Patrick Nairz works at the Avalanche Warning Service in Tirol. He has given us some helpful tips on how to handle the dangerous situations that can arise in the snow.
Mogasi: Who is behind the Avalanche Warning Service Tirol? How many are in the team and how organisation set up?
Patrick Nairz: Behind the scenes at the Avalanche Warning Service Tirol is a small, motivated troop of Tiroleans. Our job is very interesting but also comes with a lot of responsibility. There are currently two avalanche forecasters and a technician (responsible for the measurements) working to predict avalanche danger. We are supported by two half-day secretaries and rotating interns and civil servants.
Mogasi: What is the main task of the Avalanche Warning Service Tirol?
Patrick Nairz: Our job is to prevent avalanche related accidents as well as possible. In order to do that, we have to establish a realistic picture of the avalanche danger present in Tirol. We are only able to do this when we occupy ourselves intensely with the development and structure of the base and snowfall throughout the winter. The information that we gather then needs to be presented in a way that people can use.
A lot of our time is also devoted to optimising work processes, testing models, partaking in projects, for example, contributing to Europe-wide developments. In addition, we are involved in various training courses. In short: we always want to keep getting better and more professional!
Mogasi: How demanding is your workload during Winter?
Patrick Nairz: Winter is high season for us. This is when our workload is at its biggest, this of course, does depend on the day. When creating an avalanche report, you will get to the office latest at 6am. If you combine that with outdoor work, which is often the case a few times per week, it all starts to add up. We can make up for this in the summer, though.
Mogasi: What are deciding factors when determining avalanche danger?
Patrick Nairz: Avalanche danger cannot be measure exactly, but there are objective criteria that help us determine the danger: as an avalanche risk analyst you always have to ask yourself the following questions: How stable is the snowpack? How easily can an avalanche be triggered? How widespread are the danger sports within a region? Which, how many and what size avalanches should I expect? With this, we are able to identify the avalansche probability, which is indicated by the level of danger. The higher the danger, the more likely it is that avalanches could be triggered or trigger themselves.
Mogasi: What circumstances may inhibit your work at the Avalanche Warning Service?
Patrick Nairz: We deal with a very complex and also public issue. This can quite often spur quite controversial discussions, in which sometimes emotions and ignorance come before facts.
Most avalanches occurred in windblown snow or old snow areas.
Mogasi: What rules should winter sportspeople follow in back country?
Patrick Nairz: We are huge proponents for comprehensive tour planning and a flexible mindset. In Tirol we are in the fortunate position that we have access to very differing terrain, ranging from gentle hills to rugged mountain areas. There is almost always an opportunity to do something in the mountains. The fundamental rule is: adjust your tour to the conditions. The strategies introduced by alpine clubs, which in combination with standard measures lead to a significant reduction in risk, tie in with this. It is always important to be willing to abandon a tour.
Mogasi: Where can I find an avalanche bulletin and how can I understand it?
Patrick Nairz: We deliver the avalanche bulletin through all channels of communication. An overview can be found on our website lawine.tirol. Our Apps and Whatsapp are especially popular.
We try to write the avalanche bulletin as easy to understand as possible. We also the Europe-wide uniform structure: most important – easy to understand! To aid in understanding, the current conditions are presented in picture format in our blog. For those who wish to understand more precisely, the European Avalanche Warning Services have a glossary in which key technical terms are explained simply. Links to the glossary can be found on the Avalanche Warning Services site as well as on the European page at www.lawinen.org.
On average, 12 people die per winter [due to avalanche related deaths].
Mogasi: How many avalanche related accidents happen per year in Tirol?
Patrick Nairz: We refer to fatal accidents. On average, 12 people die during a winter. Looking at the relative death toll, measured by the number of winter sportspeople, we can see a downwards trend.
Mogasi: The calculated avalanche danger is ranked between 1 and 5. Most avalanche related accidents occur at level 3, why is this?
Patrick Nairz: The danger level system is not linear, rather exponential. In plain English: the number of danger spots approximately doubles from level to level. At level 3, there are already plenty of “set mousetraps” where avalanches can be triggered. In addition, the danger spots are not always obvious; for example, under a deceptively normal looking top layer of snow can be weaker layers underneath that cannot be seen. Such occurrences increase the likelihood of an avalanche being triggered. At level 4, at a high risk level, the danger is more apparent also to layman and winter sportspeople become more defensive. Snowfall and wind often make it harder to progress into backcountry areas.
Mogasi: Which dangers and often underestimated in the backcountry? What is the classic trap that capture people who go backcountry?
Patrick Nairz: If we look at the statistics dating back to when avalanche problems and danger patterns were first recorded, we can see that most avalanches occurred in windblown snow or old snow areas. Windblown snow areas are normally relatively easy to spot. Not much should happen here. Old snow areas on the other hand, can be very deceptive. The rule here is to be as defensive as possible, or to avoid the known danger areas.
Mogasi: From what size can avalanches / slabs / slides be deadly?
Patrick Nairz: “Even a tub of snow can kill you.” This old Swiss saying says it all.
Mogasi: Do many accidents happen on guided tours with mountain or ski guides?
Patrick Nairz: Experts are most likely to have a problem with old-snow problem. This is reflected in the statistics.
Mogasi: Freeriding and ski touring are currently very popular. What is the expert’s opinion of this?
Patrick Nairz: Since we are carved from the same tree, we see it as positive. It’s better to spend your free time outdoors that in front of a computer… The huge freeride and touring trend also has other positive effects, especially in back country areas close to main ski resorts, the snow gets packed down all winter long. This usually has a favorable effect on the structure of the snowpack as large, weak layers are normally destroyed.
Mogasi: Are the ramifications due to the rise in popularity already apparent?
Patrick Nairz: In regards to the occurrence of accidents, we are yet to see a clear trend. This is most likely due to the recently mentioned frequenting of various routes.
Mogasi: How can freeriders safely participate in their beloved sport?
Patrick Nairz: There is no guaranteed safety in any area of life. However, through appropriate planning, good information, situation-adapted behavior, proper equipment and in case of doubt, bail, one can live to be an old Freerider.
Patrick Nairz (37) from Innsbruck is the deputy head of the Avalanche Warning Service Tirol and, together with Rudi Mair, wrote the practice-handbook, “lawine.” (avalanche)