The Ultimate Guide to Mountain Safety: Alternative Alpine Activities

 
In part one of our special three-part guide to mountain safety, we looked at general safety for on-piste skiing – particularly for those who had never been on the mountain before. In part two we looked at safety advice for the more advanced skiers and boarders who yearn to get off-piste and explore the pristine conditions of the backcountry.
 
In this section of the guide we’ll be covering those mountain activities that don’t just involve your regular, straightforward on-piste or off-piste skiing and snowboarding. From hiking on glaciers to jumping from helicopters to reach the best terrain, we look at the mountain safety advice you need for all the best alternative alpine activities.
 

Glacier Climbing

It has to be said that glacier climbing is a physically demanding, inherently dangerous mountain activity – but it’s also a highly exhilarating and rewarding one too. Whether you’re doing it for the love of the views and the terrain or for the sheer thrill of the climb, it’s strongly recommended that you attend a training course specifically aimed at glacier climbers and learn from experienced guides and instructors. While this forms part of our Ultimate Guide to Mountain Safety, some things need to be taught and experienced with experts in the flesh. Having said that, this section will give you a comprehensive summary of the most essential safety advice you’ll need for glacier climbing.
 
View from Mont Blanc-summit
 
View from the summit of Mont Blanc. Image courtesy of Tom Fahy on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
 

Get clued up

Glacier climbing is not your average trek up a hill. First of all you need a good team, including a guide – glacier climbing is no solo pursuit. There are a number of safety methods and techniques that you’ll need to learn before you begin and taking a safety course is your best bet to learn the specific dangers inherent in glacier climbing. You’ll learn what gear you need and, crucially, how to use it correctly when you’re out on the mountain. The knowledge you’ll learn on a course is invaluable and will put you in good stead for your climbing adventure. Here’s the basic stuff you need to learn...
 

Glacer terrain 

Glacier conditions are subject to changes throughout the day as the sun impacts the ice. Glacier terrain often consists of both icy and rocky surfaces so you’ll need to get pretty good at climbing the ice as well as scrambling over rocks. You’ll also need to learn how to use all the essential equipment mentioned later in this guide.
 
 
“Glacier hiking and climbing with Glacier Guides” Video courtesy of: Arctic Adventures.
 
You’ll need a thorough understanding of the different types of moraine (boulders, stones or other debris deposited by a glacier). Moraine can impact your glacier climbing experience quite dramatically, particularly if it contains sand and silt as well as rocks, as this can make surfaces slippery.
 

Mountain weather

Whiteouts can cause serious problems for glacier climbers. As the name suggests, this is when a storm occurs and everything becomes white. Whiteouts aren’t fun for anybody, with no visible ground, horizon, east or west. Route marking with coloured wands is really the only way to make any progress in the event of a whiteout. 
 

Common glacier hazards

Learning about the most common hazards for glacier climbers is imperative before you head out on the mountain. Some of the most important hazards you need to be aware of include:
 
Whiteouts – See ‘Weather’ above.
Crevasses – Glaciers have large crevasses and, frankly put, falling down one will usually result in death. Learning how to identify and avoid crevasses (they’re often hidden under surface snow) as well as how to help somebody who has fallen down a crevasse, is crucial.
 
A climber looks at crevasses
 
Crevasses can be hidden under surface snow. Image courtesy of iwona_kellie on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
 
Snowbridges – These form across glaciers and the strength of them is dependent on the weather. While some can be crossed safely, others will break under the weight of those crossing them.
Millwells – Present at lower altitudes, these are melt-water chutes of water. Falling into a millwell can be extremely dangerous as it’s easy to become trapped under the glacier, making a successful rescue almost impossible.
Seracs – These are large towers of ice that can easily become falling blocks of ice as the sun warms them. The short of it is that these should be passed under quickly, without lingering.
Moraines – Boulders can become loose on the glacier at any time. Climbing near lateral moraines is particularly risky because rock falls can occur when the sun warms them. Try to schedule climbing time near moraines early or late in the day.
Glacial streams – These contain slit that can behave like quicksand. Be sure to take great care when crossing them.
 

All the gear... 

