Conditions were good – a cloudless sky, great visibility, lots of open terrain but some tree-lined trails too.
It was the ideal day for some avalanche awareness and transceiver rescue training. The actual risk of avalanche, even in the untracked areas, was minimal – but then it usually is on Wimbledon Common in south-west London.
The mountain safety organisation Henry’s Avalanche Talks (HAT)has been holding a series of training days – and my session on the Common was one.
HAT comprises a team of ski professionals who provide training and essential information for skiers who want to go off piste, but are held back because they fear the dangers. Their aim, they say, is to leave people who complete their courses ‘liberated and unleashed’.
HAT was founded by Henry Schniewind about 25 years ago and the organisation has given talks and courses for tens of thousands of people.
Henry is an internationally-renowned snow expert who studied avalanche forecasting as part of a geology degree in America and then moved to the French Alps where, as well as running HAT, he works as an off-piste ski guide.
My course conductor was Chris Radford, who explained that the aim of a HAT session is to ensure participants go away confident they could locate within five minutes a victim buried by an avalanche. Timing is of course critical. As long as an avalanche victim hasn’t suffered serious injury, they have a 95 per cent chance of survival if dug out within 15 minutes.
‘Your mate’s best chance is a self-contained rescue [ie one carried out by the ski group] because it’s going to take the rescue services more than 15 minutes to get there,’ said Chris. ‘That’s why the beeper, shovel and probe are the holy trinity.’
Many people head off-piste totally unprepared for the conditions, with no safety equipment or knowledge of how to keep safe and what areas to avoid and dangers to look out for.
But even many of those who feel confident because they have a rescue kit of transceiver, shovel and probe don’t know how to use them properly and may not have practised with the transceiver since they took it out the wrapping.
Even highly-trained and experienced ski patrollers usually practise their skills every week. HAT’s aim is to ‘demystify’ the expertise that goes into avalanche rescue and teach skiers how they can ‘leave the piste, have fun and stay safe all at the same time’.
The key is being able to find the victim quickly by the organised and efficient use of transceivers. For the course we were using Ortovox models. Chris had hidden six transceivers, the ones being worn by the supposed buried victims, all over Wimbledon Common.
If more than one person has been buried it’s easy to get confused by the separate signals coming from their transceivers. Chris emphasised how important it was to work as a team, and keep calm, as the search is carried out.
When an avalanche is in progress it’s vital to keep a close watch to pinpoint the last sighting of a victim before they disappear beneath the surface of the snow. They’ll be further down the slope than that last sighting.
We found the latest Ortovox transceivers were astonishingly accurate in quickly homing in on the ‘victims’. We worked in teams of two and with each successive search our speed increased gratifyingly – but we were all experienced skiers and boarders and we know that in difficult weather conditions on a steep mountainside, a rescue operation will rarely be so straightforward. And that’s where the importance of keeping calm and organised will be vital, the searchers spreading out and sweeping a grid pattern.
Plainly we couldn’t use probes and shovels on Wimbledon Common – that might have prompted complaints from the dog-walkers and joggers who were already shooting us puzzled looks.
Chris emphasised some simple self-discipline that skiers and boarders can practise to stay safe off-piste: Don’t assume a slope is safe because there are ski tracks. Don’t simply follow your friends because they’re more experienced and ‘must know what they’re doing’. Don’t get carried away by the excitement of the first powder for ages and ignore the potential risks.
Obey avalanche warnings, seek local advice and use local guides. Carry the safety kit and learn how to use it – and practise regularly. And take a HAT course.
HAT has a training programme including talks, transceiver training and on-snow courses in Val d’Isere. A one-day course is 165 euros, a three-day course 490 euros.There are discounts for group bookings.
Transceiver training courses in the UK run through to February, with a three-hour session costing from just £47.50 per person. www.henrysavalanchetalk.com