An avalanche is a large amount of snow that moves quickly down a mountain, usually on slopes of 30 to 45 degrees. Though avalanches may seem to the unexperienced individual to be a risk reserved for movies, for winter sports aficionados, avalanches are a very real risk that threatens lives every day.
Being prepared to respond to an avalanche is one of the most important tasks for anyone who takes up winter sports. From taking courses to learn proper avalanche response to acquiring the appropriate gear for avalanche survival and rescue, preparation is the most important aspect of avalanche safety.
Here is everything winter sports lovers need to know about preparing for, surviving, and rescuing peers from an avalanche.
Table of Contents
- How to Prepare for an Avalanche
- Red Flags That Indicate Higher Avalanche Risk
- How to Avoid Triggering an Avalanche
- What to Do if You’re Caught in an Avalanche
- How to Survive an Avalanche Once You’re Caught in It
- How to Rescue Someone from an Avalanche
- Watch Avalanche & Victims Carefully
- Make Sure Area Is Safe Before Organizing Rescue
- Look for Clues on the Snow’s Surface
- Decide on a Primary Search Area
- Find the Buried Victims
- Dig Buried Avalanche Victim Out
- Alert Other Skiers & Call for Rescue
How to Prepare for an Avalanche
There are a number of ways you can prepare yourself for an avalanche; the more prepared you are, the better.
Take an Avalanche Course
Taking an avalanche course will give you the proper training to recognize hazardous conditions and different avalanche-prone locations. During the course, you can properly learn how to use safety equipment when on the mountain. Additionally, first aid training can also be helpful in order to recognize and treat hypothermia, traumatic injuries, suffocation, and shock.
Have the Appropriate Avalanche Gear
You will need a snow shovel, an avalanche airbag, a GPS for communicating coordinates, waterproof walkie talkies, an avalanche probe, and a first aid kit. You should also have an avalanche beacon, which will help you find missing party members or help party members rescue you if you’re buried in the snow. Not only do you need the appropriate gear, but also it’s important that you start to practice with the equipment before you go out. You don’t want to try and figure out what to do during a life-threatening and stressful situation. Having more modern gear can help to decrease your chance of injury.
Check Daily Avalanche Risks Before Heading Out
Sign up to receive alerts from the U.S. Forest Service Avalanche Center near you. It’s possible that your community may also have a local warning system. Avalanche advisors are generalized, and the snowfall, temperature change, and wind can alter stability within hours. Additionally, pay attention to recent avalanche activity and other warnings to know if you should stay home.
Plan Your Route to Avoid High-Risk Areas
Even with the right gear and training, you still want to avoid high-risk areas. Slopes 30 degrees or higher are where the majority of avalanches happen; therefore, you should plan to avoid these areas or other unstable areas. Know the signs of increased danger so that you can avoid these areas as well, including shooting cracks across slopes and recent avalanches.
Have an Emergency Plan
You need to have an emergency plan in place. Wear an avalanche beacon so rescuers can locate you. Always travel with a buddy and have the proper knowledge and training for survival.
Red Flags That Indicate Higher Avalanche Risk
Before you go out, you should be on the lookout for the presence of one or more of these signs. The more red flags you see, the higher the risk of avalanche. While the presence of these risks doesn’t mean you need to call off your day of skiing, it does mean that you should plan accordingly and understand the risk.
Recent Avalanches in the Area
This simple rule is usually overlooked: a recent avalanche means the snowpack is unstable. When looking at recent activity in the area, be sure to scan the entire visible landscape. If there is evidence of any recent slides, then take note of the type of avalanche, aspect, and altitude. It can also be possible to gauge the slide age by looking at the freshness of the debris.
Signs of Unstable Snow
Unstable snow signs include collapsing, cracking, drum-like sounds, or whooping sounds. Cracking snow means there is a presence of a wind slab, which is an unstable form of snow; extensive cracking indicates the snow is extremely unstable and you should leave immediately. The whooping sound comes from within the pack and reveals a weak layer is collapsing and the snow is unstable. A skier usually triggers this sound. This warning sign is especially important and relevant when there is significant new snow on top of an older pack, and this is snow that has turned “sugary.”
