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Avalanches in Austria: What you should know to stay safe in the mountains

Austria is an excellent destination for skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports, but the risk of deadly avalanches is real. Here's what you need to know to stay safe in the Alps.

Avalanches in Austria: What you should know to stay safe in the mountains
Avalanche warning boards are on display at a closed area in the small resort of Zinal, Alps on January 9, 2018, after the access road cut by heavy snowfall reopened. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

Much of Austria is mountainous given the fact the eastern Alps cover 60 percent of the country

Only 32 percent of the country is below 500 metres.

The Austrian Alps are primarily located in the west with Tyrol, Salzburg and Vorarlberg some of the provinces known for their winter tourism and skiing resorts. 

Even though Austria is a perfect destination for winter, the mountains also have their dangers, as recent deadly avalanches have shown. From 2016 to 2021, there were an average of 18 deaths each year due to avalanches, and more than 103 avalanche accidents were recorded annually, according to Statista.

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

An increase in the numbers of skiers, especially as global warming makes for a shorter winter season, and the fact that it doesn’t snow as steadily as years before in certain areas -with snow coming in stronger storms instead – may make accidents such as avalanches more common or at least more unpredictable, experts say.

So how to stay safe while in the mountains?

Warning system

First, the European Union has an online tool to check the dangers of avalanches, the European Avalanche Warning Services. You can zoom in and click on the province where you are travelling to get more information, or just check using the links below:

There are no high mountains with a risk of avalanches in large parts of Upper Austria, Lower Austria, and the entire provinces of Burgenland and Vienna.

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. (You can read more about each level HERE)

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

READ ALSO: Discover Austria: How to make the most of 24 hours in Innsbruck

The maps show in detail the regions, altitudes, danger levels and particular avalanche problems (new snow, wind slab, persistent weak layer, wet snow, gliding snow). From level three, the authorities already advise a high level of caution and restraint – sometimes even asking people to avoid excursions or at least to stay on piste.

Avalanches can also be divided into sizes, considering the potential damage caused from size 1, which is unlikely to bury a person, to size 5, extremely large, which may devastate the landscape and has catastrophic, destructive potential. From size two, though, medium avalanches have the potential to bury, injure or kill a person and may be triggered by a skier.

Members of the ski patrol and bomb experts blast a 2.5 kg dynamite stick as part of avalanche maintenance, on January 10, 2018 in Val Thorens ski resort. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)

Weather conditions

Even though the warning system considers weather conditions, skiers and other winter enthusiasts are advised to always check the weather conditions before heading for the slopes and mountains.

Be fit and prepared

Austria’s Alpine association has a series of recommendations regarding ski touring and avalanches.

Firstly, the association reminds people that ski touring is an endurance sport, so those looking to practise winter sports in Austria should stay healthy and fit. Additionally, people adventuring through the Austrian mountains (independent of the season) should carefully prepare for their trip, checking maps and online literature and hiring professionals depending on need. 

READ ALSO: How Austria’s Alpine huts are saving energy this winter

“Pay special attention to the weather forecast and plan alternative routes and checkpoints”, the Verein said. It also recommended people check the avalanche situation report: “What is the danger level, where are the danger spots, what are the current avalanche problems?”. 

Bring the proper equipment

Additionally, skiers and anyone going to the slopes should have proper equipment adapted to the winter conditions and the specific tour destination. 

According to the Alpine association, standard emergency equipment includes an avalanche transmitter, shovel and probe, first aid kit, bivouac sack and mobile phone (don’t forget that the European emergency number is 112). 

The Verein said that an airbag system increases chances of survival and that all equipment should be tested before the trip – and people should be familiar with using them.

Small groups

“Small groups of up to six people increase safety”, the Verein said. It recommends that people stay together in the group and inform familiar people about their destination, route and return. The ideal group size for ski tours is approximately four people.

Finally, the Austrian Alpine association tells mountain visitors to respect nature and the environment.

If you are not highly familiar with snow conditions and avalanche factors, it is always safer to stay in marked paths. 

READ ALSO: How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Austrian Alps

(Photo by Krzysztof Kowalik on Unsplash)

What to do in case of an avalanche?

If you encounter an avalanche, there are a few things that can increase your chances of survival if you are not able to move away from the danger zone, according to the skiing school

If you have an avalanche backpack with an airbag, release it; try to stay on the avalanche surface at all costs. It helps to do swimming movements; when you notice that the avalanche is coming to a halt, get into a crouching position and hold your fists and forearms in front of your face at a distance to create a breathing cavity; and measure your efforts when trying to free yourself, you need to try and save your strength and stay calm.

