Avalanches can happen almost anywhere there is snow and unfortunately take many lives each year. Just like the Alps, Himalayas and other snowy mountains, Bansko has been home to many avalanches as well over the years. Sadly, some of which have been fatal. In this article we will cover only some of the basics in avalanche safety, so reading this is no substitute for an avalanche safety course, or at least deeper research into the matter. When going into the backcountry for your first times it’s good to go with someone with more experience. It’s best if they know the terrain as well, this could save you the trouble of having to hike back up.
Avalanches are a danger almost entirely for backcountry skiers, snowboarders, snowmobiles, climbers and other tourists who stray from the groomed slopes of the resort. On the slopes, the risk of an avalanche is controlled by resort management. Many resorts (Bansko included) have cannons at the top of avalanche zones, that trigger the avalanche when nobody is around. But even the off-piste next to the ski runs can be dangerous.
If you ever have to use your avalanche safety equipment, you’ve already made a ton of mistakes. Not getting into trouble in the first place is the core of avalanche safety. Some things to remember:
-Some days certain slopes are safe, others they are not. It’s all about your timing and knowing when it is safe to go where you want to.
-Most avalanche slides are triggered by the victim or a member of their group. Always go one-by-one when skiing a potential avalanche zone. Know where the safe zones are. It’s good to have a spotter watching the rest of the group.
-If someone is buried by an avalanche, every second counts when getting them out. Don’t was time, appoint a leader and make sure you’re not in any danger yourself, one person stuck is enough. 1/3 of deaths are due to trauma from the avalanche itself, the rest are from suffocation. If you are caught in an avalanche you should try to swim to stay on top. Making some room in front of your face may give you the extra air needed if you are buried.
-Get yourself avalanche safety gear. It’s a good idea for your whole group to have at least the basic avalanche safety gear: a transceiver, a shovel and a probe. It’s no good if only one of you has the gear. Another extra you can invest in is an ABS airbag backpack. Make sure to learn how to use this gear. More about your basic avalanche safety gear in part 2.
There are many “red flags” that you should be on the look out for when wondering whether to ski off-piste or not. According to Jeremy Jones, one of the top freeride snowboarders, there are five red flags that you should be on the look out for:
-Recent avalanche activity. If there has been an avalanche recently in your ski area, then that means that snow conditions aren’t stable. You should take into consideration the altitude, angle and type of avalanche that has fallen and compare it to the place you want to ski. In the picture below is the Todorka peak, just above the ski zone in Bansko. While the ski area is in no danger, anyone wanting to ski it in such conditions is. The arrows in the picture are pointing towards places, where the different layers of snow broke off. This was a naturally occurring avalanche, so imagine what would happen with the added weight of a human. But if the timing and snow conditions are good, then that is a great place to ski if you have the required experience. In 2013, a qualifier round for the World Freeride Tour was held on this very terrain.
-Rapid temperature rises. A sudden rise in temperature can increase the risk of an avalanche. The snow cover can be perfect in the morning, while it is still cold and then dangerous in the afternoon once the sun has warmed it up. If it is a rainy, wet day after a big snowfall during the night, the risk of avalanches can be very significant.
-New snowfall. Over 90% of avalanche accidents happen within the first 24 hours of a snow storm. After a storm it is good to stick clear of any wide open faces and stay deeper into the forests. Be careful of open spaces inside the woods as well. New snow hasn’t had the chance to bond with the previous layers and can be triggered with much less force. Keep in mind avalanches can also occur in the woods. Even though they are generally smaller, they can still possibly knock you over.
-Strong wind. Strong wind can create wind slabs, which can be very unstable. These are packs of soft snow that have been blown from windward aspects of the slope to sheltered aspects. Wind slabs are usually found at higher elevations in the form of cornices or pillows.
-Whomping noises. This is the sound you hear when a weak layer in the snow is collapsing from your added weight and is a sure sign of avalanche danger. If you hear this or see the snow cracking around you, you should take action and head back. If you are already riding down the slope and notice it cracking around you, try to ride diagonally out of the danger area. Always pick out your safe spots on the slope. In the video below the skier was able to ride out the snow, which was breaking up all around him.
Picking your line
Once you get to the top of your line it is very important to ride down it the right way. Even if there are none of the above mentioned red flags, there still can be an avalanche.
-You should always know your line and where you will go. Many people get lost in the woods or stuck in front of an impassable obstacle (such as thick woods, a cliff, а river or terrain too technical for the riders skill level). This is especially the case in Bansko in the zone towards Damianiza hut. People ski on the skiers right of the N.10 and venture down too deep and get stuck in the gullies that lead away from the ski zone. These gullies have a high avalanche risk in bad conditions. Another place skiers get stuck is in the area towards Vihren hut. That is also a typically avalanche prone zone and you should be careful about choosing when to ski it. Often the forests there lead you to the end of the chutes, where an avalanche triggered above you could be a risk.
-Always go for the high ground. High ground is safer than low ground and gullies. When picking out your line make sure there is a ridge or other safe escape zone, that you can get to in case of an avalanche.
-Always go down one-by-one. When riding in a group never pile up in a danger zone and always wait for the rider before you to reach a safe zone before dropping in. If you trigger an avalanche and their is somebody below you, they could be in big trouble.
-When in doubt, stick to the woods. The forests generally have a much lower avalanche risk than wide open faces. That doesn’t mean it’s 100% safe though.
-If your planning on getting serious about freeriding, then you should think about visiting an avalanche safety course.