Heavy Snowfall or Rain
Too much rain or snowfall can make the snowpack unstable for at least several days. New snow that hasn’t had any time to compact or bond is unstable. Skiers trigger many avalanches on these first days after a large snowfall because people want to get fresh tracks in the snow. However, this combination can lead to instability. Significant rain on top of the snow also raises the chances of wet snow slides.
Strong solar radiation and long periods of above-freezing temperatures can also cause the danger to rise. The rise in temperatures causes many changes within the snowpack, and rising temperatures cause lubrication and partial melting within the snow structure, which means the snow becomes heavier and more mobile. When the temperatures are above zero, the snow becomes saturated and wet slides can occur. Point release and rolling balls can indicate wet, unstable snow.
Unstable wind slabs are created by strong winds. When snow is blown by the wind, it is compacted. If the wind is blowing, then it has likely created dangerous slabs or has increased the danger. The wind factor is the most relevant soon after or during significant snow. However, wind slabs can still form anytime, and the deposits are usually found on the sheltered side of terrain features such as passes, peaks, or ridges. However, wind can also blow across the slope as well.
The persistent wind slabs are typically found at higher elevations and can be triggered weeks after a storm. Check the Avalanche Forecast to find out if they are in your area.
How to Avoid Triggering an Avalanche
Knowing how to avoid triggering an avalanche can be the difference between life and death.
- Go one at a time. Avalanches can be triggered when the weight of the snow pack causes the slab to fracture. One person doesn’t put as much pressure on the slope as multiple people do. When you are stopping to wait for the rest of the group, make sure you are waiting somewhere safe so that if there is an avalanche triggered by your group members, you aren’t getting caught in it.
- Keep tracks close together. If you know the person in front of you didn’t trigger an avalanche, then you can follow very slowly along the same line because you are more likely to be safe as well.
- Keep an eye out for recent avalanche activity. Slab avalanches are responsible for the majority of avalanche accidents — even small ones can be deadly. If you see any recent releases, then know which altitudes and slope aspects are the most prone and avoid these.
- Avoid convexities. If you see the slope going from flat to steep, this is an indication of weakness in the snow pack and can easily be triggered by the weight of a skier.
- Avoid wind loaded slopes. Any slopes that are covered in extra snow that has been moved there by winds have a greater chance of causing an avalanche. The extra snow makes them even more susceptible to any extra weight from a skier.
- Keep an eye out for hazards below. Paying attention to what is below you is important. If you see a narrow bowl or cliff, then the consequences of a slide are more severe than if you see a smooth run out or small stretch of slope. Additionally, you want to be sure not to trigger an avalanche onto the others below you.
What to Do if You’re Caught in an Avalanche
Following the right protocols is going to be your best bet to avoid getting caught in an avalanche. However, if you are caught in one, here is some advice from experts to stay as safe as possible.
Get Out of the Avalanche Path
Getting out of the avalanche’s path is going to be your best chance for survival if you get caught in one.
If you see an avalanche headed your way, don’t try and outrun it. This may be what your instincts are telling you to do, but avalanches are fast and can quickly overtake any skier or snowboarder. Avalanches can come downhill at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. It’s recommended that you immediately go perpendicular to an avalanche’s path in order to avoid getting caught in it. Avalanches are deadliest and fastest in the center of their downward path, so even if you aren’t entirely able to avoid it, being caught on the edges of the avalanche will maximize your chances of survival.
Jump Upslope Above the Fracture Line
If the avalanche is starting right beneath your feet, which can happen while snowboarding or skiing, then you need to move quickly and try to jump upslope if you can to get above the fracture line. This is a difficult technique to master, and it requires quick reaction times to be successful. Jumping upslope of the fracture line can save your life if you’ve triggered an avalanche, but because of its difficulty to execute, it should not be depended upon for your primary avalanche response tactic.
Grab Something Sturdy
Grabbing onto trees or boulders isn’t going to help you much during a major avalanche, but it can help you out if a smaller one occurs or if you’re already on the edges of the avalanche where the flow is weaker. If you do find yourself in the path of an avalanche and you are lucky enough to grab onto a sturdy rock or tree branch, it can keep you steady and rooted to one spot. If it is a major avalanche, then your anchor will likely go along with you. However, being able to hold on for even a short period of time before being uprooted can keep you from being buried as deeply under the snow, increasing your chances of survival.
