Intangible Cultural Heritage in Austria

Experiential Knowledge Concerning Avalanche Risk Management

Applicant: Alpinarium und Gemeinde Galtür, Lawinenkommission Gargellen, Montafoner Museen, Österreichischer Alpenverein, Österreichischer Berg- und Schiführerverband
Province: Carinthia, Lower Austria, Upper Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol, Vorarlberg
Domain: Practices concerning nature

The natural environment of the Alps forces its inhabitants to pay a great deal of attention to the highly complex phenomenon of the avalanche. Since the very beginning of human beings’ presence in the Alpine region, it has been necessary to acquire knowledge about avalanches in order to survive there. To this day, avalanches cannot be perfectly predicted or fully assessed by scientific means. Therefore, having experiential knowledge of how to deal with the associated risks is all the more important. Some of this experiential knowledge is site-specific and gets passed on by alpine organisations, within families, and/or by schools. In earlier times, such knowledge was acquired through close observation of nature and the painful learning process that avalanche disasters entailed. And for many hundreds of years, this experiential knowledge was conveyed and handed down orally from generation to generation. Since the beginning of the 20th century, and especially since the 1950s, such knowledge has been supplemented by scientific research. This has made it possible to successively improve the protection of inhabited areas and transport routes over the course of time, and today, knowledge about dealing with avalanche risks is taught and/or applied in the contexts of general safety, education, technology, and rescue services by local and super-regional communities.

Knowledge of the risks posed by avalanches dates to as far back as human beings’ initial settlement and use of the Alps. For the most part, such knowledge is passed on orally—within families and affected occupational communities (hunters, farmers, etc.). This tradition’s manifestations include popular folk sayings, and the naming of annually recurring avalanches after specific locations and farms likewise expresses a strong relationship with this natural phenomenon. Written documentation of avalanches in the Alps goes back as far as the 17th century, with attention given above all to those that affected human property or human life. In Vorarlberg’s Montafon valley, for example, 200 years of avalanche disasters are recorded in the form of so-called Lawinenbriefe [avalanche protocols] that quantify both property damage and deaths. The Austrian province of Vorarlberg is one place where such historical documents have been and still are used in schools in order to make children aware of the dangers of avalanche risks.
The institutionalisation of knowledge concerning avalanche risks began at the outset of the 20th century, with avalanche training courses available for alpine guides offered as early as 1902. But in general, there exists an international consensus that merely knowing the rules taught in such courses is not sufficient; this must be supplemented by local knowledge. Such experiential knowledge used to be conveyed through years of exchange between experienced alpine guides and their colleagues-in-training.
Increasing tourism in the Alps, along with the sustained popularity of winter sports, has resulted in an entirely new group of people over the past few decades who now represent the lion’s share of avalanche victims—and whose protection represents a new challenge. So for the active bearers of this tradition, the average annual figure of 25 avalanche deaths in Austria is a clarion call to both further augment the body of knowledge about avalanches and continue efforts to implement appropriate measures.