Spring is here but don’t let the warmer temperatures fool you. Like millions of other outdoor enthusiasts, you and family head to the mountains to enjoy some of your favorite late season activities such as skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling and backcountry hiking. But when you make plans to challenge the slopes, you need to also prepare for a hidden and often deadly danger on the mountains — avalanches.
Everyone knows the definition of an avalanche. But what do we really know about this phenomenon of nature? The fact is, what you don’t know can be fatal.
Anywhere… Any time…
Certain times of the year, types of locations and conditions are naturally more conducive, but under the right conditions avalanches can (and do) occur anywhere and at any time.
Knowing the common warning signs and a few basic facts may save your life. For example, were you aware that 90% avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party?
The US National Weather Service reports that avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide each year. According to the State of Colorado website, there were 24 avalanche-related fatalities in the US during the 2017-2018 season – the latest season for which there are complete statistics available.
Check their website for updated information: http://avalanche.state.co.us/accidents/us/
This number was a dramatic increase from the previous season (2016-2017) in which 12 US avalanche fatalities were recorded. The 2015-2016 season saw a disheartening 30 avalanche-related US fatalities.
Here is a breakdown of last season avalanche related fatalities according to the State of Colorado website:
|† Inbounds skier/boarder||0|
Educate yourself — it could save your life
As you head for the mountains this winter you need to be aware of avalanche danger. This is especially true if you plan to ski, hike, snowboard or snowmobile in backcountry terrain. Fortunately, nature provides us with at least 5 early warning signs when the risk of an avalanche is high. Prudence dictates that you always be on the lookout for the presence of one or more of these signs.
Just one of these warning signs can signal an impending avalanche. The more warning signs present indicates the risk of an avalanche is greater.
The presence of one or more of these danger signs doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cancel your day on the mountains. It does mean that schedules and routes may need to be altered accordingly.
Many factors, including type of snow, altitude, the season can affect avalanche risk. These conditions can manifest themselves differently from location to location, time of day, temperature and the seasons. (Under the right conditions an avalanche can happen at anytime. But they are more prominent in the spring as temperatures warm.)
The Early Warning Signs
Here are the 5 red flags. Commit them to memory. Always be aware of your environment.
- Recent avalanche activity. Warning sign number one is the simplest and the most often overlooked: You see an avalanche happen or see evidence of previous slides. Recent avalanche activity in the area is a clear sign of instability. Check out the landscape. Make special note of the freshness of any debris. If there is evidence of recent slides? If so, as a general rule, if you see recent avalanche activity, the snowpack is unstable.
- Shooting cracks, ground feel hollow, thud sounds from the snowpack. If cracks form in the snow around your skis, or the ground feels hollow underfoot, or you hear a “whumping” or audible collapsing sound as you walk, these are all signs of extreme instability and a really good reason to get off a slope immediately.
- Significant snowfall or rain in the last 24 hours. Many avalanches are triggered by skiers and snowboarders on the first day after snowfall in their eagerness to get fresh tracks. Unfortunately, new snow often hasn’t time to bond or compact and is inherently unstable. Significant new snow accompanied by wind (warning sign #4) can be a recipe for instability. Adding rain to this mix can significantly increase the chances of an avalanche.
- Strong winds. You see surface patterns (called wind slabs) on the snow made by the force of strong winds. This could indicate that snow has been transported and deposited in dangerous drifts that could release at any time. Wind slabs are most prevalent during or soon after significant snow and are usually found on the leeward or sheltered side of prominent terrain features (such as ridges, peaks and passes) and usually at higher elevations. However they can form anywhere and at any time.
- Significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures. Rising temperatures can cause rapid changes within the snowpack resulting partial melting and lubrication within the snow structure. Snow becomes both heavier and more mobile and it temps rise enough snow becomes saturated and wet slides could occur. Also of special note, direct sunlight (sunglasses) can cause rapid temperature increase even when the air (shade) temperature remains sub-zero, especially on southerly and westerly slopes.
Surviving: How to react if an avalanche happens
Every responsible backcountry skier or snowboarder is aware of the constant threat of avalanche. You make sure you’re aware of snow conditions; you know the major warning signs of an avalanche; you take precautions. But do you know what to do if the unthinkable happens? Could you survive an avalanche?
