Mountains attract climbers, skiers, snowmobilers and outdoor enthusiasts hoping to conquer the slopes. Yet, this kind of recreation brings its own set of risks. Each year, avalanches claim more than 150 lives worldwide, a number that has been increasing over the past few decades. Thousands more are caught in avalanches, partly buried or injured. REMSA would like to remind individuals to be safe around snowy areas.
Avoiding avalanches in the first place is much easier than trying to survive one. Avalanche safety starts even before you begin your travel. In addition to keeping an eye out for weather and terrain conditions, there are steps you can take ahead of time to help you or other members of your party if you are caught in an avalanche.
Proper equipment can be a critical factor in rescue efforts. Avalanches kill in two ways. A victim will either endure fatal trauma (collisions with rocks or trees) during an avalanche or will suffocate after they are buried by snow. While trauma deaths occur before rescue can take place, the more common suffocation deaths are often tragic because with the proper equipment and expertise, they can be avoided.
Portable, lightweight shovels made of plastic and aluminum are compact and can be carried in a pack. Digging with a shovel, as opposed to using hands or ski poles, can dramatically decrease the time it takes to dig out a victim. Digging by hand takes an average of 45 minutes to dig out one square meter of snow. Using a shovel to dig out the same amount of snow takes less than ten minutes.
Collapsible probes or ski-pole probes are also easy to carry along. Collapsible probes usually consist of two-foot lengths of tubular steel that join together to make a probe ten to twelve feet long. Ski-pole probes are made so that grips and baskets can be removed. The two poles can then be joined together to form a probe. Probing is essential to finding a buried victim if there are no visible clues on the surface.
Avalanche beacons (transceivers) are the most commonly used rescue device and are standard equipment for ski-area patrollers and heli-ski operators. When properly used, they provide the fastest way of locating a victim. When a victim is buried, the transceiver will emit a frequency that other transceivers can home in on. However, it is critical to have the transceiver set to “transmit” during your outing. When trying to locate a buried victim, rescuers will then switch their transceivers to “receive” to locate the signal. Unfortunately, avalanche deaths have occurred due to the fact that the victims had their transceiver switched to “receive” rather than “transmit.” Consequently, rescuers could not locate them in time.
Time is of the essence.
Carrying this equipment may mean the difference between life and death for someone buried in an avalanche. Statistics show that most survivors are dug out within 15 to 30 minutes. For victims buried longer than 30 minutes, survival chances decrease drastically. In fact, U.S. statistics show that victims buried longer than 45 minutes rarely survive. Depth of burial is also a factor in surviving, but even if a victim is near the surface, the length of time it takes to locate them and dig them out can still be the critical factor.
Yell and let go of ski poles and get out of your pack to make yourself lighter. Use “swimming” motions, thrusting upward to try to stay near the surface of the snow. When avalanches come to a stop and debris begins to pile up, the snow can set as hard as cement. Unless you are on the surface and your hands are free, it is almost impossible to dig yourself out. If you are fortunate enough to end up near the surface (or at least know which direction it is), try to stick out an arm or a leg so that rescuers can find you quickly.
If you are in over your head (not near the surface), try to maintain an air pocket in front of your face using your hands and arms, punching into the snow. When an avalanche finally stops, you will have from one to three seconds before the snow sets. Many avalanche deaths are caused by suffocation, so creating an air space is one of the most critical things you can do.
Above all, do not panic. Keeping your breathing steady will help preserve your air space and extend your survival chances. If you remain calm, your body will be better able to conserve energy.
Try to watch the victim as they are carried down the slope, paying particular attention to the point you last saw them. After the avalanche appears to have finished and settled, wait a minute or two and observe the slope carefully to make sure there is no further avalanche danger. If some danger does still exist, post one member of your party in a safe location away from the avalanche path to alert you if another avalanche falls.
When traveling with a large party, you may want to send someone for help immediately while the rest of you search. If you are the only survivor, do a quick visual search. If you don’t see any visual clues, and you don’t have transceivers, then go for help.
Begin looking for clues on the surface (a hand or foot, piece of clothing, ski pole, etc.), beginning with the point where they were last seen. As you move down the slope, kick over any large chunks of snow that may reveal clues.
Once the victim is found, it is critical to unbury them as quickly as possible. Survival chances decrease rapidly depending on how long a victim remains buried. Treat them for any injuries, shock, or hypothermia if necessary.
If you lost sight of the victim early during the avalanche, or if there are no visible clues on the surface, mark where the victim was last seen. Look at the path of the snow and try to imagine where they might have ended up. For those wearing avalanche transceivers, switch them to “receive” and try to locate a signal.
For those using probes, begin at the point the victim was last seen at. Or if you have a good idea of where they were buried, begin in that area. Stand in a straight line across the slope, standing shoulder to shoulder. Repeatedly insert the probes as you move down slope in a line. Pay particular attention to shallow depressions in the slope and the uphill sides of rocks and trees, since these are terrain traps where they may have been buried.
After searching for clues, or using transceivers and/or probes, still does not reveal the location of the victim, it may be time to rely on outside help. Nearby ski resorts will be staffed with personnel experienced to handle these situations. They will have equipment to locate the victims and dig them out (if your party did not bring shovels or probes), and they may also have avalanche dogs that can help find victims. Ski area patrollers will also have first aid equipment, but unfortunately, by the time they can usually reach out-of-bounds avalanche accidents, too much time has elapsed to save the victim.
Several factors may affect the likelihood of an avalanche, including weather, temperature, slope steepness, slope orientation (whether the slope is facing north or south), wind direction, terrain, vegetation, and general snowpack conditions. Different combinations of these factors can create low, moderate or extreme avalanche conditions.
Keep in mind that some of these conditions, such as temperature and snowpack, can change on a daily or even hourly basis. This necessitates constant vigilance of your immediate surroundings while doing any wintertime backcountry travel. The route you chose may be safe when you begin but may become dangerous if conditions change dramatically throughout the day.
Simply ask yourself, when are conditions sufficient to cause a mass of snow to slide down a slope?