Articles | Volume 15, issue 9
Research article
09 Sep 2015
Research article |  | 09 Sep 2015

Analysis of avalanche risk factors in backcountry terrain based on usage frequency and accident data in Switzerland

F. Techel, B. Zweifel, and K. Winkler

Abstract. Recreational activities in snow-covered mountainous terrain in the backcountry account for the vast majority of avalanche accidents. Studies analyzing avalanche risk mostly rely on accident statistics without considering exposure (or the elements at risk), i.e., how many, when and where people are recreating, as data on recreational activity in the winter mountains are scarce. To fill this gap, we explored volunteered geographic information on two social media mountaineering websites – and Based on these data, we present a spatiotemporal pattern of winter backcountry touring activity in the Swiss Alps and compare this with accident statistics. Geographically, activity was concentrated in Alpine regions relatively close to the main Swiss population centers in the west and north. In contrast, accidents occurred equally often in the less-frequented inner-alpine regions. Weekends, weather and avalanche conditions influenced the number of recreationists, while the odds to be involved in a severe avalanche accident did not depend on weekends or weather conditions. However, the likelihood of being involved in an accident increased with increasing avalanche danger level, but also with a more unfavorable snowpack containing persistent weak layers (also referred to as an old snow problem). In fact, the most critical situation for backcountry recreationists and professionals occurred on days and in regions when both the avalanche danger was critical and when the snowpack contained persistent weak layers. The frequently occurring geographical pattern of a more unfavorable snowpack structure also explains the relatively high proportion of accidents in the less-frequented inner-alpine regions. These results have practical implications: avalanche forecasters should clearly communicate the avalanche danger and the avalanche problem to the backcountry user, particularly if persistent weak layers are of concern. Professionals and recreationists, on the other hand, require the expertise to adjust the planning of a tour and their backcountry travel behavior depending on the avalanche danger and the avalanche problem.

Short summary
We present a spatiotemporal picture of winter backcountry usage in the Swiss Alps and compare this with the distribution of avalanche accidents. Critical avalanche danger conditions and an unfavorable snowpack (old snow problem) strongly increase the risk of winter backcountry recreationists to be involved in a severe avalanche accident. This explains why there are comparably more accidents in the inneralpine regions with less activity.
Final-revised paper