Skiing Is Getting Riskier

The threat of avalanches is rising with global warming, but technology can help protect skiers on and off the slopes.
people skiing off piste
Photograph: Getty Images

As Olivier Gardet piloted the drone around the mountain, his colleague, who was looking through goggles connected to its infrared camera, could see the avalanche clearly: a long tongue of debris, visible from 2 kilometers away. Then he noticed the heat signature of a person moving across it, digging frantically in the churned up snow. “I got on the radio,” Gardet remembers, “and I said to dispatch: ‘There must be someone alive under there.’”

As an experienced pisteur in the French ski resort of Val Thorens, it’s Gardet’s job to keep the slopes safe. But that day he had his work cut out. “It had been snowing heavily the evening before and through the night, so we’d had a lot of calls about avalanches,” he remembers. As part of a newly launched pilot scheme, he and his colleague had been responding to some of these calls using the latest addition to their slope-safety toolbox: a DJI Matrice 210 drone. “Of course, the majority of the time, there’s nothing; the avalanches are nowhere near people,” Gardet says. But in the case of this particular slide, off the back of a 2,804-meter-high peak called Pointe de la Masse, the drone instantly proved its worth.

From receiving the initial radio alert to having “eyes” on the debris, Gardet estimates that the scouting mission took less than a minute—far less than it would to survey an avalanche using traditional methods. The closest pisteurs were dispatched in double-quick time, and less than seven minutes after he’d raised the alarm they’d pulled the grateful skier, a 70-year-old Belgian man, out of the snow.

Val Thorens’ pioneering drone program—launched in 2019, but still the only one of its kind—is just one of the ways that skiers throughout the Alps are embracing new technology to meet the rising threat of avalanches. With the climate crisis causing increasingly wild swings in winter temperatures, slides are becoming harder to predict, according to Patrick Nairz of the European Avalanche Warning Services (EAWS). “It’s become more challenging for avalanche forecasters, the situation right now,” he says. “You don’t see those long cold periods so often anymore, and then you see more often rain high up, which leads to development of weak layers in the snowpack.”

At the same time, the number of people skiing in uncontrolled backcountry terrain, where avalanches are most likely, has exploded in the past 20 years. Wider skis, which float better in powder snow, have made it easier for less-experienced skiers to venture off the beaten piste, and although the nature of exploring outside resort boundaries means that data on participant numbers is difficult to come by, Nairz guesses that in Austria, where he’s based, “there are something like five to 10 times more [backcountry skiers] than 20 years ago.”

Equipment sales figures also indicate an upward trend. In the US, sales of touring gear, which allows skiers to explore where there are no lifts, have grown exponentially, making it the fastest-growing segment of the market in the past decade. The discipline was given a further boost during the outdoor exercise boom of the pandemic, with sales of backcountry accessories up 150 percent, according to Snowsports Industries America, a research body. In Europe, where most ski lifts were closed for the best part of two winters, many shops sold out of ski touring equipment.

These factors might be expected to combine into a perfect storm. But despite the growing unpredictability of winter and the increase in backcountry skiers, the number of avalanche fatalities in Europe has remained largely unchanged. EAWS data shows that although yearly death tolls fluctuate, the 10-year mean average has stayed static since the mid-’90s. “Yes it’s more or less the same,” says Patrick Nairz, “and if you check the last 40 years, or the last 20 years, there’s actually a downward trend.”

Various technologies have helped play their part in this, he believes, not least improvements in the avalanche forecasting that he and his colleagues undertake. “In the beginning, you just had some observers outside in the field who dug pits to look at snow profiles and conducted stability tests. Then they called by phone and they told you about the snow in that spot,” he says. These days, however, forecasters work with sophisticated snowpack simulation models, allowing them to predict risks with increasing accuracy all over the Alps.

The models improve year every, as ever more data is fed into them. The arrival of automatic, solar-powered weather stations in the ’90s was a huge leap forward, allowing access to real-time weather data. Since 2021, models have also included data from a vast network of weatherproof, stainless steel webcams, whose output is analyzed by AI. “Every 10 minutes you get a picture, and the system checks with artificial intelligence whether there’s something changed and whether it’s an avalanche or not,” says Nairz.

The EAWS still gets input from mountain guides and other observers out in the field, but they’ve created a vastly simplified upload mechanism. “Anyone who investigates the snowpack can draw a snow profile, upload it on our web page, and it’s accessible to everyone.” All this has led to the development of snowpack models “nearly exploding,” in recent years, he says. Pisteurs and other experienced skiers can now dig a pit anywhere, look at the snow profile, “feed the system with those data, and it will calculate the development of the snow cover from that spot for the next 10 days.”

Perhaps more importantly for ordinary backcountry enthusiasts, the snowpack simulation models have allowed the creation of what’s become EAWS’s most-used service: a general avalanche forecast for the next 24 hours, published at 5 pm every day throughout the winter months. Covering the whole alpine region and translated into multiple languages, the forecast uses a colored heat map to explain the avalanche danger (on a standard scale of 1 to 5) as well as five easily understandable icons that indicate the causes of potential instability—such as new snow or wet snow, for example—and the particular warning signs to look out for. As with all effective communication, simplicity is the key, says Nairz. “We don’t want to put out so much information that people can’t work with it.” Since it was launched five years ago, the daily forecast has proved hugely popular. The Avalanche.Report website where it’s published is used by 2 million people every winter.

Of course, more accurate and accessible forecasting is only one element of improving avalanche safety. “There’s also better equipment, and people are getting better at rescues,” says Nairz. The standard avalanche safety gear carried by all backcountry skiers—consisting of a transceiver (worn on the body, which allows you to detect other skiers) plus a collapsible probe and shovel (carried in a backpack, to help you pinpoint and dig out victims)—has essentially remained unchanged since transceivers first arrived in the 1970s. Emergency airbags, which increase the victim’s volume, helping them end up on top of any moving snow, have been commonplace for more than two decades. But this winter sees the launch of a genuinely new—and potentially revolutionary—piece of avalanche safety equipment, made by Norwegian startup Safeback.

Worn in a backpack, the Safeback SBX extracts air from the snow around a buried victim and pipes it through shoulder-mounted tubes to the area around their face. “Around 75 percent of avalanche victims die from lack of oxygen or asphyxia,” says Tor Berge, Safeback’s cofounder and CEO. But even in the compressed debris of a large avalanche “you can expect at least 50 percent air in the snow”—meaning there’s plenty to breathe, if a buried skier can access it. The biggest engineering challenge, Berge says, was not finding a way to extract air from the snow but rather a way to safely manage carbon dioxide levels. “If you’re lying beneath the snow it’s like breathing into a paper bag. You use up the oxygen and saturate it with your own CO2.”

Most avalanche victims suffocate within 15 minutes—a critical time window for rescuers or friends to dig them out. Berge and his cofounders believe the SBX can extend this window to up to 90 minutes. Having approached the Norway-based NATO Cold Weather Operations Centre for Excellence, Safeback ended up winning a development grant from the Norwegian Ministry of Defence. The SBX has been rigorously tested, both in house and by third parties. The results of a recent clinical trial, by an independent team from the Eurac Institute of Mountain Emergency Medicine in Italy, are due to be published later this year.

Of course, as Hermann Brugger, one of the doctors working on that Eurac study pointed out, “no device can ever guarantee safety in an avalanche.” Safeback’s SBX can’t protect victims from trauma, for example, any more than Olivier’s Gardet’s drones stop them getting buried. But the hope is, that whatever instability the climate crisis brings to the mountains, and however many skiers decide to venture into the backcountry, technologies like these will rise to meet the challenge of keeping them safe.