The fatal hazard of avalanches is obvious; however, there are no satisfactory solutions for prevention. For many years skiing and mountaineering associations have endeavored to increase mountaineering safety by information programs and instruction courses. However, the effectiveness of such efforts regarding “avalanche safety” remains unclear. Therefore, we studied the influence of training level on the death frequencies in back country skiers in Austria from 1986 through 1995.
The avalanche accidents during mountain sport activities in Austria from 1986 through 1995 were recorded. The number of persons involved in mountain sports and the frequency and duration of such involvement were compiled on the basis of a representative Austrian-wide survey taken in 1984 and in a 1989 microcensus. The training level is assumed to be higher for members of mountaineering associations than nonmembers.
Based on available information regarding the numbers of Austrian members and nonmembers of mountaineering associations and their annual skiing exposure times, relative risk calculations were carried out for these groups.
The overall avalanche fatality rate in back country skiers was low (1 death per 333 350 back country skiing days for members of alpine associations). However, the relative risk to have a fatal avalanche accident was about two times higher in members as compared with nonmembers, which indicates an increasing death risk with increasing training level.
It was observed that current training programs and information were inadequate for reducing the risk of deaths produced by avalanches. In fact it appeared that the present programs and information resulted in underestimation of the risk of avalanche or perhaps encouraged higher risk-taking behavior.