The official government of Canada has some additional tips, including keeping your mouth closed and your teeth clenched, grabbing onto anything solid such as trees and rocks, to avoid being swept away, and trying to move yourself to the side of the avalanche.  

READ ALSO: Where are the best places to go skiing in Austria?

The most important tip is to be prepared and understand the risks. Austria has several skiing and safety courses that teach and train people to assess dangers and behave safely.

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Elation and fear: Austrian Everest pioneer recounts historic climb

He's over 80, but the Austrian climber Peter Habeler -- one half of the duo that was first to scale Everest without supplemental oxygen -- is still fantastically fit and scaling mountain peaks, which he calls his "fountain of youth".

Elation and fear: Austrian Everest pioneer recounts historic climb

Many thought it impossible when he and Reinhold Messner of Italy — both Tyroleans — set out to conquer the world’s highest peak in 1978 without additional oxygen.

When they reached the summit, “I was beside myself,” the mountaineer told AFP at his home in western Austria, feeling “happiness and also sadness and fear”. “The higher we got, the slower our steps became. But the more certain we became that we would reach the summit,” he said.

As soon as he and Messner — who is from just over the Zillertal Alps in Italy — took their “obligatory” summit photo, “I thought, ‘How do I get down?'”

Climbers who go above 8,000 metres enter what is considered the “death zone” due to the lack of sufficient oxygen to sustain human life for long periods.

READ ALSO: Discover Austria: How to make the most of 24 hours in Innsbruck

At 8,848 metres (29,032 feet), Everest was deep in that danger area. Habeler still recalls his “jitters”, wanting to return safely to his family.

“We didn’t know what would happen with the brain, what would happen with the muscles,” he said.

Since then, numerous climbers have summited the world’s highest mountain without carrying oxygen, even though more than 300 have lost their lives on the Nepalese peak since 1950.

Habeler, who has lost none of his wiry, electric energy, said he feels “privileged” to have been able to go up the Himalayan giant before it was overrun by climbing tourism.

Peaks are ‘friends’

Even into his ninth decade, he continues to climb, describing mountains as “friends” which have brought him experiences as precious as “splinters of diamonds”.

Climate change, however, is posing “a huge problem”, he said, including in his native Alps, with entire routes expected to disappear as warmer temperatures melt permafrost, raising the risk of rock falls.

READ ALSO: Avalanches in Austria: What you should know to stay safe in the mountains

A champion of sustainable tourism, Habeler started out as a mountain guide, and one of his sons still runs the ski school he set up in his native Mayrhofen.

The veteran insisted that he was “never a mountain collector” chasing records, but instead wanted to “open the door” for himself and others — to show that it could be done.

Peter Habeler, Austrian extreme mountaineer and mountain guide who, together with Reinhold Messner, scaled Mount Everest in 1978 for the first time without supplemental oxygen, poses for a picture at his home in Mayrhofen im Zillertal, Austria on February 13, 2023. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
‘I’m a minimalist’
A few years after Everest, and spending time in his native valley, “the eight-thousander fever got me a bit again,” and he did several more big climbs – though never again with Messner.

Messner, now 78, went on to become the first to climb all the world’s 14 highest peaks, the so-called eight-thousanders.

READ ALSO: The six most spectacular train trips in Austria

“You could do anything with Reinhold,” said Habeler, thanking Messner for helping him to overcome his jitters on Everest.

For his part, Messner wrote a tribute to the “ingenious” Austrian in Habeler’s latest book.

“I experienced it as a sure instinct. He can simply climb mountains: in any terrain, at any height, under any circumstances,” Messner wrote.

Indeed, at the ripe old age of 74, Habeler set another record, becoming the oldest mountaineer to climb the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland with his former student David Lama, then aged 26.

Lama’s death two years later in an avalanche in Canada’s Banff National Park still brings tears to Habeler’s eyes.

READ ALSO: How to explore the Austrian mountains in the summer like a local

The accident made Habeler more cautious, though he still continues to climb mountains with as little material and outside help as possible.

“I am a minimalist. When I’m mountaineering, I always have the minimum. I don’t want to have too much in my backpack,” he said. While Habeler’s parents were not mountaineers, he credited the mountain guides and others “who bring out the best in you” for helping him get to the roof of the world.