New avalanche awareness initiative

Sport Scotland avalanche information service

Be Avalanche Aware initiative is launched for mountaineers, climbers and skiers

A new initiative that will create a unified strategy for the teaching of avalanche awareness to walkers, climbers and skiers in Scotland has been launched. Be Avalanche Aware will take the form of leaflets and a new structure for avalanche awareness courses and sessions taught by outdoors centres, companies and guides.

Mark Diggins, co-ordinator of the sportscotland Avalanche Information Service (SAIS), a Scottish organisation that provides avalanche information and forecasts for five main climbing areas across Scotland, is behind the initiative.

He says: “In 2011, a symposium of representatives from across the mountaineering sector met in the UK to discuss avalanche awareness. The new Be Avalanche Aware initiative has come from that.

“The aim is to unify the methodology for teaching people about avalanche awareness and to make courses as helpful as possible to the people who use the mountains in winter.”

During last winter, a total of 18 human-triggered avalanches were recorded by the SAIS, which, although fewer in number than in previous years, resulted in the tragic loss of eight lives.

Mark says that  “planning” and the “variables of the human factor” are the key messages to be learned through the Be Avalanche Aware initiative.

He adds: “What we need to get across to the public is that the planning stage should make up at least 75 per cent of any person’s journey into the winter mountains.

“Planning includes assessing the weather and snow forecasts, looking in a more in-depth and structured way at the SAIS website and then looking at where you might go to walk, climb or ski.

“Another part of this planning process is deciding what you will take in terms of equipment and clothing.

“The rest of the planning comes while people are on their journey into the mountains. This is when they should be assessing and reassessing the conditions.

“The Be Avalanche Aware initiative shows people how to properly plan and prepare before and during an outdoors journey.”

Mark also talks about the “human factor”. He says: “You will hear people saying that there is a lot of luck involved in being safe in the winter mountains. They might suggest that if you are caught in an avalanche you were ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’.

“However, much of the risk of avalanches comes down to human factors; making the right decisions at the planning stage.

“The more people know about how to properly plan where they will go in the winter mountains the safer they are likely to be. There is now so much information available for assessing snow reports that it should be possible to make very good judgements.”

Indeed, the SAIS website has recently introduced of a “Weekly Snowpack Summary” and a section where you can “View the Previous 7 Reports”. Also read the Interpreting Snow Profile (PDF).

Mark says: “It is not possible to make an accurate decision on avalanche dangers simply by looking at the day’s avalanche forecast.

“Dangers can come from the layers of snow below the surface; it’s what has fallen before, weeks and even months ago, in the lower layers.

“It’s vital that walkers, climbers and skiers build up a picture of the full snowpack. Learning how to do this and to make the right assessments improves safety in the winter mountains.”

Look out for Be Avalanche Aware leaflets in ski centres, national outdoors centres and other outdoor activities points. The Be Avalanche Aware initiative has been embraced by more than 20 outdoors and mountaineering agencies in the UK and will be included in most avalanche awareness courses in the future.

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