How to Survive an Avalanche Once You’re Caught in It
Once you are already caught in an avalanche, doing these things can help increase your chances of survival.
Swim and Try to Stay on Top of the Avalanche
Your best chances of survival are to stay on top of the snow, as doing so will diminish your chances of getting buried by snow and debris once the avalanche stops. Use swimming motions to help prevent yourself from the debris and snow dragging you down and then keeping you there. If you aren’t able to swim, just keep moving and thrash around in order to stay at the surface. Use all your muscles and swim with the current.
Release Non-Essential Gear
Holding onto bulky and unnecessary gear can drastically decrease your chances of survival during an avalanche. Non-essential equipment can make it more difficult to swim on top of the avalanche, and its weight can encumber you and make it more difficult to stay afloat. Release your skis and snowboard if you can. Let go of your poles, but still continue to fight your way to the side of the avalanche. You don’t want to release any of your safety gear, but your heavy equipment and small pieces of clothing should be released.
If you release equipment and small pieces of clothing, such as your scarf and gloves, it can make it easier for people to find you if any of it settles on the surface. However, you should keep your backpack on, as it will protect your spine and you will need access to safety gear inside during the rescue.
Deploy Avalanche Airbag
You don’t want to hesitate in deploying your avalanche airbag because the airbag will protect your back and help you stay afloat on the cascading snow and ice. Additionally, it will make you larger and brighter (avalanche airbags generally come in bright colors like red and orange) so that you can be more easily found by rescuers. Having an inflated avalanche airbag can improve your chance of survival by 50%.
Hold One Arm Up
Though perhaps not intuitive, keeping one arm up during the avalanche can be an important aspect of survival. Keep one arm up at all times while you are riding out the avalanche. If you do get buried by the snow, having one hand up makes you easier to find, particularly if you’re buried shallowly and your hand is protruding from the snow.
Create Room to Breathe
Many fatalities related to avalanches are due to asphyxiation. Once an avalanche settles, the snow will settle as hard as concrete, and your supply of air—as well as your ability to breathe—is going to be limited. If you are caught in an avalanche, make it a priority to maximize your air supply so you can hold out until you’re rescued.
Hold Your Breath When Snow Settles
Holding your breath as the snow settles and expanding your chest by filling your lungs with air can provide you some room to breathe. Once the snow hardens, that space will be lost, so you want to have the ability to inflate your lungs.
Dig Air Pocket Around Face
Clearing the space in front of your face can help create air pockets that will give you space to breathe. Before the snow fully settles, use your hands to dig a pocket of air around your face. Digging these air pockets can give you up to half an hour of breathing time.
Being in an avalanche is disorienting, and to dig yourself free, you’ll need to know which direction is up. By spitting, gravity will be able to tell you which way is up depending on what direction your saliva flows. You can then start digging up, which will increase the chances that Search and Rescue locates and saves you. Spitting also helps create more room in front of your face so that it is easier for you to breathe.
Staying calm is important because panicking causes you to breathe quicker. Think about how you will be packed into a tight gap in the snow and how fresh air will be limited, even while you are doing all you can to create room to breathe. Try to breathe as steadily as you can in order to give the rescue team as much time as possible to save you. You will need a focused and clear mind to remember the knowledge you have in order to evaluate your next steps for the best chances of survival.
How to Rescue Someone from an Avalanche
An avalanche can happen in an instant; even with safety precautions, it’s necessary to know how to rescue someone who needs help.
Watch Avalanche & Victims Carefully
As soon as someone is caught in an avalanche, do your best to track their path. If they disappear below the snow, make a note where you last saw them and continue to watch downhill to see if they resurface.
Make Sure Area Is Safe Before Organizing Rescue
If you have been following the proper avalanche safety techniques, then only one person should have been in the danger zone at that time. Make sure the avalanche has stopped and the area is safe before anyone else enters the slope and begins organizing a rescue.
Look for Clues on the Snow’s Surface
Take a look at the surface of the snow in order to find any clues or signs of the victim. Sometimes, you may find an article of clothing or a ski tip if the person didn’t discard their skis. If you know the person was carrying an avalanche cord, you can also search for that. You may find limbs sticking out of the snow or disturbances in the snow to give you some clues.