Should the unthinkable happen and you get caught in a dangerous situation, here’s what to do. Knowing these tips can dramatically improve your chances of survival.
Move sideways: The center of an avalanche is where the snow moves the fastest. That’s also where the highest volume of snow will be. Therefore, it’s the most dangerous place for you to be. Moving sideways is your best strategy to avoid getting caught in the most dangerous part of the avalanche. Don’t hesitate: move as quickly as possible. It’s critical that you begin to move immediately upon noticing the first signs of the avalanche. The quicker you get out of the way of the center of the avalanche, the better your chances of survival. (Note: Don’t move so quickly that you lose your footing and fall.
Jump up slope: Most avalanches (90%) that you’ll ever experience skiing or snowboarding are caused by you or someone in your party. Should this happen, snow will began to fall directly beneath you. Try to jump up the slope, beyond the fracture line. Moving beyond the fracture line quickly enough might help you avoid getting caught in the slide.
But this is tricky. For most of us, our brains won’t be able to process what’s happening fast enough. Therefore, most of us won’t be able to react in time to jump out of the way of a beginning avalanche. An avalanche happens so quickly that it’s almost impossible to react fast enough to do this, but it has been done.
Let go of your heavy equipment: You want your body to be as lightweight as possible, so let go of your backpack, poles, and other heavy equipment you may be carrying. This increases the chances that you’ll be able to stay toward the surface of the snow and rescuers may be able to find you quicker if they see some pieces of equipment on the surface of the snow. Even letting go of let go of something light (such as gloves) can also increase your chances of being found.
Of course you want to hold onto all your survival equipment, such as a transceiver and probe or snow shovel. You’ll need them if you get buried.
Grab something: This obvious-sounding tactic greatly depends on the size and velocity of the avalanche. In smaller, less powerful avalanches, it could save your life. Grabbing onto a tree or boulder can keep you in a static location and keep you from getting disoriented as the snow compacts around you. Even if you get ripped away from the object you’re holding, it can delay your departure downhill, giving you have a better chance of not being buried (or at least, not being buried as deeply.)
Unfortunately, the most powerful avalanches have the strength to rip trees and rocks from the ground and using this strategy will prove more difficult.
Swim and stay afloat: Start swimming. It could stop you from being dragged down the mountain by an avalanche and being buried deep in snow. (The human body is much denser than snow, so you’ll tend to sink as you get carried downhill.) Kick your feet and thrashing your arms in a swimming motion.
Keep your head in the open air and “swim” as hard as you can. Swim on your back. This way your face is turned toward the surface, giving you a better chance of getting oxygen more quickly if you get buried.
Create an air pocket: If you get buried by an avalanche, asphyxiation is your biggest worry. If you’re buried deeper than a foot or so when it sets, it will be nearly impossible to get out on your own. Your only hope then is to ward off asphyxiation long enough for people to dig you out. Create an air pocket to buy yourself some time.
- With a free hand or an avalanche shovel to dig an air pocket near your nose and mouth. A small air pocket should have enough air to last at least 30 minutes.
- Inhale deeply and hold your breath for a few seconds. This causes your chest to expand, which will give you some breathing room when the snow hardens around you.
Hold one arm straight above your head: It’s easy to get disoriented once you’re buried. Point one arm straight above your head in the direction of the snow’s surface. This will help you figure out which way is up. It may also help rescuers locate you. Additionally, fluids will run down so spitting out a small amount of your saliva can also help with figuring out which way is up
Conserve air and energy: Try to move once the snow settles, but don’t jeopardize your air pocket. If you’re very near the surface, you may be able to dig your way out, but otherwise, you aren’t going anywhere. Don’t waste precious breath by struggling against the snow. Remain calm and wait to be rescued.
If you hear people nearby, try to call them, but don’t keep it up if they don’t seem to hear you. You can probably hear them better than they can hear you, and shouting just wastes your limited air supply.
Wait for the rescuers to come: If you hit the slopes with an avalanche beacon and probe, and your fellow skiers did the same, someone will be able to find you and dig you out. Stay calm and wait.