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How to stay safe during the ski season in Austria

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
How to stay safe during the ski season in Austria
How to stay safe in ski slopes in Austria. Photo by Pierre Jarry on Unsplash

During the winter sports season, the Austrian mountains become a hotspot for tourists and locals, but the sports can be dangerous. Here are some tips on how to stay safe.

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The winter season has started early with impressive snowstorms and fresh powder on most of Austria's famous ski resorts and pistes.

However, the avalanche danger in many areas in the east of the country has been considered "high" for days - with the Alpine Association alerting to the risks of facing the mountains, especially in open terrain.

If you plan on heading to the Austrian Alps this season, here are the Austrian Alpine Association's main tips for staying safe while skiing in the country.

READ ALSO: Is it possible to have a cheap skiing holiday in Austria?

Avalanches are still the leading risk

Every winter, an average of 22 people still die in avalanches in Austria, according to the association. 

Winter sports enthusiasts should increase their awareness of hazardous snow patterns and formations that could indicate dangerous conditions on the slopes and also learn basic safety measures, the association advises.

The association held an "Avalanche update 2023/24" live stream with mountain guide Michael Larcher, who spoke about the events of the past winter and gave plenty of practical knowledge for ski tourers. There are also many free online resources to learn about emergency equipment and procedures in the event of an avalanche. Most are in German, such as the live stream itself or online classes on emergency avalanches and ski touring standards

However, we also have a more extensive guide on avalanches in Austria and how to stay safe. The first thing to do is check the dangers of avalanches in your region using the European Avalanche Warning Services

There are five danger levels in Austria: 1 – low (green), 2 – moderate (yellow), 3 – considerable (orange), 4 – high (red) and 5 – very high (red and black). These colours are also used to mark avalanche risk in loco, so if you see an avalanche sign in orange, for example, it indicates a considerable risk in that area.

Danger level 5 is rarely forecasted, while danger level 3 is forecasted for around 30 percent of the winter season. Approximately 50 percent of avalanche fatalities happen while the level is “considerable”.

READ ALSO: Why getting rescued in the Austrian Alps could cost you thousands

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Watch out for additional risks when skiing in open terrain

In contrast to secured ski areas, additional dangers lurking in open terrain require you to take responsibility and be aware of the risks, the Alpine association said. Even simple tips can help to reduce the risk of avalanches.

 "Three questions should always be on everyone's mind when skiing in open terrain: How? What? Where?" said Michael Larcher, Head of the Mountain Sports Department at the Austrian Alpine Club.

The questions he said need to be asked are "How dangerous is it today?" as you check the avalanche warning services. Then, "What is the snow problem today?" if the region will be covered in old snow or icy conditions, for example. Finally: "Where are the danger spots?".

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"With these elementary questions and a decision-making tool such as the "Stop or Go" method, I can then make informed decisions," said Michael Larcher. 

Check your emergency equipment

This is particularly important if you ski in open terrain instead of established pistes. Winter enthusiasts need to check if their avalanche transceiver is working and has high-quality batteries; the avalanche shovel should also be checked and cleaned. 

The association also recommends using "airbag backpacks", which should hold a bivouac sack and a first aid kit. They also recommend going to a ski service at the start of the season to check your equipment. 

Plan your excursions

In addition to functioning equipment and physical fitness, careful tour planning also plays a crucial role, according to the Alpine association. 

In addition to classic ski tour guides, apps such as alpenvereinaktiv.com, which offers a detailed tour description, a GPS track and photos for every ski tour, are increasingly being used.

READ ALSO: How to dress for the cold weather in Austria

Another option is the website skitourenguru.ch, which the Alpine association recommended.

"The choice of the tour is supported by an algorithm that considers both terrain-specific and snow-specific influencing factors in its calculations. This is the beginning of a new era in ski tour planning," said Larcher.

The tool originated in Switzerland and now has 2,500 ski tours in Austria in its program. It compares these daily with the latest information from the avalanche warning services and the digital elevation model.

Practice, practice, practice

The experts say practical practice is even more important than theoretical knowledge to react quickly and safely in an emergency. Emergency responses should become second nature to those wanting to enjoy the winter season in the mountains. 

There are several ski and free-riding courses in Austria, including for kids as young as ten who will learn how to go downhill the slopes outside of pistes and resorts.

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