The Snow Whisperers of Sölden
They almost work in secrecy, many hours before the first skiers hit the slopes of the Sölden ski area. Nevertheless, their task implies a maximum of responsibility. We talk about the Sölden Avalanche Commission that ensures the safety in the ski area.
We wanted to find out more about their important job: So we met Manfred Fiegl, the chairman of the avalanche commission, and Peter Raich, the vice chairman. Talking about explosive charges, weather conditions and difference in temperatures.
Safety fence on Rettenbach Glacier © Ernst Lorenzi / Ötztal Tourismus
“Safeguarding the ski area” – What does it include?
If we talk about “safeguarding the ski area”, primarily we think of safety measures on avalanche-prone ski slopes and regions. But there are so many other duties:
The whole range also includes signposting correctly and making safe the ski runs and the edge of the slope as well as upholstering lift towers and snow guns or installing safety nets. To cut a long story short: all atypical dangers in the ski area.
In the last decades we have made huge steps forwards when it comes to safety. Wooden fences were replaced by top modern safety nets. Also the expert team of Bergbahnen Sölden has been working on the pulse of time. Only during the last 4 years they installed between 800 and 900 meters of fences per year.
The brand-new safety fences are “homemade” in the metalworking department of Bergbahnen Sölden, preventing accidents in many areas featuring a high risk of falling. Meanwhile the fences were named “Sölden Zaun” by the mountain lift staff.
A truly excellent team
What is the daily work of the local avalanche commission? Manfred and Peter explain how they start to plan their day already one day in advance when they meet for a first talk, analyzing the weather reports and the daily avalanche report of Tirol’s Province.
Afterwards, they decide the meeting time of the avalanche commission for the next day. All members of the commission are informed, receiving some basic details. Normally, the whole team gets together at 7 o’clock in the morning during the winter months – as there is enough light to evaluate the situation correctly.
Simon Holzknecht, a member of the Avalanche Commission, analyzes the runout zone © Peter Raich
The local avalanche commission has 12 members spread over 3 different locations: Glacier, Giggijoch and Gaislachkogl – all of them start working contemporarily in order to open the ski area as early as possible.
Daily procedures: The members of the avalanche commission check the region on skis to evaluate the local avalanche hazard. Then they have to decide if avalanche blasting is necessary or not. They also give the order to close or open certain ski slopes or ski lifts. Ideally, the lift staff can be informed by 8 am if a lift remains closed and how long.
Closed slopes are marked with barrier tapes or fences and an international signpost – since it must be obvious to all skiers that the ski run is closed. Further information about closed ski slopes is also available on the LED boards within the ski area.
Roland and Peter while making a snow profile
© Peter Raich
A fine feel for snow
As a full-time member of the avalanche commission, Peter is also responsible for snow profiles and reports made on three different spots on a regular basis, no matter if it’s snowing or not. Peter must know “what is below” if fresh snow is in the air. Otherwise he can’t evaluate the snow profile properly.
Of course decades of experience, expert knowhow and being familiar with the place are of utmost importance. Depending on the current snow and wind conditions, the team around Manfred and Peter knows exactly which ski slopes of the ski area must be checked first.
Especially in spring the situation can become extremely challenging within only one hour due to quick changes in temperature and a high level of solar radiation. Heavy and wet snow increases the avalanche hazard considerably – also on the Glacier Road.
It’s essential that the members of the avalanche commission are always in the ski area in order to observe the current situation all the time. Manfred is on the way “at the front”, as he explains. Peter knows the off-piste terrain like the back of his hand but he always takes care.
1223 Kilos of Expolosives Guarantee more Safety
Working at the avalanche-blasting tower © Markus Geisler
5 different types of explosives are used in the Sölden ski area. In the last winter season (2015/2016) exactly 406 blasting operations were made, 163 of them from a helicopter. Additionally, so called “GasEx” devices (combination of gas and oxygen), avalanche pipes and blasting operations by hand are on the daily program. For already three years avalanche-blasting towers are used as well: the (remote-controlled) propelling charge explodes at 3 meters above the snow surface by developing its full effect afterwards.
In very rare cases avalanches are also triggered by skiers of the commission team, especially on apparently harmless slopes. “Hopping into the snow” from spots located above the avalanche-prone slope requires a high level of experience.
Yearly training units and refresher courses for snow-grooming machine drivers, slope rescue teams and lift staff are held by the avalanche commission – as they are on the spot in case of emergencies. The Bergbahnen Sölden mountain lift company has a refined concept:
3 spots in the ski area are equipped with “Avalanche Boxes” that can be attached to helicopters in almost no time. Each box weighs 280 kilos, containing all the necessary equipment in the event of an avalanche: 90 avalanche probes, 35 shovels, 10 blankets, etc.
One of the three Avalanche Boxes © Peter Raich
Avalanche commission members holding company-internal training units for the lift staff
© Peter Raich
Comparing views with other commissions
The experienced team around Manfred and Peter exchanges views on snow layers and conditions with the neighboring avalanche commissions. Also Patrick Nairz of Tirol’s avalanche warning service is in permanent contact with the experts in Sölden.
Manfred and Peter know almost everything about Sölden’s specific features: One is the extremely high Alpine location of the ski area, stretching up to 3300 meters above sea level. Varied weather situations also include south-western influences that bring heavy snowfalls to Sölden while the prevailing weather situation coming from the north-west stands for snow and strong winds.
Important: much snow doesn’t imply a high risk of avalanches – Wind is a master in avalanche building!
Asking Peter about this year’s snow blanket profile and possible tendencies, he can’t tell me more than I already know. At the moment it’s quite difficult to make forecasts for the coming winter season as there is no snow on the valley floor but only in the very high Alpine regions. Probably, old snow layers on shady slopes can become a problem.
Raising awareness and understanding
Many skiers are not aware of the great efforts behind the scenes to make the entire ski area safe. Some even can’t understand that certain ski runs or entire slopes must be closed due to a very high risk of avalanches.
Maybe reading this article can help to understand the professional work of Sölden’s Avalanche Commission. It gives an insight into the meticulous job in and around the ski area. The one and only aim is to protect all winter sport fans from hazards and dangers in the wintry mountains.
Never underestimate the white danger!
© Peter Raich
At the end of our interview, Manfred and Peter add with a chuckle that they love their job as members of the avalanche commission: you are the first to hit pristine slopes even before other skiers are allowed to access the ski area.
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