We have observed a major change in alpine tourism during the winter months. On the one hand, the number of people opting for ski mountaineering or snowshoeing is increasing, and, on the other hand, higher snow elevations and mild temperatures also favour simple hiking, for which specific precautions are needed if undertaken during the winter. Reports of Mountain Rescue operations in recent weeks have revealed a wide range of cases having to do with inadequate footwear, inadequate clothing, incorrect planning of hikes, and even the dramatic consequences of running out of mobile phone battery power during an emergency. We talked about this with Belluno Dolomites Mountain Rescue delegate Alex Barattin.
Ph. Lorenzo Barbante
Let’s start with a review of these early winter months. What has been responsible for the largest number of rescues?
“At the top of the list are always unpreparedness, inability to continue, sickness and loss of orientation. These factors can be more problematic in winter than in summer, not only because of the presence of snow and ice, but also because of low temperatures and reduced daylight hours.”
People who visit the mountains in winter are then, on average, no better prepared than those who come in the summer…
“We notice that many hikers have a casual attitude towards the mountains, even in winter, and don’t prepare for the severity of the environment; they come without proper equipment and wear clothes that are too light and shoes that are too old and are in worse condition than they seem.”
“By way of example, the lack of awareness that microspikes (chain-style crampons) are suitable for hiking on trails with low inclines, but certainly not for mountaineering activities. It would always be advisable to have real crampons with you…”
… in your backpack, perhaps along with an ice axe, even when walking in a non-snowy environment?
“You may find yourself on a shady slope and encounter a section, perhaps only 4 or 5 metres long, that requires this sort of equipment. If you don’t have it, you’d be better off turning back. Non-snowy environments can also be treacherous due to the presence of ice under leaves or grass.”
Two years ago, a law came into effect making it mandatory to carry an ARTVA (avalanche locator), probe and shovel even for hiking and snowshoeing…
“Yes, but that is not enough, of course; you also need to know how to use them. The CAI, CNSAS and Alpine Guides organise many initiatives for this purpose with an open invitation to take part in them, and they are especially aimed at people who are not used to going to the mountains.”
One aspect that people perhaps don’t give much consideration to is the battery life of mobile phones, which are vital tools for calling for help in emergencies. What can people do about that?
“Of course, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi should be disabled. And when we notice a major drop in battery level, 4G and 5G networks should be turned off and reactivated only for identifying your geographic position. Your phone location is also crucial; it should be kept in the innermost layer of your clothing. The ARTVA is an essential device; if we get hot while climbing, we tend to take off our jackets and store them in our backpacks, which, in the event of an avalanche, might get hurled far away from us.”