What To Do In An Avalanche
The only true way to avoid an avalanche is to steer clear of locations where avalanches occur – namely, snow-capped mountains with slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. But donning your ski jacket and descending into clouds of untouched white snow is a feeling unlike any other. There’s always a concern at the back of the mind for anyone hitting the slopes though and that’s the threat of an avalanche.
Understanding the level of risk and being prepared is key to ensure you stay as safe as possible if trouble occurs. Before heading out into risky terrain, check the weather forecast so you know if an avalanche is likely. They tend to happen immediately after a heavy snowstorm, particularly one with high winds as the snow becomes more tightly packed. But there are ways to increase your chance of survival if you get caught out too. These tips will guide you through basic slope safety when you’re on dangerous ground.
Support Your Own Rescue
While you can’t predict when an avalanche will occur, you can be prepared for all eventualities by choosing your accessories wisely. For example, heading to the slopes with a ski backpack that doubles as an avalanche airbag is becoming an increasingly popular choice for those exploring more remote terrain. In the event of a disaster, you pull the handle on the shoulder strap and a fan or pressurized cartridge inflates an airbag to keep you close to the surface and more visible. Likewise, a survival watch makes more of your timepiece, serving as a compass, EDC flashlight, GPS and much more.
A tool that many experts recommend carrying with you is an avalanche beacon which greatly increases your survival chances if you find yourself buried under the snow. It works by transmitting a radio frequency to another beacon so rescuers can find you more easily by finding your exact location. This is essential for anyone skiing off-piste or for those hiking in rougher terrain. These tools will help keep you as safe and visible to rescuers as possible – critical in the case of an avalanche.
Move Sideways Or Upslope
Snow moves fastest in the center of an avalanche so if you’re caught in the middle, you’re in the most dangerous position. The best strategy for keeping safe and avoiding being trapped is to move sideways and to begin moving as quickly as possible, as this will increase your chance of survival. That said, most avalanches that occur when you’re skiing or snowboarding are often caused by those taking part in the activity, so the snow will begin to fall directly beneath you if this is the case. In this situation, the best course of action is to jump as quickly as possible upslope beyond the fracture line. If you can do this fast enough, you might just avoid getting caught in the slide, leaving you in a better position to work your way out when it stops.
Create An Air Pocket
Suffocation is the biggest worry when you’re trapped underneath the snow, so cupping your mouth or using your arm in front of your face when you’re being hurled around by the snow can help you to survive for up to 30 minutes. With your other arm, if you can push it to the surface while the snow is moving to increase your chances of being able to dig your way out. Once the avalanche has stopped, you can begin to dig a hole out around your face to increase the airflow where possible. Alternatively, expand your chest by breathing in as much as possible so you have more room to breathe once the snow has stopped moving.
Grab Onto Anything Sturdy Nearby
While it may seem obvious, it often gets forgotten about in the panic of the situation, but if you can remember to grab onto anything, it can save your life. In powerful avalanches, the power of the snow often drags trees and rocks out of the ground but if you’re caught in a smaller avalanche, trying to hold onto something will make it easier for you to keep a static location and also keeps you oriented while the snow is shifting around you.
“Swim” Through The Snow
Unsurprisingly, snow doesn’t move in exactly the same way as water, but there are some similarities and swimming through the snow can actually help you to stay above the surface. Move as much as you can to try and prevent getting buried under mounds of snow – swimming might be too much to think about under the circumstances, but thrash and kick around as much as you can to utilize all of your muscles and move with the current to get to the edge of the avalanche.
It’s easier said than done, but in the event of a crisis, it’s important to stay calm rather than let nerves get the better of you. Panicking only causes you to breathe more quickly which will lead to you filling the small amount of space you have with carbon dioxide, shortening your already brief 30-minute window of survival. If possible, keep your breathing steady, don’t panic and do all you can to give yourself as much time as possible so that rescuers have more chance of finding you. It’s tempting to try shouting to raise awareness and call for help but try to shout only when a searcher is near to preserve energy and oxygen.
Whether you’re hiking, skiing or snowboarding, staying safe is paramount in potentially dangerous locations. When you’re hitting the slopes, be constantly aware of the conditions and evaluate them regularly. Heading to areas where there are fresh accumulations of snow are especially vulnerable, so these should be avoided where possible, particularly on extremely steep slopes. Lastly, travel with a partner or as part of a group so you can descend riskier areas one by one, watching for signs of an avalanche as you go so you can be on your guard as much as possible.