This article was written in cooperation with the Mountain Rescue Service of Grainau (Bergwacht Grainau).
Winter attracts millions of tourists and winter sports enthusiasts to the Bavarian Alps. The snow builds the foundation for a unique alpine winter experience in the Zugspitze area. Here a few safety tips for those who spend their winter holiday on the slopes, as well as off-piste with ski mountaineering or snowshoeing.
In The Ski Area
Garmisch-Partenkirchen owns two ski areas: Garmisch Classic and Zugspitze. According to the Bavarian Mountain Rescue Service ('Bergwacht Bayern'), about 850 ski accidents occurred on the slopes of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the 2017/2018 ski season alone. It is also worth noting that the proportion of serious accidents is growing higher over the years. It is therefore extremely important that every skier is aware of the risk and follows the safety instructions in ski areas.
The right ski equipment and warm clothing are the basics. A helmet is recommended in German ski areas. Take your health insurance with you as well as your personal ID. Backpacks are not allowed on the chairlifts for safety reasons, except for very small flat backpacks.
Of both ski areas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, only Garmisch Classic has a downhill run to the valley. That means, up on the Zugspitze you should observe the closing times to reach the Zugspitzbahn cogwheel train station or the Eibsee cablecar on time.
Staying Safe in the Ski Area
If you are a beginner, choose easier slopes - for example, avoid the famous Kandahar run for now. On the slope, remember that in the event of a collision the skier who was positioned higher on the slope (and therefore probably had a higher speed) is always the one responsible for the accident. The reason is that when you are skiing, you can only see what is happening down the slope, while dangers coming from above are not visible.
If you have to stop on the slope for a short break, do it at the side of the slope or, should this be not possible and you have to stay in the middle, find a spot that is clearly visible from above. Never stop in the middle of a steep slope that immediately follows a flat spot! When skiing downhill, it is best to make smaller turns - by crossing the entire slope at once your path is more likely to cross with faster skiers.
Dangers on the Piste
Sometimes the ski slopes are designed to cross with ski lifts or toboggan runs. These dangerous spots are usually specially marked with traffic signs. For instance, on the Zugspitze many accidents happen below the toboggan run. Never enter closed slopes: they may be closed due to dangerous snow conditions or when steep slopes are prepared using cable winches, which may cause severe injuries or death.
An avalanche may be possible in the ski area as well. Do not leave the designated slope when skiing and pay attention to the closed areas - slopes can be closed at short notice due to increased avalanche danger or safety blasting.
Accident in the Ski Area?
Should an accident happen on the slope and you can assist, the first thing to do is to secure the accident site. Make a sign of crossed skis or sticks on the slope about 10-15 meters above the accident site. Then you have to check if the person is injured, and if they can continue on their own. In doubt, do not wait too long before making a decision - do not leave the injured person lying in the snow for a long time, especially if it is starting to get dark.
If help is needed, notify the mountain rescue service as soon as possible by calling the Alpine emergency number 112. In the meantime, use available clothing and objects (skis or snowboard, backpacks) to minimize contact with the snow and thus prevent heat loss. When the mountain rescue team arrives, help provide the needed information if you can. Afterwards, injured individuals are usually either transported down with a toboggan and then brought to hospital by the ambulance team, or, for serious injuries, taken by helicopter directly to the 'Klinikum Garmisch-Partenkirchen' or to the 'Unfallklinik Murnau'. For minor injuries (like shoulder dislocation), you can assist the injured individual to get to the mountain rescue station on their own and get treated to first aid - with the obligation to visit a doctor soon. Mountain rescue service ('Bergwacht') stations are marked on the slope map.
Ski mountaineering, winter hiking, snowshoeing, tobogganing, ice climbing - here in the Bavarian Alps you can enjoy the winter at its best. However, snow can be dangerous, especially after a big snowfall or during winters with increased snow volumes. Do not enter the snowy mountains alone, especially if you are new in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Of course, you can use the designated winter hiking trails in the valley or up in the ski areas. For any other winter activities, ask the locals for advice or better, join a guided group. Local mountain guides are familiar with the terrain and able to assess the avalanche risk correctly.
The Garmisch Classic ski area offers some picturesque ski tours. Should you go on tour in the ski area, the rules for snow hikers on the slopes apply: DAV Rules for Ski Tours In Ski Areas.
