Skiing in the mountains? Here’s how to avoid avalanches
A Norwegian avalanche expert wrote a book on minimising the risk without spoiling the fun.
Few places are as idyllic in wintertime as the Norwegian wilderness. It is a beautiful stomping ground for skiers, snowboarders and anyone into hiking, but it is not untamed. And not everyone heading out for a mountain hike is on top of what safety precautions to take.
That is what Espen Nordahl, project head of the avalanche knowledge center at UiT Arctic University of Norway, is aiming to change, along with editor Erlend Sande of the winter sports magazine Fri Flyt. Together, they have written the book “Trygge Toppturer”, which roughly translates to “Safe journeys to the summit”.
Nordahl is working to warn the population about any avalanche risks that may arise in various parts of Norway, a job he shares with several colleagues spread across the country.
“Typical avalanche weather means a lot of wind and rain”, he says.
“If there’s a bit of a temperature hike as well, the risk of an avalanche is sure to go up. When there is a lot of snow and wind, flakes can be formed that can then start to slide if they come under pressure.”
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Every day, Nordahl studies weather data along with observations from the general public (through the app regObs) to be published in the form of avalanche warnings on the website Varsom.no at 4 pm local time.
The fact that he’s located in Tromsø is not coincidental.
“Troms is the most avalanche-rich county in Norway. I got some phone calls from worried parents asking about sons and daughters going on skiing trips the next day. ‘Where would it be safe for them to go?’”
This gave him an idea. At a conference about avalanches in 2012, he suggested putting together a handbook for safer skiing practices, an idea that resonated with Fri Flyt.
The end result is a book filled with route descriptions for 111 mountain hikes outside avalanche heavy terrains, though some of the journeys do briefly dip into parts of the mountain that at times require some consideration. For Nordahl, the important thing has been making skigoers more aware of how they can assess the risk of an avalanche while plotting their course.
“The terrain is the most important factor in an avalance. Stay away from avalanche terrain steeper than thirty degrees and potential avalanche sites and you will avoid avalanches. Entering steeper terrain means making your own assessments of snow and how stable the conditions are.”
At the same time, it is important to think one step further than just asking yourself whether an avalanche could happen.
“Think consequence when plotting a course. What happens if I get caught in an avalanche here, where do I end up? Typical terrain traps are those that bury you under a massive amount of snow in a valley or carry you downhill and into a tree.”
To avoid avalanches, he naturally recommends avalanche warnings. However:
“These warnings cover a large region, so they are general warnings. You will have to make your own assessments.”
For those going into the mountains, Nordahl has three local hikes to recommend:
1. The beginner’s hike – Lille Blåmann in Tromsø
A popular hike all year round. You start out in a big parking lot, so finding parking is easy. The hike takes you over marshland and a forest before entering mountain terrain with a fantastic view in all direction. It’s to the south, meaning there’s also great light.
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This is a classic Lyngen hike, and one of the better summits there. You get a long day in safe terrain, but with short sections of slightly riskier terrain. You’re hiking through a valley and up a long, long hill towards an elevation of 8–900 meters above sea level. It is in the middle of Lyngsalpene mountain range with a great view. You’ll find a few steep parts here that require an assessment of the snow conditions.
This is a slightly challenging mountain, popular among summit tourists, right outside Lyngshøyda. There have been avalanches here, so you need to observe your surroundings closely. It’s a great mountain, and if the conditions are right you can ride down steep hill right from the summit. You do need to be somewhat knowledgeable to pick this hike.
The glaciers, mountains, and waterfalls are all about raw, sublime power. On the other hand, natural wonders such as the northern lights, the midnight sun, the fjords, and quiet national parks highlight Norway’s serene qualities.