Winter hazards

Particular care is required when engaging in outdoor activities in the Italian mountains. Skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing and snow shoeing are all popular throughout Italy, but especially in the Alps. On-piste sports are very safe and serious injuries are rare but the same cannot be said for activities undertaken remotely from commercially managed winter sports sites. Individual accidents have many causes (eg slips, falls and collisions) but usually involve no more than a couple of individuals. Avalanches, however, can pose a wider threat to groups of significant size.

Legislative Decree No 40

Avalanches are rare in the Tosco-Emiliano Apennines and in the past outdoor enthusiasts have not been required to equip themselves with avalanche related safety equipment. That changed when, from 1st January 2022, Legislative Decree No. 40, Article 26, Paragraph 2, came into effect. The Decree demands that:

“Those who practise ski-mountaineering or off-piste skiing or hiking activities (including snow-shoeing) in certain snow-covered environments where under the prevailing weather conditions there are risks of avalanches, must be equipped with a special electronic signaling and search system, a shovel and a snow probe, to ensure appropriate rescue intervention.”

Previously, only ski mountaineers and off-piste skiers (“freeriders”) were covered by the obligation.

The required “special electronic signaling and search system” is known in Italian as ARTVA (Apparecchio di Ricerca dei Travolti in VAlanga). Not surprisingly, the CAI are concerned that the Corpo Forestale will now require all winter walkers to carry avalanche related safety equipment even when in areas assessed as Level 1 (low) on the European avalanche danger scale. This will increase the access cost for those wishing to enjoy mountain activites in winter and thereby reduce participation (with negative public health and welfare outcomes). In this regard it is worth mentioning that the kit required by the Decree costs in the region of £250-300.

Other safety aspects of Decree No 40

Also worth a mention are several other aspects of the Decree:

  • Article 30, Paragraph 1 requires all users of alpine ski slopes to possess what is known in Italy as RCT insurance – a policy that covers any civil liability for damage or injury to third parties. This is a significant development as according to ABTA, in 2019 nearly one third of British winter sports holidaymakers did not possess appropriate travel insurance. An RCT policy can be bought from the offices of equipped ski areas at a cost of between €2 and €3 per day, though weekly, monthly and all-season policies are also available. According to Article 33, Paragraph 2, fines for non-compliance start at €100 and are subject to a maximum of €150.
  • Article 17, Paragraph 1 requires all persons under 18 years of age who engage in winter sports to wear an approved safety helmet.
  • Article 31, Paragraph 1 forbids anyone to ski who is intoxicated by means of alcohol or recreational drugs.

Recommended Safety Precautions in Avalanche Risk Areas

The CNSAS has issued the following advice to those engaging in mountain activities during the winter months:

  • Choose the trip suitable for the weather-climatic and snow conditions and suitable for your psycho-physical and technical conditions and those of the group with which you are associated;
  • Check the proper functioning of the Artva with particular regard to battery charge;
  • Check that the self-rescure probe works correctly and that the shovel is in order;
  • Listen and carefully study the indications of the local Nivo-Meteorological Bulletin in reference to the location of the trip;
  • Download the GeoResQ app which, in addition to rapid location finding in areas of poor reception, guarantees better access to 118 / Soccorso Alpino.

Before leaving home

  • Immediately switch on your Artva and place it securely in your outer garment;
  • Check in conjunction with other members of the party that your Artva works in both transmission and reception modes in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions;
  • Check that your skis (board, snowshoes or other equipment) are disconnected from the boots and that the poles are held out of the laces;
  • Check that everyone has an individual shovel and probe. Sharing of shovel and probes is not acceptable;
  • Always wear substantial and suitable clothing even in mild conditions.

During the excursion

  • Throughout the route, carefully evaluate every single slope you cross;
  • In case of suspicion and doubt, carry out a snowpack stability test;
  • If the outcome is positive, don’t hesitate to end the trip and return to a place of safety.

