Avalanche Danger

We love powder snow! At the same time, remember to respect the snow and its properties.

This is how you prepare for ski touring adventures in Lofoten. Be prepared to avoid being caught in an avalanche.

Steep mountainsides covered with soft powder snow accompanied by blue sky, incredible views and a playful and happy atmosphere. For those who have been bitten by the ski touring bug, little can compare with skiing down a pristine mountainside with wonderful flow. However, the snow cover can contain weak layers and the euphoria can turn into disaster in a fraction of a second. Avalanches claim lives in the Norwegian mountains every single year.

Coastal climate

The coastal climate in Lofoten means a lot of precipitation, strong winds and frequent weather changes. Consequently, skiing here is different from areas with inland mountains. Rapid changes in temperature affect the snow cover and can increase the risk of avalanches.

This involves the risk of being surprised by fog, wind, snow and rain on the mountain. Be well prepared and properly equipped.

Full-on winter in spring can create persistent weak layers. These layers exist even in coastal mountains. Persistent weak layers ask for conservative route selection.
It might take a while before help is on the way. Rescue resources are few and far between. Be prepared to help yourself.
Cornices can break off from any point. Always keep distance to cornices.

The guide’s recommendations

We sat down with mountain guide Sjur Hauge from Northern Alpine Guides to talk about mountain safety, how to avoid avalanche accidents, and how to minimize risks when ski touring in Lofoten.

– ­How do you plan for a ski tour in Lofoten with the aim of ensuring safety in the best possible way?

– There is a recurring mantra: Choose a tour based on your skills and the conditions. It’s important to be thoroughly familiar with the avalanche problems and snow conditions in the area you are entering. Using the avalanche warnings available on Varsom.no is of the utmost importance. Study the warning carefully. You need to understand what the current avalanche problem consists of, how it has occurred and where it is expected to exist. If you don’t understand the warning, you should stay away from avalanche terrain or go on a guided ski tour.

­– ­What other factors should you consider?

– Look at the weather forecast and the group you are going on the ski tour with. What kind of ski tour is suitable for us? It’s important to take into consideration that different members of the group may have different ambitions. If you choose an option that is not in line with the skills of some of the group, it won’t be a good experience for them.

Choose tours that offer flexibility in the choice of routes rather than options where you are “locked” in steep terrain.

An area where you have a variety of directions increases the likelihood of skiing in good snow and safe snow.”

What should you do on the way to the mountain?

–You need to be observant from the moment you head outside an on the way to the mountain. Is the weather what has been forecast? Is there snow blowing from the peaks? Have there been recent avalanches? This is information that is useful when deciding whether to continue with the original plan or choose a safer option.

­– What should you do before setting off?

– Always conduct a transceiver function test before heading into potential avalanche terrain. This means checking to ensure that everyone in the group has a transceiver that can receive and send signals. You then check that everyone has a shovel and probe with them, and that they know how to assemble the probe.

– Does the size of the group matter?

– It’s easier to make good decisions when there are fewer in the group. Communication flows more easily and it’s more efficient. It’s a good idea to limit the size of the group to six and preferably four or fewer. If you have a large group, it’s smart to split it into two smaller groups.” 

­– How should you think and act during the trip up?

– It’s important to have good communication within the group and that you are together. If you make observations, say it out loud even if you think everyone sees the same thing as you. Has an avalanche been triggered on the other side of the valley, are you experiencing changes in the snow and/or has the wind turned? By saying things out loud, everyone in the group thinks about it. The goal along the way is to assess whether the conditions are as predicted, and then to decide whether to continue as planned or to change the route.

– What should you look for during the trip?

– There are three classic danger signs to be observant of:

  • Shooting cracks
  • A “whumping” sound when you walk in the snow
  • Recent avalanches

– This is nature’s way of warning you. However, it’s important to keep in mind that even if none of these signs are present, it does not necessarily mean that it’s safe.

– What is defined as avalanche terrain?

