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Gear Guy

What's the essential avalanche-survival gear?

I'll be skiing in the Austrian Alps this winter. What's the essential gear for avalanche safety? We're not all supported by James Bond-level technology, but I was wondering what sort of equipment you'd recommend for going off piste. Brian York, United Kingdom

A: Skiing in the Alps being what it is, I don't think you're apt to be too far out of sight of lifts and other people. But of course it could happen. More importantly, will you be with a formal group or on your own? If you're part of a group, it might make sense to carry avalanche beacons such as the Ortovox F1 ($250, or about 160 pounds sterling). The trick, of course, is to ensure that everyone is comfortable using these things. Also, you must take care to stay close enough together so that you keep track of one another, but not so close that a single avalanche can get you all.

Along with a beacon, pack at least two avalanche shovels for a party of four. Better if you all carry one, but that might not be practical. It's also useful if your ski poles can be disassembled and used as avalanche probes. That's a common feature in Nordic poles, but not so common with Alpine ones. Even if you don't carry a beacon, do carry the shovels and poles.

The real key to avalanche safety is to avoid being hit by one. Get some instruction on how to judge whether a slope may or may not slide, then use that knowledge conservatively. About one-third of all avalanche victims die in the incident itself, so prudence is the main thing; the equipment you have on board will only come into play in the worst-case scenario.

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