Keeping avalanches in check

Mountain lovers can’t resist glittering snow in the midday sun. When it comes to avalanches, prevention is the best defence.

  • November 2017

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Keeping avalanches in check

Mountain lovers can’t resist glittering snow in the midday sun. When it comes to avalanches, prevention is the best defence.

Blinding rays of golden sunshine pour through the helicopter’s windscreen and I squint, struggling not to miss a moment of the fantastic mountain scenery as we hover over snow-covered peaks at 3,500 m. I can feel the beating of my own heart and my pulse rises along with the helicopter. My guides, Gabriel and Marco Kostner, know the feeling. After all, they don’t like to be grounded for long if they can help it: Not in summer and certainly not in winter. 

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Kings of the skies

Gabriel was 13 when his feet first left the ground. His brother was 18 and together they took off in a hang-glider. It was their grandfather who taught them to fly and clearly flying runs in the family. Their older brother Raffael, a former member of the mountain rescue, was the first to turn his love of flying into a career. Raffael founded Aiut Alpin, an air-based rescue service in the Dolomites. In 1998, Marco and Gabriel, who are themselves outstanding mountain-rescue pilots, followed suit and founded the company Elikos, which specialises in private flights and materials transport in difficult-to-reach areas.

The Challenge of Avalanches

Avalanches are terrifying, unpredictable and dangerous. Marco and Gabriel can attest from experience and they want to help, which is why they invented the “Daisy Bell.” This odd sounding device is composed of oxygen and hydrogen. Mixing these two gasses results in an explosion that releases a pressure wave capable of setting off an avalanche if detonated close enough to the snow cover. The first prototype was developed in 2008 and was improved in concert with a French company. Today, the system that was developed by the Kostner brothers is sold throughout Europe. 

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An Idea Out of the Blue

Sometimes good ideas come when you least expect them. This was true for the Kostner brothers when they heard the thundering of a cannon after a wedding. The explosion created waves of pressure and this is exactly what’s needed to trigger an avalanche.

Prevent, Recognise, React

The streets and slopes are closed in dangerous situations. “With a helicopter and the Daisy Bell we’ve managed to defuse countless avalanches by setting them off,” Marco and Gabriel explain to me. Prior to this invention, explosives were used that were far more dangerous and the risks associated necessitated a novel new approach. “Today’s Daisy Bell models have the power of 5 kg of dynamite.”

What to do in the Event

Mountains are breath-taking no matter the season, though in winter the dangers posed by avalanches should not be underestimated. As we gaze out at white peaks, we often think little of what could happen in an instant. When it comes to skiing accidents and avalanches, 95% are set off by the skiers themselves, regardless of the elevation.

A conversation with Fabio These from the province’s avalanche service in Bolzano/BozenandLukas Rastner from the Weather and Avalanche Service helped me to better understand avalanches and how they can be prevented.

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Which rules must be followed in the mountains?
Fabio Gheser and Lukas Rastner: There are no rules, just advice. Conditions in the mountains are in constant flux, which is why we have to stay vigilant. It is vitally important for safety to inform yourself about the risk of avalanches before you set out. Estimates on the ground, however, are not decisive. One should also be informed about the factors that influence the stability of the ridges. 

When is avalanche danger at its greatest?
After a snow storm and as soon as the snow cover becomes instable. When it is very windy or even in combination with little snow. Snow that has been blown into hollows or gullies is often likely to produce an avalanche.

Advice from Lukas and Fabio

#1 Never go into the mountains alone
#2 Let a mountain guide accompany you
#3 Inform yourself before you set off
#4 Carry protective equipment and a first aid kit
#5 Enjoy the mountains, but be careful and stay concentrated

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How do you protect yourself from avalanches?
The best protection is prevention. Avalanches should absolutely be avoided because they pose a serious danger.

How should one react if an avalanche is triggered?
The better one is prepared, the better one can react in an emergency. If you find yourself at the trigger point, you can try to side step the avalanche or to remain on the surface. It’s crucial to be ready. Ideally one should anticipate the risk factors and think about possible escape routes along the way. It is rare that people find themselves covered by an avalanche that has been triggered from above. The chances of survival are then quite low as there is no time to escape as the largest possible amount of snow advances rapidly downhill.

Chances of survival

Statistically, those covered by an avalanche have a 90 percent chance of survival if they are found within the first 15 minutes. The probability of survival sinks to 25 percent after just 45 minutes. It takes about 10 minutes to free a person who is covered by 50 cm of snow. 

What does one do if buried by an avalanche?
Avalanches can travel between 50 and 100 km/h. The advancing snow is enormously powerful. The majority of people who are caught in an avalanche are severely hurt. Those who are lucky enough to survive have to count on help from friends and the quick response of Alpine rescue services or a trained dog.

Important equipment to ensure survival if buried by an avalanche

- Avalanche probe: A device to help rescue personnel to pinpoint your exact location
- A shovel helps to quickly free a person covered by snow
- Avalanche transceiver: A device to quickly find individuals buried by an avalanche
- AvaLung backpack: Allows the avalanche victim to breathe fresh air from the snow mass for more than 50 minutes.
- Avalanche airbag system: One or two airbags that are integrated into the backpack itself. Increases the chance of staying on the surface if caught in an avalanche.

Daisy Bell will trigger an avalanche again this winter. Gabriel and Marco are pleased... and so too are countless skiers and hikers in the Dolomites. One thing is clear to me: I’d love to take off in helicopter with the duo sometime soon.

Text: Katja Schroffenegger
Transcreation: Covi, Wurzer & Partner - Die Sprachdienstleister
Photos: Alex Filz, Ivo Corrà
Video: Martin Hanni