How Do I Survive An Avalanche?

Knowing how to survive if an avalanche occurs can save your life and the lives in your party.

Most mountain ranges in the United States have a well deserved reputation of having low avalanche danger. This reputation can be attributed to the National Park Service and the work they perform.

The Park Service works in conjunction with scientists and sophisticated equipment to detect loose sno caps and corrects them usually before the unthinkable happens.

What do you do if the unthinkable happens?

Whenever any situation arises in the back country you need to be prepared and have the survival skills to cope with the situation. No matter if you are hiking, backpacking, or skiing on safe, protected slopes, avalanche danger is present.

Even though the "low avalanche theory" prevails, the fact is the danger is still there no matter how unlikely occurance is. Most possibly in our lifetimes we will never see an avalanche. Never the less, we must be prepared for it.

The effects of the gradual thaw during the day, and then the overnight freeze would make one believe that this could make the sno cap unstable.

No, just the opposite. Actually this process makes the snow more stable and this action causes this pack to become what many skiers and mountaineers call cement. After the thaw, then refreeze this snow becomes hard as a rock and is very stable.

What happens when fresh snow falls on to a hard cement snow pack?

Avalanches occur most frequently when a new layer of snow falls onto the cement pack. This new snowfall only need be about four inches or slightly more to cause a slide. The slide occurs from the weight of the new wet snow resting on a hard field of snow. Rarely does the cement pack tear loose, but rather the new snow slides off the cement snow pack.

After a snowfall such as this it is best to use precautions in the back country. After all an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Remember, knowing what to do before hand can save a life and may save yours.

In the case that this situation should present itself stay off steep terrain at least a day after a snowfall of this type. Do not make any climbs where your incline is over thirty degrees. Avoid the north sides of any slopes. Most recorded avalanches have been noted occuring on north sides of steep terrain in winter months.In spring months the opposite is true and most recorded avalanches have been noted on the south slopes.

Although this data has been distributed and relied upon, the fact is in winter months avalanches can occur in the most unexpected places. Slopes containing any deep snowpak can be unstable. If you are in an earthquake area any shifting of the ground can contribute to avalanche conditions also. The Earth is constantly contracting and expanding also and in this instance combined with a small tremor can lead to an avalanche also.

One sign of instability is overnight temperatures that stay above freezing. Another contributing factor which should be watched is any rainfall in the area along with higher than normal temperatures. These conditions make the snow unstable and this includes the cement base. Even a small rise in temperature can thaw the cement ever so slightly and make slide conditions high.

If faced with an avalanche what should you do?

The fact is that avalanches have no rules. In fact the most important rule to remember is that there aren't any rules. Prevention is your best survival guide.

If you are on the mountain and faced with an avalanche can you survive?

Survival is probable if you know how to react.

Your judgement is your best defense. It can make the difference between survival and tragedy. Keep your head and even though you will only have seconds to react, keeping a clear head is another survival skill that you can not do without.

Do not get under a rock ledge. Never climb into a cave. Either way you could be trapped or smothered.

The avalanche moves with great force and weight so you can not out run it. Even the fastest skier can not out run an avalanche coming down the mountain at fifty to seventy miles per hour. If you should see the avalanche coming you should first SHOUT out to other pary members. This will not only alert them to the onslaught about to happen, but will alert them to your position.

After you have shouted out and alerted other people be sure to close your mouth tightly. Closing your mouth will not keep excess snow from entering, but will keep you from choking on excess water once the snow melts in your mouth.

Turn away from the avalanche and try to keep your backside to it.

Remove any and all cumbersome items such as your backpack, ski's, and ski poles. The extra weight of these items is not only cumbersome but can also weigh you down when trying to swim and stay above the snow. If you are traveling on a snowmobile try to manuever to the side of the slide. This is where the force of the avalanche is less powerful. Remain upright and if you are knocked off your snowmobile be sure to let go of the snowmobile.

Once you are caught in the avalanche try to swim to the side with the flow of the snow. Moving snow has the same characteristics as the flow of a river or stream.Any swimming motion is just as good as the other, just keep swimming. If you feel as if you are being pulled under, thrust up with your swimming motions. This will help you stay above the snow.The closer you stay to the surface, the better your chances of survival.

Try to stabilize yourself. If at all possible grab a tree or bush. Even a large rock will do, although they are sometimes harder to hang onto. Every foot of snow that passes you means a few more feet of snow that cannot bury you. Hang on for dear life and for as long as you can.

If you are unable to stabilize yourself there are several things you should do when you begin to slow down in your movement with the snow. You should curl into a fetal position protecting as much as your body as possible. Cup your hands over your face allowing several inches of space between your hands and face . This space could be your air space if covered in snow and will also keep the snow on top of you out of your face and mouth. Be sure to hold your breath until the snow around you settles down.

If you become covered with snow you should move your head vigorously side to side. This will allow an air space for you to breathe. If you can manuever your body to move, roll it from side to side. The more free room the better, not only for the air space but for movement also in case you should have to dig out.

As you begin to come to a full stop, reach upwards with one hand. Try to leave one hand above the snow. By leaving one hand above the snow you have marked the area where you are making your rescue easier.You will then be able to wave your hand or even fingers to signal for help.

Never try to dig your way out unless you can detect light from the above snow. The light will give the snow a brighter appearance. Sometimes the light above will make the snow take on a reddish hue. If you detect light force your hand through the snow above and if you can not reach outside air in an arms length then do not attempt to dig out. To try to dig out would only waste precious air and energy. Once buried you have appoximately twenty five minutes to be unburied before your air supply would run out, and less time than that if you are expending energy on digging for nothing.

Try to remain calm as possible through all this. Remember your shout has notified anyone who was on the mountain that you were there also. Help should arrive very soon. Every mountaineer rescue team knows how to quickly locate people buried in avalanche. Most teams work with dogs who have been specially trained to sniff out human scent. This means that the rescue team has a hand up on finding people buried under tons of snow.

I cannot emphasize enough about being prepared before you're faced with a situation like this. Remaining calm and remembering the steps you need to take to ensure your safety can not only save your life, but the lives of others.

© High Speed Ventures 2011