How to Survive an Avalanche
If you hike or ski in backcountry, be prepared
The backcountry trekkers in Caribou County, Idaho, made one mistake after another, disregarding all the warning signs of an imminent avalanche. They didn’t check local reports for a snow slide alert before setting out. They didn’t traverse the steep slopes one person at a time, but went together as a group. When the snow came tumbling down, they were caught in the rush of snow and ice.
This time, everyone in the party survived, thanks to the quick actions of an Idaho rescue team trained in avalanche survival and retrieval. It’s a sure bet the chastened hikers will be checking for avalanche alerts before their next foray in the wild.
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That’s one of the stories told by Janet Kellam, program director of National Avalanche School in Ketcham, Colorado. To her, it symbolizes the urgency of advance planning.
“Safety starts even before you go into the backcountry,” says Kellam. “Avalanche conditions are predictable. So number one is to be prepared in making your travel plans and route.” That means tracking the weather, mountain conditions and avalanche warnings before your trip. “Mother Nature gives you warning signs,” Kellam says.
If you hike in mountains where avalanches could occur, be prepared for an avalanche even if the conditions look good. Here are some ways to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche, courtesy of Kellam, the Utah Avalanche Center and the American Avalanche Institute.
Take an avalanche survival training course before you go skiing or hiking in the back country. This training instructs you how to scout for hazards and search for buried victims, for example.
Always carry a transceiver. A transceiver, also known as a beacon, is a radio that receives and transmits electromagnetic signals, which can let your partner find you if you’re buried in the snow — as long as you set it to “transmit” when you set out. “People have died because they got buried with their transceiver set to receive,” warns an article on avalanche safety in the online site The Art of Manliness.
Cross a steep slope one at a time, never in a group. Crossing all at once can trigger an avalanche.
Don’t forget avalanche probes and a lightweight shovel. The probes help you pinpoint someone who’s buried. If you don’t have probes with you, use a tree branch or screw ski poles together to make a probe. And a shovel will help you dig someone out five times as fast as you can using your hands, according to the American Avalanche Institute.
What to do if caught in an avalanche
- If the avalanche is under your feet, try running uphill or to the side to get off the moving slab of snow. Don't try to outrace it downhill because the sliding snow can travel up to 80 miles an hour. "If an avalanche hits, it’s like you’re caught in a big ocean wave,” Kellam says. “You’ll tumble. Once you go down you’re basically caught. When I go onto a slope, I’m always anticipating, what’s my exit if this thing breaks? A good backcountry person is always looking for that exit.”
- Drop all your equipment, including skis and poles, snowshoes or a snowboard. If you are near or on a snowmobile, get away from the vehicle, Kellam says.
- Grab onto a tree if you’re able to.
- Turn your back to the oncoming slide, crouch low to reduce the chance of being toppled and wrap a scarf around your face to keep snow out of your mouth and nose, Kellam says.
- Push into the snow with your feet and “swim” backwards uphill, with your feet pointing down. Fight to keep on the surface of the snow.
- If snow covers you, push off the ground and try to kick your way to the surface.
- If you’re buried, the snow will “set” around you, so quickly put your arms in front of your face to create an air pocket. If you can stick a hand through the snow, do so — it will be easier for people to find you.
- Try to stay as calm as possible as your buddies dig you out.
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If you’re on the surface and a companion is buried
- Don’t go for help. Use your beacon and probe to find him, then dig him out as quickly as possible.
- If you dig a cone-shaped hole directly on top of the probe, you may cause your friend's air pocket to collapse. Instead, dig downhill and into the side of the slope, about 1.5 times as far as the depth your friend is buried. Try to clear a path to the face first.
- If you have a group with you, dig in a V-shaped pattern around your buried companion, with the first person throwing snow backward and the others moving that snow aside. Rotate the first digger every few minutes.