­– A slope steeper than 30 degrees as well as the runout zones are defined as avalanche terrain. Runout zone means how far the avalanche goes. This means that the avalanche can occur in steep terrain above you and affect you even if you are in gentler terrain below.

– What should you do to minimize the risk when walking in steep terrain?

– Walk more than 10 m apart to reduce the load on the snow cover. Make this a habit when walking in terrain with a slope steeper than 30 degrees. If you choose to enter avalanche terrain, you must determine why it’s safe to walk here under the prevailing conditions.

– How do you know how steep the terrain is?

– There are several ways to measure slope steepness, including with poles, slope meters (inclinometers) and apps. These are things you learn on avalanche safety courses. There are also topographic maps showing slope steepness in the Varsom app.

– When should you decide to turn around?

– You should ask the question why is it safe to walk right here today? Sometimes we don’t have a good answer to that, and this is perhaps a good enough answer that you should not be in that terrain. 

– So, there is no shame in turning around?

– Turning back is not a defeat. The mountains won’t disappear. You should not dwell on the tours you decide to turn back. There will be new chances. If you have chosen terrain that offers several options, this won’t affect your skiing experience to a great extent.

– What is a sensible skiing pattern?

– As a starting point, you ski one by one in avalanche terrain. It’s important to ski to a safe place where you can’t be caught by an avalanche if the next skier triggers one. You do this to minimize the number of people who could potentially be taken by avalanches. 

– What should you do if there is an avalanche?

– If things have gone wrong, and someone is caught in an avalanche, buddy rescue with a transceiver and probe is the lifesaving option available. This means that the group must find and dig out their buddy as quickly as possible. The statistics show that you have 15 minutes to do so. After that, the death rate rises sharply.”

­– What measures should you take to increase your competence?

­– Take an avalanche safety course and practice your skills annually with those you are going skiing with. Northern Alpine Guides arranges avalanche safety courses at all levels. We arrange open avalanche safety courses and courses customized for groups of friends.

– ­What do you learn on an avalanche course?

– Planning, how to move in the mountains, recognise warning signs and assess slope steepness, knowledge about snow and buddy rescue are classic content on an avalanche safety course. These are basic skills you need to know when you go ski touring. It’s like taking driving lessons and getting your driving licence before you drive a car.

– Besides avalanches, what other potential dangers should you consider in Lofoten?

– Since we are situated out at sea, the mountains in Lofoten are the first ones that the storm hits. Consequently, the weather changes quickly and sometimes without warning. It can be difficult for the weather forecasters to foresee. It can also get very windy here. 

– Skiing skills also play a role. Skiing in varying skiing conditions requires a certain amount of skill and requires practice. For instance, a bone fracture in the mountains in bad weather can have very serious consequences because the rescue services are often far away.

– What should you always carry in your backpack?

  • A shovel, avalanche probe and a transceiver – often referred to as an avalanche beacon
  • Warm jacket
  • Water and windproof shell garment
  • Woollen hat
  • Mittens
  • Wind sack
  • First aid kit
  • Energy reserves (snacks etc.)
  • Something to drink

I wish you a wonderful ski touring trip. Remember to use your head!

What is defined as avalanche terrain?

This means terrain with a slope steeper than 30 degrees as well as potential runout zones for avalanches.

How to avoid being caught by avalanches?

You need to stay away from avalanche terrain.

Where can you find avalanche bulletins?

On the website varsom.no you will find avalanche bulletins as well as a lot of other useful information about avalanches and ski touring. We recommend downloading the Varsom app. This app contains topographic maps showing slope steepness, which is a very useful tool for planning snow touring trips.

What is mandatory avalanche safety equipment?

A shovel, avalanche probe and a transceiver – often referred to as an avalanche beacon.

Which factors can increase the risk of avalanches?

  • Wind
  • Precipitation
  • Rapidly rising temerature/temperatures above 0 °C

These factors can make the snow cover more unstable. If you experience one or more of these, you should reconsider the chosen route.