It's been a good six years since I learnt anything about avalanches, and that was on an introduction to winter moutaineering course in Scotland.. a little bit different to now where I'm snowboarding off piste on a regular basis here in Chamonix, so I thought it would be a good idea to brush up on some avalanche safety and the key things to look out for.
Good job for me then that Avalanche Academy run weekly FREE talks at La Terrasse bar in the centre of town. There's an upstairs room to the side of the upper bar (head up the spiral staircase) where there's plenty of seats facing a projector screen with host Stuart Macdonald, Director of Avalanche Academy, greeting you as you come in.
There were a good 30 people there last night with standing room only at the back, so if you want to bag a more comfortable sofa seat I suggest you get there around 6 o'clock, grab a beer and settle in.
The talk lasted until 7.30pm and included video clips of avalanches, some with people in them and some without - a sobering reality check as some of the avalanches that were triggered didn't look like they were on too steep terrain either..
I'm not going to go into much detail here as you should really get along to the talk yourselves and make a few notes, but Stuart explained about the different types of snow and crystal formations, and how weather, wind and you the skier or snowboarder, affect the snow you're skiing on potentially causing it to slide. There was a section on the angle of the terrain, what the different avalanche flags mean, different layers of snow, and what kind of equipment you should take out with you (a decent shovel, 2m+ probe and transceiver should be a neccessity!) and what to do / what not to do if you are caught in a slide (it sounds like us boarders come off less favourably as skiers can ditch their poles and kick off their skis... hmm food for thought...)
Also an interesting fact to remember is that statistically most people get caught in avalanches when there's a level 3 alert and often when they're familiar with the terrain they're skiing or boarding.
Stuart touched on how to search using transceivers and which the best types are (Digital over Analogue) however if you want to learn more and put some of the theory into practise, then why not sign up for one of their courses which start from £75 for the Foundation course where no previous experience is necessary.
Some useful phone numbers that you should definitely have in your phone are 1) for the PGHM 0450 54 04 73 & 2) The Pisteurs 0450 53 16 89, in case you get into a situation wheren you need rescue.
The floor was open to questions at the end of the session, which led to some good questions (&answers) Q: "Should I try & hold a ski pole up in the air if I'm caught in an avalanche?" A:[paraphrasing] "Good luck with that! - There's almost no chance of that happening, plus you should try and get rid of your poles as soon as the slide starts - Don't ski with your wrist straps on as it's harder to get rid of your poles.."
Q: (my favourite, but less serious) "Is you brother the guy from Wonders of the Solar System?" A: "err... No" (from a confused looking Stuart who didn't realise he bears a resemblance to Professor Brian Cox - ladies maybe that might sway more of you into coming along!?!)
I highly recommend you get along to the lecture, they're on weekly on Monday nights, informative, free and quite sociable too.
And if you want to read up some more on avoiding avalanches, how to survive an avalanche, and what gear to take with you, there's plenty of information here or on Avalanche Academy's website or on their twitter feed.