The intent of this article is to help you avoid ever being in an avalanche. However, accidents do occur and it is best to protect yourself with the proper equipment and skills to maximize your chances of survival if ever caught in an avalanche.
To begin, let’s review the minimum equipment each member of your group should have at all times in avalanche territory.
Minimum Equipment List:
- Digital Transceiver – This device transmits and receives a signal to help you locate a person beneath the surface of the snow. Without a transceiver, it is unlikely you will find a victum completely buried in the snow alive.
- Probe – Since digging through snow from an avalanche is difficult, a probe helps you locate the exact position of the victum to minimize the time needed to reach him or her.
- Shovel – It will be next to impossible to dig out a victum with your hands. This is why a shovel is so vital.
- Backpack – This is a compact method to carry all your gear.
The Utah Avalanche Center also recommends an AvaLung ll and an airbag system. The AvaLung ll works by redirecting carbon dioxide away from your mouth prolonging your life under the snow. The airbag system increases your surface area and helps you stay above the snow as larger items tend to come to the surface. With years of success in Europe, this tool is gaining popularity in North America.
Next let’s review methods to avoid an avalanche all together.
- Check the local avalanche forcast at Avalanche.org and visit potentially danagerous slopes another day.
- Know the warning signs of an avalanche (see “Spotting Avalanche Terrain”) and avoid suspect terrain or go with an experienced guide. If possible, take an avalanche safety class.
- When hiking to extreme terrain, take low angled slopes and test the snow as you go looking for warning signs. It is also safest to travel along ridges and in densely packed trees. Teton Gravity Research as created a great presentation on this (see online avalanche class).
Should you ever find yourself in an avalanche, let’s review some techniques to maximize your survival.
- First and foremost, try to get off the slab. You can try this by pointing your skis down hill to build speed and exit off the side or quickly climb off of it if near the highest point or the side.
- Grab a tree if you can do so in the first few seconds but avoid them completely once you build up speed. Trauma from tree impact is a major cause of death in avalanches.
- Swim to the surface. This may sound funny but swimming motions help victums stay closer to or on the surface.
- Clear a area in front of your mouth as the avalanche comes to a stop. Also remain calm and control your breathing. This will prolong the time for carbon dioxide build up.
- Stick your hand up and push yourself towards the surface. This will help your friends find you.
Not only is it important to be knowledgeable about avalanche safety, you must also practice your skills on a regular basis. The pros practice many times a season and it is best to take an avalanche safety course and practice often yourself.