Contrary to what you might think or have been told, it’s not possible to climb a glacier in your hiking shoes. Occasionally this is possible on small roped-off areas marked out for the average tourist to enjoy, but even then it’s not the safest option. Having the correct gear and clothing for your epic glacier climb is essential and should include:
 
Proper climbing boots
Helmet 
Waterproof jacket 
Gloves 
Gaiters 
Layered clothing and/or thermals
Waterproof trousers/snow pants
Climbing or hiking socks (not cotton!) 
Hat /balaclava
Sunglasses/goggles 
First aid equipment
Sunscreen (even if it’s cloudy)
Ice axe 
Harness
Crampons
Ropes
Z-pulley rescue system and carabiners
Trekking poles
 
The importance of learning how and when to use the above equipment most effectively cannot be overstated. If you do the right thing and attend a glacier mountain safety course, you’ll learn how to use all the essential gear mentioned in this guide. From practising your alpine rope work to perfecting your crampon and ice axe techniques, your knowledge and practical techniques should be of a high standard before you set off. 
 

Heli-skiing and Heli-boarding

Heli-skiing is basically off-piste skiing or snowboarding that’s accessed via a helicopter – as opposed to a ski lift or hiking up the side of a mountain with your skis in tow. (For the purposes of this guide, ‘heli-skiing’ will refer to both skiing and snowboarding.)
 
As we’ve already covered off-piste mountain safety advice in part two of this guide, in this section we’ll instead be concentrating on the more specific safety aspects of heli-skiing. To read an in-depth guide to off-piste safety, including the lowdown on all the gear, equipment and knowledge you’ll need before heading into the backcountry, please see Part Two: Off-Piste Mountain Safety.
 

What to expect 

Heli-skiing is all about skiing and riding in virgin terrain that others can only dream of, but without the effort of hiking or climbing into these areas. The types of conditions heli-skiers are generally greeted with are fresh powder and some amazingly long, steep and uninterrupted descents.
 
Heli-skiing
 
Image courtesy of Patrick Angberg on Flickr under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
 
However, these unexplored mountainous environments present some very real risks and dangers. Since an experienced guide and the helicopter’s pilot will offer much of the protection you need out there in the wilderness, heli-skiing is actually a far more accessible mountain activity than many intermediate skiers and boarders may think. Professional heli-skiing companies will be more than happy to accommodate you if you decide you want to give the lifts a wide berth in favour of a heli-skiing excursion, and every reputable operator will have the main safety issues covered. Your own personal safety is, of course, entirely your responsibility though, and there are certain safety issues you’ll need to bear in mind before your heli-skiing adventure can take off...
 

Can you heli-ski anywhere?

Good question. While adventurous powder-seekers often head to the likes of Alaska, Canada and the Andes to get their heli-skiing fix, an increasing number of ski resorts in Europe do offer heli-skiing – usually one day trips. Having said that, heli-skiing is banned in France, although you can still arrange a trip from here; you’ll just be deposited across the Swiss or Italian border because the French helicopters aren’t actually allowed to drop you off in the country.
 

Before the off...

Before your first heli-skiing trip, you should embark on a pre-flight helicopter safety lesson to familiarise yourself with the general safety of riding in your chosen mode of transport, including the operation of seat belts, how to exit in the event of an emergency, plus the best way to board and disembark the craft without injury. Reputable heli-skiing operators include this as standard.
 
 
“Whistler Heli Skiing Go Pro Helmet Cam 02/22/11” Video by JayyFive.

 

Getting a credible crew 

Pilots hired by heli-ski operators should have a wealth of flying experience and more than just a passing familiarity with the particular mountain’s terrain and ever-changing weather conditions. They must be experienced in identifying sudden changes in wind direction and flying in whiteout conditions at high altitude, all while performing multiple takeoffs and landings with varying weight-loads. Needless to say, getting an experienced and confident pilot is of paramount importance so don’t feel shy about enquiring about pilots' qualifications when choosing an operator. Any heli-ski company worth their salt should be more than happy to boast about their qualified and experienced pilots.
 
You heli-ski guide should have mountaineering certification and be trained in first aid (many have Wilderness First Responder, Outdoor Emergency Care and Emergency Medical Technician training). They should, of course, also have broad experience of skiing your chosen mountain range. Again, don’t hesitate to ask for details of guides’ qualifications and experience. 
 
NB: Some countries have heli-ski associations, such as HeliCat in Canada and Heli Ski in the US. These associations have established some industry-wide protocols when it comes to aircraft safety and operating procedures, as well as pilots’ qualifications and training. They also serve to educate heli-skiing operators on the latest safety measures and techniques. 
 

