.
Survival after an avalanche is all down to the response time of your party 92% after 15mins falls to 25% after 45mins so knowledge of your kit is vital, every minute counts. If one of your party gets caught then watch their path if you lose sight of them under the snow follow the snows path where they were until it stops.
All new transceivers use the same frequency world wide, read and follow the manufactures guide lines carefully. If you carry a mobile phone, also check that the phone doesn't interfere with transceiver. Always wear them under your jacket, never put them in a pocket or in your back pack. Practice finding them and always check them before you leave home.
Recco produce a small reflector which when worn can be detected by rescue services in most major mountain resorts, the main problem here is response time. However you can purchase a pair for around £25, and they never need batteries. Contact www.Recco.com for more info.
One person should take charge of a rescue search, all transceivers should be turned to receive, someone should be posted to look out for secondary avalanches and you should always make sure you have an escape route you're not going to be of any help if you get buried as well.
Between 1985-2003 2694 people died in avalanches in alpine resorts world wide, around 100 a year die in the alps don't be one of them.
Next: Injuries & first aid