If caught in an avalanche

  • Maintain extreme calm and immediately open the bindings and any other constraint that may contribute to an “anchor effect” (skis, poles, snowboards, snowshoes etc);
  • Firmly tie your backpack to your waist to provide mechanical and thermal protection as well as to ensure that your rescue equipment will not be lost and will be available to help others in the group;
  • Try to float upon and not resist, as far as practicable, the flow of the snow;
  • If you are conscious and on the surface when the avalanche has stopped, don’t try to move until you have checked for injuries and established the location and condition of your equipment. Then check the status of your group and / or other people who may be present.

After the avalanche

  • Check for signs of any further snow detachments;
  • Switch the Artva from transmission to reception mode and start the search for any buried subjects;
  • At the same time, immediately alert the number 118 who will plan and execute the rescue mission. Follow the instructions in alert mode. This operation must not last more than 2-3 minutes at most;
  • Carry out the “sight-hearing” search below, methodically checking the avalanche field and carefully recording any anomalies;
  • If objects are found (skis, poles, clothing, etc.), they must be positioned in a stable and visible way in the same place where they were found. 58% of avalanche victims are not completely buried.
  • The “sight-hearing” research is fundamental – every little noise must be carefully examined.

For those not involved in the avalanche

  • In the detachment phase, memorize the point of overwhelm and the point of disappearance. These points taken in combination with the direction of the avalanche flow can indicate the primary search areas;
  • Once you have ascertained the possibility of intervening safely and assessed the point of detachment in relation to the point of overwhelm and the point of disappearance, go to the area evaluated for primary research and start the search with “Artva-sight-hearing”;
  • During the search, each object found (skis, poles, clothing, etc.) will also mark the quick probing point. If not, each object must be positioned in a stable and visible way in the same place where it was found.

In case of discovery of a buried subject

  • In the event of a positive outcome determined by the “Artva-sight-hearing” search and survey, immediately shovel the accumulated snow, trying to reach the head of the buried subject as a priority;
  • Be extremely careful to always start shoveling downstream from the victim (avoiding a dangerous and useless waste of time if the upstream snow slips towards the excavation point, as well as facilitating the subsequent extraction manoeuvres of the buried subject). Evaluate the presumed depth of the buried subject with the probe and start shoveling downstream in the hypothetical depth of the probe tip;
  • Having found the head of the buried subject, proceed to immediately unblock the airways from snow or other obstruction present, taking care not to cause damage to the head by moving it improperly;
  • In case of unconsciousness, breathlessness and circulatory activity of the buried subject, if trained, provide Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR);
  • Implement all the measures necessary to further secure the subject in relation to his condition;

What to do if the buried subject is not found

  • Continue searching while awaiting the arrival of the CNSAS teams giving particular attention to the accumulation areas, curves formed by the avalanche flow, and downstream of any trees/boulders present at the front of the avalanche accumulation;
  • Accurately memorize the timeline of the event and all the research actions carried out and, upon arrival of the CNSAS teams, communicate what has been done up to then;

Information to be provided to the emergency services

  • Provide precise identification data of the caller (name, surname, place of residence), telephone number of the device from which the call is made and, if possible, the number of another telephone (the batteries of the first may run out, may be busy, etc);
  • Provide the exact or presumed number of people overwhelmed and exact or presumed number of people buried;
  • Specify the number of injured persons and their conditions, with respect to their state of consciousness / unconsciousness, breathing difficulties, bleeding in progress, etc …
  • Provide a summary description of the accident with specification of the time it occurred;
  • Share the place of the accident or references that can make the place easily identifiable, such as mountain range, slope, valley, channel, ridge, gorge, altitude and coordinates (in WGS84);
  • Provide the make and model of the Artva device and / or other technology such as Recco in the possession of overwhelmed and buried persons;
  • Describe the meteorological conditions of the place and, in particular, the state of visibility;
  • Inform about the existence of obstacles in the area with particular reference to power lines and cableways, and any other suspended cable that may result in any impediment;
  • Provide the presence of any witnesses able to recollect the timeline and circumstances of the incident: – “Sight-hearing” and “Artva” research carried out; brief description of the avalanche (dimensions and characteristics) and point of overwhelm and / or disappearance (DX, SN, HIGH, LOW, etc.); Presence of objects already extracted and their location as per the previous point;
  • Other news and details that can facilitate the intervention.