An idea of safety gear

Your chosen heli-ski company should provide the following safety gear for your heli-skiing trip, although different operators have different rules so always check what they’re providing and what you’re allowed to take with you before you set off.
 
Basic safety gear for heli-skiing is not all that different to that of general off-piste skiing. For a compressive guide to off-piste skiing gear and equipment, see Part Two: Off-Piste Mountain Safety.  A basic list of safety gear will include:
 
Transponder
Avalanche probe and beacon
Snow shovel
Two-way radio
Safety harness
Locking carabiner
 
The great thing about heli-skiing is that the presence of the aircraft crew and guide means that most of the safety aspects have already been considered and there are qualified people on hand should things go wrong. This means, while for your own personal safety it’s imperative to get clued up beforehand, a lot of the risks of heli-skiing are reduced, meaning this alternative alpine activity is far more accessible than people might think.

Other Alpine Activities

There are a ton of other winter activities you can get involved in – some safer than others. If you want a break from skiing or snowboarding (or if they weren’t your thing in the first place) here are some ideas for alternative alpine activities and the safety tips you need to bear in mind for each one.
 

Airboarding

A relative newcomer to the ‘throw-yourself-down-a-mountain’ scene, airboarding is suitable for both skiers and non-skiers. Basically a bodyboard for the snow, airboarding sees snow fans shooting down the hill headfirst on an inflatable sledge-like cushion. (Well, why not?)
 
The underside of the airboard is grooved, so that you can steer and brake by leaning from side to side. While fans insist airboarding is instinctive and safe, many resorts are reluctant to allow it because they believe it could be hazardous to others enjoying the mountain. Despite it being fairly instinctive then, it’s important to have some training before you set off so you know how to control your airboard properly. It’s also important to wear the same safety gear you’d wear for skiing or snowboarding – including a helmet.
 
NB: Some resorts enforce age restrictions on airboarding so before you start diving down the mountain, check the rules first.
 
Check out the below video for a taste of what airboarding is all about: 
 
 
“Airboard @ Montalbert” Video courtesy of La Plagne TV.
 

Tobogganing

Tobogganing is a popular alternative mountain activity, particularly with kids. However, it’s not quite as risk-free as it looks. If you come off a toboggan at high speed it could result in some pretty nasty injuries. Colliding with inconveniently-placed trees, rocks, signs and other people are all common causes of tobogganing related incidents. Here are some tips on how to keep your toboggan escapades fun and safe:
 
Don’t start off on a steep run.
Avoid ice-covered area and runs with too many trees and rocks.
Check your toboggan has good brakes and steering before you set off.
If you have a child, ensure they have sufficient layers on and force them to wear a helmet.
 
Old school tobogganing
 
Image courtesy of Forest History Society on Flickr under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.
 
The safest position to be in while tobogganing is kneeling or sitting, facing frontwards. Laying back increases the risk of injuring the spine and tobogganing head-first is just asking for trouble.
Tuck in any scarves and laces that could potentially catch on something on your way down the hill. Also keep your hands, arms and legs inside the toboggan.
 

Snowmobile trips

Snowmobile trips are an exhilarating way to tour the fresh terrain of the backcountry without actually getting on a pair of skis or donning a snowboard. Most resorts offer this activity at a family-friendly/beginners level and as an advanced option, where you’ll cover trickier terrain. Be sure to choose the right level for you and to listen carefully to the safety precautions and advice your guide covers in their briefing before you go out. Also, dress like you're going skiing or boarding; a helmet, goggles and insulated gloves are all important for safety and comfort.
 
 
“Snowmobile Touring Near Sudbury, Ontario”  Video by Snowmobile.com

What’s next?

While all of the mountain activities in this guide carry a degree of risk, it’s important to put them into perspective. Unanimous statistics on such mountain activities are difficult to come by, but back in 2009, GP Dr Mike Langran studied alpine injury rates and suggested that the overall risk of injury combining all the snow sports is about 0.2% to 0.4% – way less than in many other adventure sports and far less than most people would expect. 
 
What’s more, those alternative mountain activities that may seem like the ‘safe’ option (like tobogganing) sometimes lead to more injuries than those perceived as high risk (such as heli-skiing). It all comes down to having a good level of knowledge about your chosen alternative activity and then applying this knowledge when you get out on the mountain. Most of all, now that you have a basic understanding of how to keep safe out there in the great outdoors, have some fun. After all, any activity that involves spending time against the backdrop of some of Mother Nature’s most dramatic work is bound to be rewarding.
 

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