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Avalanche Academy is dedicated to making you safer when off-piste and in the back-country

The adventure of the off-piste is what we all dream of but avalanche is our worst nightmare. If you intend to venture away from the controlled pistes and into the mountain arena you owe to it yourself to be trained first. Avalanche Academy now offer safety training in Chamonix, with private courses also available in Verbier, Morzine, Saint Gervais, the Grand Massif, Courmayeur, La Thuile and other venues on request.

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Avalanche Foundation
28 February 2015: 89.00

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DUE TO DEMAND AN EXTRA AVALANCHE FOUNDATION COURSE WILL BE RUN WED 4 FEB IN CHAMONIX. BOOK NOW !

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Why book your avalanche training with us?

why us
  1. We are the first and only dedicated Avalanche Training School in Chamonix.
  2. Our “on snow” training theory is focussed on teaching you what you need to know most.
  3. We will provide you with all the safety equipment you need, at no extra cost. All of our transceivers are the newest technology, and our kit has been selected because it is the best on the market.
  4. ALL of our courses run. If you book - your course will not be cancelled due to lack of numbers.
  5. All of our Guides are hand-picked for their knowledge, teaching abilities, and inter-personal skills. If one of our small team isn't available we won't run a course with a Guide we don't know.
  6. Our avalanche safety courses are the most popular in the European Alps - we train over 250 people every winter.
  7. There are no hidden costs. We do not charge a booking fee, credit card fee, or for use of our safety equipment. The price you see is the price you pay.

Avalanche Academy News

Why are the Alps so deadly this season ?

Why are the Alps so deadly this season ?

It's early February, and yet Europe has already exceeded it's average number of avalanche deaths for the season. The norm is around 50 people killed each winter, but that figure was passed last week - a week that saw more than 10 dead in Switzerland alone.

So what is going on ? Is the snow more dangerous ? Are people taking bigger risks ? Are there other factors involved ?

First of, let's look at the snowpack this winter:

The start of this season was not dissimilar to the start of the last season. We had little snow, and until New Year we had cold temperatures. This caused the early snow to transform into facets (imagine a shattered windscreen, but smaller). Facets are smooth sided, angular, and don't bond together well. Hence they have the same effect as a layer of ball-bearings under the snow.

We didn't have very much snow in January, but when it did come it came in big dumps, on strong winds. This formed layers of slab ontop of the facets. So we now have the perfect combination for avalanche - a slab sat on top of facets.

So, a dangerous snowpack. Which areas are at highest risk:

Steep slopes, that are seldom skied, above 2000m are the most at risk. Areas in resorts are often bombed, but even if not, the snow is compacted by skiers and boarders, and so becomes safer. Areas in the back-country that don't receive much traffic are at much higher risk. Recent cold temperatures (since the last dump of snow) mean that the layers within the snowpack are not bonding together well. Hence, more than a week after the last fresh snow, the snowpack is still very unstable, particularly on shady slopes.

Areas of lowest risk are low altitude (where facets either didn't form, or where they melted due to warmer temperatures) and sunny aspects. Unfortunately these areas often have crusty snow so we don't like to ski there (Catch 22!).

With such an unstable snowpack in the backcountry, what should we do ?

The easiest way to reduce the risk is to ski lower angle slopes - slopes under 30 degrees very rarely avalanche. However, with relatively few powder days this season, it can be very tempting to hunt out unskied (and steeper) slopes - thus putting yourself in the highest risk areas possible.

In order for the snow to stabilise we need a warm spell, and a lot of time (this could easily take weeks or months).

Most of the people caught this season have been skiing out of resort, or ski touring. They are mostly quite experienced, but not always.

So why are experienced people making bad judgement calls ?

This "human error" side of decision making is often referred to as Heuristics. Ian McCammon wrote an excellent paper on this (there's a copy on our Resources page), so take the time to read it. He identified a number of factors in bad decision making:

Familiarity - You are more likely to screw up in places you know because you feel relaxed there.
Acceptance - your behaviour adjusts to suit the group you are in. If you're riding with the Hardcore Powder Mafia, you might just start taking bigger risks.
Commitment - If you've made a strict plan, without options for changing your plan, you might just find yourself sticking to it, regardless of changes in weather and conditions.
Expert Halo - If someone in your group is/perceived to be an expert, you will subconsciously defer all decision making to them.
Tracks - If you see people in the same area as you, or evidence they have been there (tracks) you tend to relax because other people have made the same decision as you. That doesn't mean it was a good decision.
Scarcity - If this is your one chance this month/season to ride the white stuff, you don't want to be told that it's too dangerous. Hence if opportunities are scarce, you might take a bigger chance.

So, if you want to stay safe:
Try and ski <2000m, where there is less chance of facets.
Avoid slopes >30 degrees in the backcountry unless they get a lot of traffic (even if they do, safety can never be guaranteed).
Avoid slopes likely to be wind-loaded.
Always plan your day to make sure you are going to avoid high-risk areas.

And if you have a death-wish:
Find a nice, steep, pristine slope in the backcountry.
Go on your own. No point sharing the powder with anyone else is there ?
Don't bother with safety gear - it's expensive and just weighs you down.
Make sure you're above 2000m, preferably on a North facing slope.
- But just remember to write a will before you go, so they know who to give your Go-Pro to.

Now take another look at the photo at the top of this article. Look at the 2 people skiing across. Now look at the crown wall of the avalanche running from left to right above them - huge isn't it ?

Is this all media hype ? 50 people dead means that this is as real as it could ever be. Last week I skied in Switzerland - the fragile nature of the snowpack there was incredible. Go steady folks, this is not the season to go steep and deep....

The Shishapangma Avalanche - what can be learned ?

Autumn is almost half way through, and this is not normally a time of year that most people think about avalanches. However, there have in fact been numerous fatal accidents recently so I thought I would have a look at a few of them, and see if there was an...

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Is it safe off-piste this season in the Alps ?

Is it safe off-piste this season in the Alps ?

There have been several deadly avalanches recently in the Western Alps. Notably in the Valais region of Switzerland where 4 people were killed last weekend. Many are saying this is the most dangerous snowpack in decades, and others are calling for a ban on ...

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British Teenager dies in Austrian Avalanche

A 16 year old British male from Winchester has been confirmed dead after an avalanche in the Austrian resort of Lech yesterday. The teenager was skiing with his twin brother, father, and a ski instructor.

Reports suggest that the group were sk...

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