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Simon Akam enrolled in a German-speaking Swiss mountaineering school, which included a three-day avalanche-awareness course. There were drills with avalanche transceivers and instructions on how to use telescopic probes to find buried victims.Illustration by Photo illustration by the Globe and Mail. Source photos courtesy of Simon Akam

Last Sunday afternoon I was standing by the Carschinahutte, a structure of stone and wood at 2,236 metres above the village of St. Antonien in eastern Switzerland, close to the border with Austria, when an alarmed-looking bearded figure appeared. Gesticulating wildly, he explained that his party of ski tourers had been avalanched; two were buried. He was clutching an avalanche transceiver, an electronic device used to locate victims buried under snow. However – he explained frantically – he didn’t know how it worked. Actually, there was another layer of complexity here. What he actually said was, “Ich weiss nicht, wie es funktioniert.

It was experiencing an avalanche, on the north side of Mount Elbrus in Russia in 2017, that brought me to Switzerland, where I have undertaken a project to develop the competences to operate independently on snow-covered mountainsides. This week I had to cross a new boundary in my journey to master ski mountaineering – a linguistic one. To me it is impossible to get under the skin of a place without a grasp of its language. But now, after two months speaking only French, I was moving into German. I know both languages well enough to understand problems with avalanche transceivers, but this was still a major shift.

In January and February I’d been in the French-speaking Val d’Anniviers in southern Switzerland. Then last week I packed my belongings into a hire car and drove from Zinal down into the Rhone valley, before heading north to Worb, a village outside the Swiss capital of Bern.

Here was the home of Michael Wicky and his wife Anita. Wicky runs Bergpunkt, a German-speaking Swiss mountaineering school that I’d arranged to train with in the second phase of the project. I deposited my kit at the Wickys’ house – they’d kindly agreed to let me stay with them when I was not in the mountains – and early the next morning I departed for my first piece of German-speaking training – an intensive three-day avalanche-awareness course. Avalanches are the major hazard ski tourers face, so this was crucial training for me to undergo if I wanted to be able to operate autonomously in the winter mountains.

The course lived up to its German description of intensiv. We were based for the three days at the Berghaus Alpenrosli, a lodging at 1,775 m under a barricade of limestone peaks. Every day we were out on skis – we climbed two summits, one peak of the Schollberg and Schafberg, both around 2,500 m – but this was all interspersed with skills work.

There were drills with avalanche transceivers and instructions in the use of our telescopic probes to find buried victims. One memorable afternoon, the mountain guide running the course, Roman Hinder, dug himself into a snow cave so we could prod through the snowpack above to feel the difference between a soft thigh and a hard ski boot. In the evenings there were lectures, with visuals, on snow metamorphosis and human factors, and games like one where we had to match the five points on the avalanche risk scale with the percentage of accidents that took place at each one.

It was also a linguistic assault, spiced with the fact that while I speak High German – German as spoken in Germany – pretty fluently, these people were by origin dialect speakers. While they had gamely agreed to speak the standardized language they learn in school for my benefit, there were periodic lapses into baffling Swiss German. Meanwhile, new technical vocabulary came in a torrent, a figurative avalanche of words. Triebschnee – drift snow, Schwachschicht – weak layer, Schneebrett – snow slab. I found this linguistic element thrilling, in particular the speed of vocabulary acquisition that comes with full immersion.

I was also impressed by the embrace of technology. We learned how to use Whiterisk, the sophisticated Swiss avalanche avoidance app, which shades slopes above 30 degrees (the minimum incline at which a snowslide is likely to occur) yellow, 30 to 35 degrees orange, 40 to 45 red and 45 to 50 violet. Once you programme a planned route into the app, the Schlusselstellen, the “key points” where an avalanche is most likely to release, are automatically flagged, with information on altitude, angle of slope and aspect – for example, north facing.

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Simon Akam a British journalist. for his column about returning to  the mountain that almost killed him.

Simon Akam returns to the mountain that almost killed him.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

Culture and practice met too. The stereotype of Swiss Germans – even coming from their French-speaking counterparts – is one of rigidity, adherence to rules. I asked one evening about the habit of neighbours calling the police if you have a party that is too loud. “Neighbours are the best police,” came the joking response. I could sense these tropes at play. There was, for instance, evident disapproval when I made a sandwich from breakfast materials to take for lunch, rather than ordering one specifically. Yet, when dealing with snow and all its manifest dangers, being a stickler for rules seemed appropriate. The flow charts and German-language decision trees gave me a sensation of safety.

I learned a great deal. But it was still only an introduction. When Roman Hinder, the guide, came running up to us at the Carschinahutte, claiming his friends were buried and he did not know how to use his transceiver, it was another drill, but a useful one. We four students rushed to respond, and we found the “victims,” clothing-wrapped buried transceivers. But our response was chaotic. I managed to drop my snow shovel and it slid down the hill. In the debrief, Hinder emphasised the need to appoint a leader in these situations.

After the course I returned to Worb, and that night I discussed avalanches with Michael Wicky over raclette, the Swiss melted-cheese dish. He told me about the multiple times he had been avalanched himself, and he pointed out that snow’s feedback loop is limited – it is possible to have a very near miss and not to know, which makes learning tricky.

Avalanche is not the only risk in ski mountaineering either. Two days later, touring at the other end of Switzerland with another Bergpunkt party, I watched as a man above us fell and tumbled some 50 m down the slope, somersaulting over and over. We rushed to the site, and found his face covered in blood. My girlfriend, who is a surgeon, was visiting and got to work with Steri-Strips and bandages. The cuts were relatively superficial, and the man declined a helicopter to fly him out. On the one hand the incident showed that people as well as snow can tumble down slopes, and mountain risk can only be mitigated, not eliminated. That makes deciding if this is all worthwhile far from straightforward.

On the other hand, though, the experience also showed how significant languages are. As my girlfriend worked on the skier’s face, I translated into French. That joint process of providing care and crossing a linguistic boundary felt like a profoundly human experience, and one that was definitely worthwhile.

Open this photo in gallery:
Simon Akam a British journalist. for his column about returning to  the mountain that almost killed him.

A party of ski tourers ascends the Vallon du Toûno above the Val d'Anniviers on Feb. 21.Simon Akam/The Globe and Mail

Simon Akam is a British journalist and author. His first book, The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, published in 2021, was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and won the Templer First Book Prize. Simon can be found at @simonakam on Twitter, @simon.akam on Instagram.

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