Decide on a Primary Search Area
Based on the clues you see in the surface of the snow and where the victim was last seen, you need to decide on an area to search. Look for disturbances on the snow’s surface, such as equipment and appendages like arms and legs protruding from the snow. If you’ve lost sight of the victim, look for discarded equipment and clothing. Search downhill from where the victim was seen last, as it’s likely they’ve traveled further downhill with the flow of the avalanche.
Find the Buried Victims
There are different ways to find buried victims, depending on whether or not they are wearing a transceiver.
If the Victim Is Wearing an Avalanche Transceiver
If the victim is wearing a transceiver, then switch the beacons into receive mode. Go to the spot where the victim was seen last. Locate a signal, then move in the direction where the signal is strong. You can listen to the person to see if he or she is conscious. Depending on how deep the person is buried, you may not be able to hear anything.
The best beacon strategy starts with a signal search, followed by a coarse search, then a fine search that should result in pinpointing the specific area of the buried victim.
- Signal Search: The first step of finding a buried avalanche victim is to pinpoint their beacon’s signal. Start at the area your companion was last seen and travel straight down the fault line from that location. If there are other searchers, space yourselves no mo more than 40 meters apart side-by-side and travel downhill together from where the missing member of your party was last seen. If you are alone, perform switchbacks of no more than 40 meters apart, covering that same ground one length at a time until you pick up their signal.
- Coarse Search: Once you pick up your party member’s signal, it’s time to perform a coarse search. Use the directional lights on your beacon to follow the victim’s signal. Follow the guides on your avalanche tranceiver until you’ve arrived within around 3 meters of the victim.
- Fine Search/Pinpointing: This is where your tranceiver’s distance readings are of the most importance. Lower your beacon as close as possible to the snow’s surface and move your beacon across the snow to find the lowest distance reading possible. When the lowest reading is confirmed, start probing, then dig the victim out with your avalanche shovel.
If the Victim Is Not Wearing an Avalanche Transceiver
If the victim isn’t wearing an avalanche transceiver, you will need to rely on a visual search. Visual clues are gloves and skis and determining if they are connected to a victim. If you have plenty of people searching, then it becomes easier to look for visual clues. Do not leave any rescuer gear on the debris that may be mistaken for a clue by others.
Searchers will need to set up an organized probe line to search for victims whose tranceivers are broken or victims who do not have one. All searchers should stand elbow to elbow at the point the victim was last seen and probe three times in the snow with their avalanche probe. Probe to the left, to the center, and to the right, with equal spacing along the same line with the other probing efforts. Then, all party members will step forward one stride and repeat the procedure.
Once an area has been probed, it should be marked off so searchers don’t waste time searching the same area twice.
Dig the Buried Avalanche Victim Out
Once the victim’s location is found, the probe should be left in the snow as a guide and noted with the depth of burial. If the victim is buried deep in the snow, you need to dig a larger hole in order to get them out. A general rule is the hole should be at least as large as the surface of the depth of burial. For example, if the victim is buried six feet beneath the surface, then the hole should be six feet long by six feet wide.
Start digging from the probe while throwing the snow downhill. It’s important to dig as fast as possible; however, if there are multiple people digging, don’t get in the way by digging at the same time. Maximize the speed by taking shifts. If one person starts to tire, switch that person out for another one. As soon as you find the victim, uncover their head first. It’s important to get the victim breathing as quickly as possible. Start CPR if needed as soon as you recover the person’s chest and head. If the victim isn’t able to move, do not attempt to move them because there could be internal injuries or broken bones.
Alert Other Skiers & Call for Rescue
You will find the numbers to call printed on the piste maps or lift passes for the mountain. When you call to report an avalanche and alert other skiers, note who is reporting, what happened and where the accident took place, including coordinates and altitude, how many buried victims there are, and the visibility and weather at the time of the accident.
You may never be able to 100% predict when an avalanche can happen, but knowing how to prepare for one, what triggers an avalanche, and what to do if you are caught in one can increase your chances of survival. Practice proper avalanche preparation and safety to increase the chances that your winter excursion is fun and avalanche-free.