The relationship between skiers and snowboarders might be chilly, but both camps know there’s nothing quite like an invigorating day gliding down the slopes, ripping around bends, and weaving in and out of trees. Skiers and snowboarders are also well aware that this fluffy, sparkling wonderland can turn into a terrifying white wave of destruction in a matter of seconds. Whether naturally occurring or triggered by human activity, an avalanche is fearsome to observe and potentially fatal if you’re swept away by its torrent.
Some parts of the country are in peak avalanche season. Last month, for example, snowmobilers in Colorado were buried in and nearly killed by an avalanche that they accidentally triggered, captured in the viral video below.
Obviously, “the best way to survive an avalanche is to not get caught,” says Ethan Greene, Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). That being said, here are five ways you can manage your own avalanche hazards:
1. Check the avalanche forecast before you go into the mountains. It’s a simple step that often leads to the most needless fatalities. Be smart and check the danger rating for whichever area you plan to visit; forecasts will typically indicate the types and locations of avalanches likely to occur that day.
For example, here’s what an up-to-the-minute forecast map from the CAIC looks like:
2. Get the picture. Even if the predicted avalanche risk is low, don’t ignore the warning signs if you see them. Look around to make sure the conditions you’re observing are consistent with what the forecast says.
“One of the best predictors of future avalanche activity is current avalanche activity,” says Greene. “If we check the forecast in the morning and it says low risk of avalanche, but we go out in the field and see that an avalanche ran last night, we want to take note of that.”
3. Get out of harm’s way. If you see evidence of a recent avalanche or signs of an imminent one, change your plans. It’s not worth putting yourself and your friends in danger.
4. Get the training. Take an avalanche awareness class, go through a free online tutorial like this one, read a book, or even watch short online videos to become well-versed in the subject and recognize the warning signs of unstable terrain. The more you know, the better off you’ll be.
5. Get the gear. Make sure you and your friends carry at least these three items for backcountry avalanche scenarios: an avalanche transceiver (radio transmitter) to pinpoint each other’s location, a collapsible probe pole to determine where someone is beneath the snow, and a shovel to dig them out. Some additional basics might include a first aid kit, extra clothing and food, and a repair kit in case of broken equipment.
Surviving the Worst Case Scenario
Should you find yourself caught in an avalanche despite taking all of the precautions, there are a few ways to boost your chances of making it out of the disaster in one piece.
Of course, in an ideal situation, you’d stay on top of the flow and not get buried at all. Wearing an airbag pack can be a lifesaver in this way—not only will it carry your food and extra supplies, but pull its emergency ripcord and an airbag will release that keeps you afloat in a raging wave of snow and vapor.
“It imitates the ‘potato chip effect,’ in which larger objects rise to the top while smaller objects stay at the bottom,” Greene says. “An airbag essentially makes you a ‘big chip’ so that you’re more likely to stay on top of the wave.”
But if you don’t manage to stay above the snow, it’s crucial that you do whatever you can to keep your airways protected. Avalanches are extremely violent events—snow can easily get packed into your nose and mouth. Prevent this from happening by wrapping an arm around your face and pressing your mouth into the crook of your elbow.
“In the U.S., 25 percent of people die from trauma during avalanche events,” says Greene. “And the second most common cause of death is asphyxia. So if you survive the ride but are buried in the snow, you can’t get your exhalation away from you. Eventually, you start breathing in too much CO2 and asphyxiate.”
If you can, make every possible effort to create an air pocket around your head. Even a small amount of breathing space can buy you extra time while you wait to be dug out.
Lastly, one of the most effective ways to preserve your life in this event is to take advantage of technology that makes you more searchable. When an avalanche sweeps down a mountain, it will totally transform the landscape and make it nearly impossible for a buried person to be found without some type of tracking system.
You can make it easier for rescue professionals to pinpoint your location by wearing apparel (boots, jackets, or pants) with a RECCO device sewn in. This passive searchable device acts as a reflector and bounces back the radio signals sent out by rescuers, allowing them to find you faster. Every second counts when you’re trapped beneath snow and debris, and the easier you are to find, the better.
Whichever way you choose to play in the snow—skiing, snowboarding, ice climbing, backcountry hiking—it’s important to understand the risks that come along with mountain activities. Take avalanche safety seriously and be prepared for the worst case scenario, because it could very well save your life.
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