The 5 Most Common Myths About Avalanche Safety
by: Anna SzlaviCategory: Avalanche, Mountaineering, Mountaineering Equipment, Ski Touring
What’s the most necessary equipment in avalanche prevention?
It is a clear head.
Every year about 150 people die and several hundreds get injured due to avalanches. The majority of the victims are mentally unprepared; they get caught because they fail to recognize the critical situation.
Most of the times the signs of danger are obvious once you are aware what to pay attention to and if you don’t let myths and mindtraps interfere.
Safety or false sense of safety?
There are a good number of factors that can mess up your decision-making process by giving you a false sense of safety.
They are bloody dangerous because it is enough to make one wrong decision on the mountain and that can mark your life. Most of the myths and misconceptions come from inadequate information, so the good news is you can learn to avoid them.
How can you learn to _really_ be safe?
You should take avalanche safety seriously. Don’t accept information which is based on guess-work.
Besides, you should realize that most avalanche accidents could be prevented if you learn some mindhacks. It is your mind that tricks you into situations that you are normally well aware they’re dangerous. In this blogpost, you’ll learn about the most frequent ones.
If you want a more comprehensive overview to decision-making psychology, so you can escape avy scenarios, download it from here.
The 5 most common misconceptions that can give you a false sense of safety in avalanche danger
1) “I feel safe; I don’t need transcievers because RECCO® will save my life.”
We’ve heard it so many times from mountain athletes that they don’t worry about avalanches because they have RECCO® that will protect them.
This is one very alarming misconception.
Let’s get clear on what RECCO® really is and what it’s not. RECCO® Avalanche Rescue System is a two-part technology. Rescue teams and ski resorts are equipped with RECCO® detectors, which send out signals that RECCO® reflector chips worn by mountain athletes will echo. Thus, RECCO® plays a role in avy rescue.
RECCO® reflectors may be placed in ski jackets, ski pants, boots, backpacks or helmets and other protection gear. They are very small (less than 4gr), so you don’t necessarily notice you have one. It will be indicated on the product. The good thing about RECCO® reflectors is that they don’t need maintenance, have an infinite lifespan, and you don’t need to charge or turn them on.
This all sounds very handy and you might be tempted to think you don’t even need an avy rescue kit (which is heavier and bigger, needs charging, may interfere with your smartphone, you need to know how to use it, etc.). In fact, its professionalism may as well give you a sense of safety against avalanches.
There are two problems with this.
- Note that if you get hit by an avalanche, the first 15-20 minutes of the rescue count the most. And that will depend on your friends and whether you guys have transcievers and beacons or not. The rescue team – and RECCO® – will only be involved later, in about an hour. By that time, it might only be your corpse they will be able to dig out.
- Survival chances are still very poor, so the best avalanche rescue is not needing one. Avalanche safety starts with avalanche prevention. And for that you need an open and alert mind everytime you are in the mountains.
2) "I feel safe; there is only little snow, so that means no avy danger."
Generally, there's this misconception to associate avalanches with lots of snow. So when there is little snow, you may think it’s safe. Those rocks sticking out will hold the slab, you are calming yourself.
You are wrong. Those rocks are not your friends: they will collect heat and warm up the surrounding snowpack, which, especially on a cold day, is a very dangerous pattern.
Your thin snowpack is already pretty problematic as far as temperature variation is concerned. The bottom of the pack is warm, about 0° Celsius, like the soil, while the surface of the snowpack will be cold, like the air's temperature.
Due to this huge temperature variation within the layers, the snowpack will be unstable.(If you want the science behind it, we wrote about it here.)
Remember, snowpack instability - not big snow - is the main reason of avalanches.
The lesson to take home is: you need to watch out for areas with a thin snowpack especially in cold weather (<-5°).
3) "I feel safe; I know this place well, been here many times, so I don't need to be cautious."
It is another common mistake when you fall into the familiarity trap. If you've been to that ridge, slope, mountain, peak - you name it - so many times before, it can often give you the false sensation that you know the place well enough, thus you don't need to prepare, nor be cautious.
This is a huge misconception, though. The backcountry is inherently dangerous and you always - always - I mean always - need to do the necessary preparations.
Even if you know the terrain, you must get yourself updated about the current snow situation and weather in order to be clear on the present avalanche situation, and thus start your route-planning at home.
Weather conditions can change rapidly in the backcountry. Never take it for granted that just because you were out there a week ago and it was all calm, now it's the same.
Actually, if you want to hear about our pretty educational experience on Schneeberg, the Austrian Alps, you'll see how different the conditions can be even just a couple of days apart.
4) "I feel safe; The avy forecast / my avy app said it's just danger level 2, so those clouds cannot matter."
Let's say you have checked the avalanche forecast before heading out. You even have one of these cool avy apps on your smartphone and you have peeked at it too. The forecast says it's danger level 2, so you conclude it is still OK.
The thing is it's never enough just to monitor the danger level - a number simply doesn't say enough. Be aware of the causes of danger, the orientation of the slope which are more perilous.
But most of all, when you are on the spot, your impressions are even more important! If you see dark clouds approaching or feel the wind getting stronger and stronger, don't get stuck on what you had read in the forecast hours before!
The typical mindtrap, called anchoring, entails that you fail to adjust your evaluation to more recent, hence, more relevant information, because of the first, yet more outdated, advice.
Always remember to keep your eyes and mind open to what you actually find at the scene.
5) "I feel safe; there are so many people around, so they cannot be all wrong."
Typically when you go to the backcountry, you don't go out alone; in fact you shouldn't even. It is far safer to have someone or a group of people with you, because of the resources, the equipment, and the support.
Remember that your best chance of survival if you get caught in an avalanche is if somebody, typically one of your folks, saw you get hit. The rescue efforts made in the first 15 minutes are critical - and, for that, you need someone who witnessed the events.
However, there is one reason why going in a group - or being surrounded by a lot of fellow mountain athletes - can be dangerous. It's the herding effect.
You must have noticed already that people feel much more comfortable - even, bold - in a group than alone. On a mountain, this is a pretty risky thing.
Just imagine, you arrive to the scene and there's a danger warning level 3, so you are hestitating. Rightfully. But then you see that many of your fellas head out, so you start feeling safe and ignore your concern.
Are you making a mistake? Possible. Ask yourself: what would you do if you were alone?
Or, you see clouds gathering and the wind getting stronger. You remember that these are not good signs. Yet, people around you are oblivious to the recent weather changes, so you calm yourself: "they cannot all be wrong".
Are you making a mistake? Possible. Ask yourself: what would you do if you were alone?
Wanna Know More About Avalanche Safety?
The above 5 misconceptions are only the most common ones; there are much more you should watch out for.
Avalanche prevention is a very complex issue, but if you wanna take home just the most essential knowledge, it is the Mindset.
Most avalanche accidents can be prevented once you are aware of the 8 Mindtraps that are usually the reason people fall victim to dangerous situations.
If you take your safety, and the safety of your pals, seriously -- and given that you are reading this post, you do -- then here's what you wanna check out next.
Learn the 8 Mindtraps so you escape avalanches.