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Open letter to the Salzburg Mountain Rescue Service

Breaking down old ways of thinking and cutting away old habits

by Marius Schwager 02/22/2010
Time and again you see people in high-risk off-piste terrain who are unaware of the dangers off the secured ski slopes. The fact that this also includes active members of the mountain rescue service while looking after children astonished us greatly and prompted us to write an open letter to the Salzburg Mountain Rescue Service.

Suitable terrain to hold a ski course at warning level 3?

We often see people in high-risk off-piste terrain who are unaware of the dangers off the secured ski slopes. The fact that this also includes active members of the mountain rescue service while looking after children astonished us greatly and prompted us to write an open letter to the Salzburg Mountain Rescue Service.

Open letter to the Salzburg Mountain Rescue

Dear Salzburg Mountain Rescue,

On Thursday 11.2.2010, I was skiing with a colleague in the Zauchensee ski area on a well-known and busy route. The avalanche warning level was 3 and the fresh snow that had fallen overnight (30-40 cm) attracted many skiers who skied off the secured pistes. It is unfortunate, but nothing new, that there are always many people without the appropriate equipment and basic knowledge in open terrain that is accessed by ski lifts.

On the day in question, we came across a group of children/young people with accompanying adults. As none of them (apart from the ski instructor) were carrying a backpack, we approached the first accompanying/supervising person. It turned out to be a ski club group who had been out in the open terrain all day with three accompanying adults and a ski instructor without the appropriate equipment.

To our astonishment, the supervisor we approached tried to explain that he was active in mountain rescue. The person knew exactly what he was doing. Nothing had ever happened here for 30 years. There were also accompanying persons, as well as a trained ski instructor, who was also equipped with a backpack, shovel, probe and avalanche transceiver. After all, their own children are also in the group. Avalanche training with the children would take place in the afternoon and a search exercise with dogs in the evening. The person believed that there was avalanche warning level 3 and that the non-signposted variant (so-called "East") was controlled and secured by the mountain railroads. Therefore, no emergency equipment is needed, as it is safe here. The mountain rescue worker goes on more than 30 ski tours a year and nothing has ever happened.

On the day in question, there was widespread unbound fresh snow on a mostly heavily used surface. The terrain is quite steep, over 40° degrees in places and interspersed with rocks. On the day in question, we triggered many superficial loose snow slides (so-called "sluff"), which were large enough to bury several people. The group was also moving in such a zone, whereby the protruding rocks were skied or jumped on by another group that day (and correspondingly large loose snow slides were triggered). 30 minutes later, a considerable loose snow slide broke loose above the accessible terrain and buried the area of a heavily frequented crossing over a large area (approx. 150 m wide).

Of course, we are aware that not all winter sports enthusiasts will ever act prudently or carefully. In addition, freeriding or off-piste skiing is a trend sport, which means that more and more inexperienced freeriders are also seeking out high-risk terrain. This is precisely why we think it is important that recognized institutions such as the Austrian Mountain Rescue Service create an awareness of risk management, at least among their active members, and that their employees are aware of their role model function and behave accordingly. We expect supervisory staff and role models who are active in such an organization to act prudently. After all, as experts, they are responsible for others and in this case, the other group members are wards to whom they have a duty of care.

The supervisor's comments listed above:
- Nothing has happened here for 30 years.
- This slope (not marked) is controlled and secured by the mountain railroads.
- The person is in the mountain rescue service and therefore knows what they are doing.
- The ski instructor is trained and has (as the only one) emergency equipment (avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe) with him.
- There are so many people skiing here that nothing can happen.
- It is not steep enough for anything to happen.
- The supervisor has everything under control.
- The person is an experienced tourer and nothing has ever happened before.

We would ask you to comment on the behavior of the mountain rescue worker, as his statements and behavior reveal a whole chain of potentially fatal mistakes. We find it very worrying that mountain rescuers have such obvious gaps in their knowledge of avalanche risk management and rely on their authority as supposed experts. This should not be allowed to happen during avalanche training with children in the name of mountain rescue!

We would therefore ask you to comment on:
1) The general attitude of mountain rescue members to the topic of risk management.
2) The role model function of their active members (also with regard to the care of vulnerable persons).

Answer from Salzburg Mountain Rescue

From the case you described, it is clear that all those involved, including your group, were traveling in dangerous terrain, but that your group was well equipped.

In principle, avalanche warning level 3 (serious) prohibits off-piste skiing away from secured pistes. Ski tours require avalanche assessment skills; tour options are limited.

Active members of the Austrian mountain rescuers are highly trained in avalanche risk assessment, avalanche-appropriate behavior and rescue procedures and also carry appropriate equipment. Our men and women are also trained to only go into the terrain with people who are traveling with avalanche transceiver equipment.

I do not believe that the training you described was carried out in the name of the mountain rescue service, but that it took place as part of a ski course. At mountain rescue avalanche seminars, all participants without exception are equipped with avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels.

The claim that the person is an active mountain rescuer is not proof that he is a mountain rescuer and it could well be a protective claim, as he, as a local, did not want to be instructed by a German.

I made it clear to you in my reply that during our training and courses, we only go into the terrain with appropriately equipped people and that there is certainly no training in the open ski area at warning level three.

I expect our 1400 volunteer mountain rescuers in Salzburg to adhere to our training, rules and responsibilities in private as well.

(Editor's note: text shortened for better readability.)

PG Comment

This open letter to Salzburg Mountain Rescue and their response reflects many a situation on the mountain. Several questionable aspects, which also appear in Werner Munter's 3x3 Avalanches, become apparent here.

We greatly appreciate the work of the mountain rescue services and volunteers, most of whom work on a voluntary basis. Without them, many an adventure would be even more dangerous and their efforts have already saved the lives of many people. They cannot be thanked enough for this.

However, even such institutions and their members must not close their minds to new findings or insist on their supposed expert status. There is no doubt that mountain rescuers (among others) are trained in avalanche rescue and avalanche awareness and are experienced mountaineers or ski tourers. It is precisely these people who must be aware of their role model function and not close themselves off to the "new" avalanche science paradigm. The fatal self-importance of self-appointed experts must come to an end. As Munter stated years ago, it is time to shed old coats and break down old ways of thinking. Because even within the institutions, these old ways of thinking are certainly controversial.

The fact that a mountain rescue team member who claims to be active exposes his own and other people's children to great danger without even observing the mandatory standard measures in terms of risk management is very worthy of consideration. This should also be communicated clearly within the institutions.

To Salzburg Mountain Rescue

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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