How To Survive An Avalanche
Do you know how to survive an avalanche? You should, especially if you live in an avalanche-prone area or if you’re about to go on a skiing trip. But before anything else, let’s answer the million-dollar question: What triggers an avalanche?
Contrary to popular belief, a loud noise is not the main cause of an avalanche, but rather it is the rapid accumulation of snow. By immediately adding weight to a weak area of snow, a huge slab would naturally slide off from the mountainside. Even your own weight can cause this rapid release of snow.
How to Avoid Encountering an Avalanche
So how do you avoid encountering an avalanche? After all, you’re there to enjoy the crisp mountain air and powdery-white snow and not to put yourself at any risk.
To avoid getting caught in one, you must remember to never go out shortly after a storm has passed. The snow is still weak at this point, so give it no less than 48 hours to settle.
Another tip is to always observe the angle of the slopes before considering traveling below it. If the slopes are pitched between 30 to 45-degrees, then stay away. On the other hand, anything that is 25 degrees is considered okay. To get accurate measurements, use a tool called inclinometer.
The third tip is to avoid traveling below any slopes where the timbers are sparse and broken. This is a sign that avalanches are common in that area. Instead, opt for the path where the timbers are dense because the older trees also help hold onto to snow.
Lastly, if you are to travel across a steep slope, use the highest route. This way, you will be close to the avalanche’s crown in case it transpires, which will increase your chance of survival. Make sure to pass through the area one person at a time to reduce the weight the terrain has to bear.
Increase your Odds of Surviving an Avalanche
The best way to equip yourself with the right survival skills is to take a formal training course on surviving an avalanche. But if that is not an option for you, then you should nevertheless invest in some avalanche safety gear.
The most important tool to always have around is the avalanche beacon or transceiver. This tool transmits a radio frequency that another beacon can pick up, enabling rescuers to know exactly where to dig you out from under the snow.
Special shovels, airbags, and snow saw are also great items to have, especially if you have to wait for rescuers to come.
Store your avalanche safety gear in a compact bag which you can easily access. If you have to let go of heavy equipment during the avalanche, you will want to instantly and effortlessly grab this bag.
Another important preparation tip is to learn the following 5 warning signs of an avalanche.
The first warning sign is if avalanche activity is recent in the area. If the snow is wet and the debris is fresh, the area is at high risk of an avalanche.
The second warning sign is if there was a snow storm within the last 24 hours.
The third warning sign is strong winds. The winds can form high wind slabs, or unstable snow, that will increase the risk of an avalanche occurrence.
The fourth warning sign is if the temperature rises above zero. This would cause the snow to melt, making it heavier and at the same time, easier to move.
The fifth is in the form of cracks along the snow pack, because these would reveal instability within the packed snow. You should also listen for the whumpfing sound that comes from inside the pack, as this is a sure sign that the pack is about to collapse.
What to Do When You’re Caught in an Avalanche
Now, let’s talk about the worst-case scenario: what to do when you’re caught in an avalanche. Here are 5 life-saving strategies to apply:
The first strategy is to immediately jump upslope. Often, your own weight can cause an avalanche, and in such a case the snow will start to slide right underneath your feet. As soon as this happens, you should instantly jump upslope and hopefully escape from the slide.
The second strategy is to move to the side. You do not want to be caught in the center of the avalanche because this is the strongest part of the current. Do this movement swiftly yet carefully so that you will not tumble down.
Holding on to something is the third survival strategy. Grab onto a boulder or sturdy tree so that you can avoid getting flushed down by the slide. However, this will only work if the avalanche is not so strong.
Believe it or not, swimming is another great strategy. In the event where the avalanche is dragging you down with it, do your best to keep your head above the snow. You can do this by swimming on your back and uphill. Doing so will keep you from getting buried in too deeply.
If you are caught beneath the snow during the avalanche, your number one priority is to avoid getting asphyxiated. Do this by cupping your hands over your mouth. Secure this pose as you ride the avalanche.
Some added tips would be to remove all heavy equipment, except your avalanche safety gear.
What to Do if You Get Buried Under Snow
At this point, you must be asking yourself on what to do in case you get buried under the snow. If you’re caught in this predicament, do not worry. Instead, implement these steps:
First, you must create a large air pocket as soon as the avalanche has stopped. Dig around your face until you create a cavity of air using a small shovel or hand. Breathe in deeply to get as much air into your lungs as possible.
Next, spit out a bit of saliva and watch where it falls. That way, you know how you are positioned upside down in the snow or not.
As soon as you know which direction to move to, immediately start digging. Once the snow has settled it will be as hard as concrete, so you must move fast. However, if you are buried deeper than 12 inches deep, it may not be possible to get out on your own.
In this case, you must remain calm and stay still because you want to conserve your energy and limited breathing space. Then, wait for the rescuers to come. Do not hesitate to urinate as the smell can help rescue dogs locate you.
Keep in mind that the odds are often against you when you are caught in an avalanche. So, your best option is always to avoid it when you can.