Avalanche Skills for Mountaineers During 2021 and 2022, the NZ Mountain Safety Council undertook qualitative research into the behaviors and attitudes of NZ’s mountaineering community towards avalanche safety. The Research was commissioned because, according to the statistics for the last 20 years, mountaineers, made up such a high proportion of avalanche fatalities in NZ. This is in stark contrast to information from other countries which prompted the questions on why NZ was different. The participation in mountaineering or alpine climbing in NZ is considered to be small compared to other activities such as tramping. There is however difficult to determine as no reliable data available on the level of participation, similar to other countries.
In the last 20 years there have been very few avalanche incidents reported by mountaineers and most of these reported incidents have been fatal. The research does suggest that avalanche involvements have been underreported. This is indicated by more than half of survey respondents stating that they personally know someone who was caught in an avalanche and around a quarter saying they or someone in their group had triggered an avalanche. Furthermore, nearly half of the total mountaineering avalanche fatalities have occurred in the summer climbing season (November to February).
The research identifies that making it home safely is a common philosophy shared by many mountaineers. Most respondents appear to view themselves as safety-conscious. Safety is subjective and the mountains are a dynamic risk environment so this in itself doesn’t capture individual levels of risk perception and how this relates to the actual risk and risk tolerance of that individual. Avalanches are high-consequence events but provide low feedback. Nothing happens most of the time, even when risk management strategies are not applied. If mountaineers keep getting away with decisions related to avalanche danger, they don’t receive feedback on how close they were. The first (or any) failure may be catastrophic and with avalanches, there is no room for trial and error.
The Utah Avalanche Centre collated data relating to the risk of various activities. This study determined that alpine mountaineering had a milimort (or deaths per million days) number between 600 and 700. This is roughly similar to riding a motorcycle for 8 hours a day and slightly more than base jumping. Backcountry skiing, using normal risk reduction measures as taught on an Avalanche Skills Course 1 has a number of less than 10, similar to driving a car one hour a day or in other words. This is a risk that therefore would be socially acceptable.
Whilst the focus of the research was on the culture, attitudes, and behaviours of the mountaineering community, there are a number of practical reasons why mountaineers may be overrepresented in the statistics. It is possible to explore these reasons and an awareness allows mountaineers to build them into their risk management and decision-making.
A characteristic of avalanche terrain is that it has a slope angle between 30 and 45 degrees or is in the path and threatened by such terrain above. A lot of climbing and climbing approaches fall within this range. This suggests that mountaineers can spend more time exposed than ski or splitboard tourers. When the avalanche danger is elevated, tourers can still have a good day out by sticking to low angle terrain but climbers do not always have this benefit if focused on a particular objective. Despite the attraction of steep skiing and riding, this is only likely to be carried out by a minority of backcountry travellers at times when conditions are very favorable.
Also relating to terrain, climbers can often seek shelter from the wind on lee sides of ridges and therefore expose themselves to areas of wind-deposited snow.
Mountaineering terrain is characteristically exposed to terrain traps. Mountaineers are frequently travelling in terrain where any fall is not survivable. These increase the consequence of even small avalanches such as narrow gullies, cliffs, crevasses, etc. In all reported avalanche fatalities over the last 20 years in NZ, trauma has been the main cause of death rather than burial asphyxia. In multiple North American studies published over a similar timeframe, based on a much larger data set than available in NZ and where skiers and snowboarders are much more represented in the statistics, asphyxia is by far the main cause of death.
Practically mountaineers moving on foot are much less mobile than skiers and riders. They may also be roped up which further limits the ability to move quickly through threatened areas or out of the way of triggered avalanches. Coupled with terrain traps, this reiterates that even the smallest of avalanches can have serious outcomes for climbers.
Safe travel techniques
A fundamental lesson of avalanche skills courses is to spread out when travelling in avalanche terrain. This is to minimise exposure to avalanche hazards and, in the event of an avalanche, to ensure more rescuers are available. Mountaineers may be roped up to manage a crevasse or a fall hazard and as a result, travelling close together. Mountaineers must therefore be very aware that they are often managing multiple simultaneous hazards and may need to correctly identify the most significant risk at any particular time and choose the most appropriate control method.
Airbags contribute to less serious burials by increasing the volume and therefore helping the involved person to move towards the top of the moving debris. Items like skis have the contrary effect and unless successfully jettisoned can drag persons involved in avalanches down into the debris. This is also an issue for snowboarders in avalanche terrain without releasable bindings. Mountaineering equipment, such as ropes connecting members of the party together and ice tools connected by umbilical leashes, will have similar anchoring properties. In addition, being attached to items such as crampons and ice axes can increase the potential trauma in the event of an avalanche.
Mountaineers should have the advantage over ski and snowboarders in that they are moving more slowly and even plugging their way through the snow. It is much easier to gather information on the snowpack layering and snow surface conditions.
The majority of the survey respondents claimed to continuously monitor conditions but surprisingly not at predetermined points, cruxes or times. In all forms of backcountry travel good preparation habits include forming a picture of what conditions to expect, what information to target to confirm or challenge this picture and where would be good points to gather this information and plan routes accordingly.
As the conditions in the mountains are changing, the climbing season for classic snow and ice routes has moved earlier in the year. This can coincide with unsettled spring weather patterns. Weather windows may be short and pressurise climbers to venture out immediately after a storm. Avalanche problems will stabilise quickly during the warmer summer months but simple rules of thumb such as avoiding avalanche terrain for 24 to 48 hours and dramatically reducing exposure to avalanche hazard. It is also important to be aware that unusual weather events at any time of year will result in unusual avalanche conditions.
Strategies for Mountaineers
Most survey respondents reflected on their experiences but less with other members of their group and even less with others in the mountaineering community. A positive safety culture within any safety-critical work and play environment should encourage the sharing of incidents and near misses and the learnings that come with it. The reporting tool on the NZ Avalanche Advisory website now makes this easier than ever.
The Mountain Safety Council findings reaffirm the immense value and positive behavioural impacts of having completed formal avalanche training. If you are a mountaineer looking to further your avalanche knowledge, seek out professionally run courses focused on mountaineering and delivered by mountain guides. You may have to travel to specific areas of the country for this. Foot-based courses mean slower travel and therefore participants will have to travel for longer durations to have the same opportunities to visit and experience different areas, terrain, and snowpacks. Climbers should therefore be prepared to spend longer gathering these experiences.
Avalanche skills for mountaineers
When interpreting the avalanche forecast think about what conditions you are expecting and how it will feel. If you expect the danger to be low but you find yourself stepping into knee-deep snow or punching through a crust, it might be time to slow down and assess. If you are expecting new snow and you encounter a slick old snow surface, think about when the new snow has been moved to as it likely has. Ropes can provide security but they can also cause more damage so consider how they are used. Snow anchors will not be strong enough to secure the mass of snow released in even a small avalanche.
Mountaineers are exposed to avalanche hazards and have the potential for high consequential outcomes for a number of practical reasons. Mountaineers should seek to expand their understanding of avalanches with ongoing and professionally delivered avalanche education. They should develop good habits in forecasting and applying the forecast to their decision-making. Mountaineers will be routinely assessing and managing multiple hazards. This reiterates the importance of maintaining situational awareness and adjusting risk management, travel techniques, and use of equipment as required.