Learn more about guided winter hikes and alpine winter tours:
- Winter hikes in Grainau - Tourist Office Grainau
- Winter hikes - Tourist Office Garmisch-Partenkirchen
- German Alpine Club - Section Garmisch-Partenkirchen
- Guided Tours - Garmisch Alpine School
- Zugspitze Mountaineering School
Don't rely completely on your cell phone - the battery runs out quickly in the cold, and there is no signal in many areas. Take your map and compass with you (and check that you know how to use them). Inform the others about your hike or ski tour in advance: let them know the time and destination, or when you are planning to return. On the way, follow the route marked on the map - this is the best way to avoid dangerous spots. If in doubt, turn back. Always check your position on the map - this is the most important information during rescue operations. Take your headlight with you.
Weather Conditions & Avalanche Situation
In winter it is even more important than in summer to check the weather as you go. Current information on the snowpack, wind and temperature can be obtained daily from the Bavarian Avalanche Warning Service (or the Avalanche Warning Service Tirol) and the German Weather Service. However, avalanche casualties are even possible at the time when avalanche danger is marked as 'low' - due to local snow accumulations sometimes even as late as the end of June. On tour, always check the on-site snow situation for yourself, even if you are in the designated ski area.
On long alpine tours it is extremely important to stay warm and dry, and have enough to drink. Be prepared for weather changes and considerable temperature differences between peak and valley, or between day and night. First but not least, you need insulated winter hiking boots, warm but light clothes, food and drinks. It is best to wear clothing in signal colours, this would help to locate you in the snow quickly when needed. Also, take a safety vest with you. Ski mountaineering equipment can be rented in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (e.g. here or here). Depending on the type of the tour and weather conditions, shoe spikes, crampons or ski crampons as well as an ice axe are recommended on icy surfaces and firn snow. Your mountain guide will advise you on this. Other recommended items include:
- First aid kit & emergency blanket
- Headlamp or flashlight, spare batteries
- Clothes to change (e.g. functional underwear)
- Hiking poles
- Second pair of gloves
9 out of 10 avalanches are known to be caused by the mountaineers themselves. For high alpine winter tours you need a qualified mountain guide and personal avalanche equipment. Also, avalanche training for the whole group is required. A personal avalanche transceiver, avalanche probe and a snow shovel - the correct use of these three can save lives. However, 'can' doesn't mean 'will': the equipment is useless without regular practice, since after the avalanche you only have a few minutes to discover and rescue the missing person. Successful rescue operations are only possible when every member of the group is specially trained for avalanche rescue, both in terms of rescue techniques, safety and organization. Do the avalanche training with your group before the tour - this is what it looks like. Before you enter the unsecured terrain, start your avalanche transceiver and perform a test on each device.
An emergency situation in alpine terrain is even more dangerous in winter due to the low temperatures and shorter daylight hours, which means you have less time for a search and rescue operation. Also, the snowpack, the ice and the wind may block the access to many locations at higher altitudes. Should an accident occur in your group, immediately activate the Alpine Emergency Call under 112. Use this checklist while calling the emergency line:
- Where did the accident happen? This is something you have to know - the rescue service cannot locate you that easily. In exception cases the Bergwacht can request your location from the cell provider, however, the accuracy is limited to kilometers and the request takes the valuable time away. So the best you can do is to always check your location - you can even do that with your smartphone.
- What happened? Describe the accident in details.
- How many people were injured?
- What kind of injuries do they have? Any life-threatening injuries?
- Who is reporting the accident? How can the rescue service call back?
- Weather conditions at the accident spot?
In the meantime, don't leave the injured person to freeze in the snow or on bare rock - use your rescue blanket (possibly silver side in) and the available clothing and objects - e.g. skis, snowboard, backpacks, - to minimize the contact with the snow and to prevent heat loss. In the event of strong wind, use your shovel to build a grotto in the snow for the injured person.
If possible, find a suitable landing area for the rescue helicopter. Then put your skis in the snow to make the spot visible, put on your safety vest and signal to the pilots with your flashlight or a mirror. If you can use your cell phone, it is sometimes possible to stay in contact with the rescue service by phone and give instructions to the pilots. The better information you can provide to the rescue service, the higher is the chance of being saved.
We hope that nothing happens, and you would enjoy your winter holiday in Grainau to the fullest!
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