Avalanche Safety – Be Aware & Well Prepared…
Be Safe, Be Prepared, and Love your Off-Piste!
Nowadays you’re given advice on how to survive pretty much anything from being a castaway on a desert island to living through a zombie attack but many skiers, and snowboarders still take their mountain safety for granted, which is especially dangerous as the risk of an avalanche occurring is possible and changeable on an hourly basis depending on weather conditions.
FACT : The Alps has the highest Avalanche mortality rate in the world, with the Mont Blanc alone claiming on average over 100 lives a year with the average global deaths being about 160 annually.
Just because avalanches happen, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to stop skiing. Accidents happen everyday for reasons much more mundane but if you decide to head off-piste and go explore some backcountry, it’s best to remain vigilant and be prepared as avalanches will never be 100% unavoidable and nature is powerful thing when unleashed.
FACT : The Avalanche risk is at its greatest 24 hours following a snowfall of 12 inches.
The first snowfall often only builds a weak foundation and if the snow continues to fall lightly, then there’s a good chance it cannot form solid, stable layers and instead stays prone to slabs slipping, sliding and cracking. This is why so many avalanches occur late in the season or even in summer months, and why a person’s body weight is enough to crack through the weak slabs of snow to cause a slip.
FACT : Any slope capable of producing an avalanche eventually will. Cracks and whooping sounds are good warnings of a pending avalanche.
When traveling in avalanche-prone areas, don’t move together as a pack. Each skier or snowboarder should take his or her line alone. That way, the combined weight will be less likely to trigger an avalanche and if one occurs, survivors can begin searching and alerting immediately.
FACT : If a victim is rescued within 18 minutes, the survival rate is higher than 91 percent. The survival rate drops to between 34 – 40 percent in burials between 19 and 35 minutes.
If you have decided that a bit of off-piste is on the day’s activity list, having certain equipment with you is paramount. The avalanche survival kit must include a snow shovel, and a transceiver worn on the body; and if possible a probe or floatation air bag.
If you become the victim of an avalanche, despite your experience on the mountain and best efforts at preparation, here are a few tips to remember :
1) The human body is 3x denser than avalanche debris, which is why you sink so quickly. If you can, you should do as much to counter this by rotating yourself onto your back, feet facing downhill (which is not always possible) and use your arms to “swim”/ keep yourself afloat above the snow.
2) If you are on the surface or near the surface, shout out to alert the others and try and get perspective of everyone’s location. It is a misconception that avalanches are started by sound. However, if you are completely enveloped, it’s useless to shout, as the snow acts as an insulator, no one will hear you and you will use up valuable energy.
3) If you are lucky enough to be fully above the snow at any point, raise your arms and signal while yelling so that rescuers can spot you more quickly and mark your location before the avalanche sweeps you further away.
3) Spit could help save your life. Yes, you heard that correctly! If you are underwater, your air bubbles help determine which way is up and similarly when you’re stuck in snow, spit and gravity will show you which way is down and therefore which way you should be digging yourself out.
4) Unfortunately, 1/3 of avalanche victims will die due to trauma received and the rest will, most commonly, die from asphyxiation. To give yourself the best chance of survival, keep your head as close to your arms as possible and take a big breath as the snow packs you in so that if you are caught up under the snow you have created as much of an air pocket as possible and perhaps even the opportunity at allowing you to dig.
5) Although easier said than done, try to stay calm. The calmer you are, the less fast you will breath, the less energy and oxygen you will use up, buying yourself more time.
6) If it is one of your friends that has been swept up by the avalanche, keep your eyes on them as much as possible and once you are sure it’s no longer dangerous, begin to search immediately. Call for help but do not go for help. Time is essential.
7) If you weren’t wearing transceivers you can look for clues as to where to search through the on surface equipment –skis/poles/hat/gloves. It may well be that the victim will be buried in line with these articles. There are also certain spots that might be more likely for snow burial, such as on the outside of the avalanche path if the avalanche had a tendency to curve around or in areas where the snow formed ledges or benches.
8) In uncovering a fully submerged avalanche victim, you’re going to have to move 1-2 tons of snow—that’s no easy task, nor is it quick. As you dig, move the snow to the side rather than behind you in case you are shoveling snow onto the victims airpocket; and if you are multiple rescuers you should keep changing up who is doing the digging to retain the most amount of energy and keep yourselves fresh.
Be safe, Enjoy!