Matthias Walcher
MSc Thesis in Water Management and Environmental Engineering - Mountain Risk Engineering, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria.
Publication year: 2017


Guests and guides partaking in commercial mechanized backcountry skiing are exposed to numerous types of hazards (e.g., avalanches, tree wells, cliffs, crevasses) that can result in injury or death. While guides have extensive practical experience in managing the risk associated with these hazards, detailed quantitative estimations of the associated risks are currently lacking. This represents a considerable barrier for evaluating existing risk management practices and impedes the further improvement of backcountry safety within the mechanized skiing industry.

This study collected historical incident and exposure information from helicopter- and snowcat-skiing operations to perform a quantitative retrospective risk analysis. The collected dataset spans 47 winter seasons (1969/70 to 2015/16) with a total of 2,792,570 skierdays and 763 incidents that resulted in injuries or fatalities among guests or guides.

The overall mortality rate for mechanized skiing between the seasons 1996/97 and 2015/16 was 21.0 x 10-6 per day skiing. The highest risk was associated with avalanches (14.4 x 10-6), followed by non-avalanche related deep snow immersion. Avalanche mortality decreased substantially over the study period. Comparing the two types of mechanized skiing, avalanche mortality was higher in helicopter-skiing, and the risk of NARSID was higher in snowcat-skiing.
The highest risks of major injury were associated with ski accidents and collisions. Higher values of morbidity were found for guides engaged in snowcat-skiing, compared to helicopter-skiing guides.