Back Country:  a Risky Workplace

Back Country: a Risky Workplace

Josef Mallaun

An encounter with probably the most knowledgeable avalanche and Arlberg mountain local expert, even though he doesn’t like to hear us say it.

Josef Mallaun, Photographer and Ski Guide

Arlberg Magazine, #1 – Winter 2013/14.

When the 56 year old, self-taught photographer, Sepp Mallaun from Strengen sits across from you and exchanges his first few sentences, you’ll catch on fast, that this Austrian State Certified Ski Instructor and Ski Guide is a 100% outdoorsman. Who not only loves his four seasons, his mountains, his snow but lives to study them.

A humble and grateful man who even after 35 years of professional experience has retained his curiosity and respect for nature and as a selfdescribed passionate mountain enthusiast, ”Is simply happy being outdoors.” This was not obvious from the outset, because some medical advice put this trained carpenter and talented hobby skier onto his path and then by luck and chance he ended up at the Ski Academy in St. Christoph. There he graduated and completed the entire program, and too become later an instructor and examiner.  Taking advice, this time from the legendary Prof. Hoppichler, he expanded on his interests by giving lectures on avalanche awareness, in which he exhibited his own photographs of avalanche fissures, snow crystals and the like. Because every now and then he took pictures of colleagues that accompanied him on his explorations, it was only a matter of time that through them and his mentor and sponsor Prof. Hoppichler, the ski industry and the tourism branch heard and took interest in his talents.


Foto: Josef Mallaun


Foto: Josef Mallaun


Foto: Josef Mallaun


Foto: Josef Mallaun

„Das Ergebnisprodukt Foto ist nur ein kleiner Teil aus einer umfangreichen Vor- und Umfeldarbeit, in die meine Akteure immer involviert sind."


Today, after decades of successful contract work for well-known companies in the field of winter sports and tourism associations Sepp, because the market demands it, produces of his own initiative his images. His relaxed work style allows him to focus on his true passion - avalanche awareness and mountain safety. His photo prints are only a small part of much larger comprehensive work environment that his actors are always present as he likes to emphasize. The team lineup consists of the highest level of skiers, free riders and alpine sportsmen with expertise in their field including a work strategy: Reduce the Risk.

“Avalanche awareness is so complex and complicated that we actually know very little. We can reduce risk, but to know how what really works, we are still a long ways a way. I concern myself with the Munter-Method, Stop or Go, the Swiss GRM-Method or the Mike Wiegele developed 5 Step Checklist.  All of these methods learn only from countless accidents and possibly help prognosticate where it could be most dangerous. But ultimately, when I am in the backcountry skiing on an open slope, it boils down to a yes or no decision that is based on experience and caution and trusting my gut feelings. And yet there remains a residual risk. Therefore, one has to be ready to say no, even when you have perfect light and snow cover if you want to survive out there.” 

Sepp plans for his photoshoots well before winter starts. Only when you experience the course of winter and have feelers in the snow, can you start to make reasonable forecasts about the snow cover and have an overall better picture. As a standard, every preparation naturally belongs to the daily study of avalanche reports and their interpretation.  One must be able to translate this information in the outdoors as it’s not enough to be a just a good skier to deter nature.  One must constantly and intensively be familiar with the subject. In addition have the right equipment, respect for the craft and get the location situation under control, then we hold some good cards that nothing happens. The more a person plans, the better the chance of nothing happening as he pushes past and quotes his favourite saying by Friedrich Duerrenmatt. And then Sepp discloses that he is on the local avalanche commission which carries a special status here on the Arlberg. As we have a lot of back country terrain being skied on, even during snowfall,  normally latent trigger points in the snow cover are greatly reduced. This is the main reason for the relative lower avalanche incidents on the Arlberg. After only an hour of spending time with Sepp Mallaun, you clearly can see that his passion for avalanche safety was somehow financed by his photography. And although his photography isn’t his first passion, they are nonetheless even remarkable.