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Avalanche safety courses - Fraser Wilkin, Hochfugen.
Thursday December 20, 2012 - Email this article to a friend

With the huge levels of snow at the moments and several deaths in the past weeks learning about off piste safety is more relevant than ever. PlanetSKI has been on a safety course in Austria.

The Snow and Avalanche Awareness Camps, SAAC, were set up in 1998 in response to the growing number of young Tirolean "free-riders" who were venturing off-piste without adequate appreciation of its dangers.

With the huge quantities of snow that has fallen so far this winter, and the very real threat from avalanches, the courses are a timely reminder that if you ski or snowboard off piste the you should learn about safety. 

See this recent PlanetSKI news story on some of the recent avalanches in the Alps.

Unstable snowUnstable snow













As our mountain guide, Robert, explained on the SAAC course, "Ski technology has progressed to the point where almost anyone with even a moderate level of skill can enjoy themselves outside the safety of the pistes. The trouble is, they lack the knowledge and experience to go with it."

He went on to compare freeriding to the snowboarding boom of the late 80s.

"It's just so big now, every young person wants to do it. We have a collective responsibility to help minimise their risk."

SAAC gets involved by offering one or two-day "taster" sessions that cover the basics of avalanche awareness and other off-piste hazards. 

As many as 20 Tirolean resorts are involved throughout the season and costs are covered by various sponsors and supporters of the project. Hotel and lift pass packages are also available at heavily discounted rates.  

The course begins with a 3-hour theory session as participants are taught about the fundamentals of off-piste safety.

This includes learning about different types of avalanches and their risk factors, mountain weather, route finding and group dynamics.

One volunteer also gets to try out the new ABS airbag system -  much to the amusement of the rest of the class.

Serious but funSerious but fun













After lunch we are divided into small groups before heading off into the backcountry for a more practical approach to assessing the dangers.

Here we get to practise search and rescue techniques using transceivers, probes and shovels.














In the evening participants are encouraged to stay in the same hotel, reflect on the day's events and build camaraderie. 

The course is intense but enjoyable and whilst we can't cover everything with a 2-day taster, we definitely departed with a better understanding of the things we need to be aware of next time we venture off the pistes.

And should you want to learn more, there are plenty of more advanced sessions running throughout the season that are fee-paying.

I completed my taster course in the Tirolean resort of Hochfügen.

It is no more than a collection of hotels and it sits at the bottom of a steep shady bowl, high above the Ziller valley an hour's drive east of Innsbruck.

In most respects it is far removed from the Austrian stereotype ski resort.

This is not somewhere you will find traditional wooden chalets clustered round an onion-domed church.

Nor will you find mile upon mile of gently undulating family-friendly skiing. What you will find, however, is one of  the country's few genuinely ski-in, ski-out purpose-built resorts, surrounded by some of the Tirol's most serious free-ride terrain.

Hochfügen markets itself as a "sporty" resort and makes no secret of its desire to be known as the free-riding epicentre of the Tirol. 

It's doing a pretty good job.

Not only is the layout of the slopes naturally suited to off-piste adventure as much of the best terrain is lift accessible or involves a very short walk, but also the lift company has gone to serious lengths to make the free-riding experience as safe and seamless as possible. 

Crucial to this is a central information point where you can find out about the current avalanche warnings and weather reports, buy or rent special equipment, or chat to or book a mountain guide and ski instructor.

There are also several "Freeride Checkpoints" located at the entrance to the most popular off-piste areas that serve as a final control point before leaving the security of the pistes.

Here you can find lots more useful information including telephone numbers and emergency procedures.

You can also make sure that your avalanche transceiver is working properly.

With such impressive organisation and infrastructure there can be few better places to hold a snow and avalanche awareness camp.

The Hochfugen freeride terrainThe Hochfugen freeride terrain













Last winter another PlanetSKI reporter, Katy Dartford, went on a SAAC course in Khutai. For her report then see this related PlanetSKI feature.


The free camps operate throughout the season in over 20 ski resorts across Austria, including Hochfügen, Kühtai, Obertauern, Wildschönau, Westendorf, Galtür and Mayrhofen.

To reserve a place on one of the camps all you have to do is register online, at - ideally as soon as registration begins in mid-late October, because places fill up very quickly.

As most participants are German-speaking it is important to mention at registration that you are English so guides are assigned that speak excellent English and are able to translate through the theory session.

A 7 night stay at the 4*s Hotel Lamark in Hochfügen starts from €946 (£769) per person, including breakfast, dinner, use of the Lamark spa and a 6-day super ski pass. Per night prices start from €110 per person.

For more detail on the ski area visit  and for more information on the Austrian Tirol visit

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