How to Survive an Avalanche

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 14, 2011 · 28 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

Last year, 25 people were killed by avalanches in the United States. The number may not sound like much, but that’s 23 more than were killed by sharks last year, and 25 more than have ever been killed by a Yeti.

The victims are typically backcountry recreationalists—skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and snowmobilers. Snowmobilers account for twice as many avalanche fatalities as the other groups, mostly because of their surging numbers, and also because the weight of the snowmobile and rider is greater than that of a person on skis, making them more likely to stress the weak layer in a snowpack and set off an avalanche (the noise isn’t the reason, by the way. The idea that noise can cause an avalanche is a myth). Avalanche victims are often risk takers that set aside safety concerns in the pursuit of their goals, and 89% of them are men.

While the majority of avalanches happen naturally, 90% of avalanche fatalities occur in avalanches triggered by the victim himself, or by someone in the victim’s party. So avalanches aren’t exactly freak accidents, and there is a lot you can do to avoid getting swept up in one and to increase your chances of survival if you do.

Now here in Oklahoma, the avalanche threat hovers right around zero percent. So I called up Sarah Carpenter, an instructor at the American Avalanche Institute in Victor, Idaho to fill me in on how to prepare for, survive, and help a buddy out of an avalanche.

Preparation

Of course the best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid getting into one in the first place! How do you do that?

Education

Avalanches will never be 100% avoidable, but understanding and watching for the elements that make avalanches more likely to occur can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a victim of one.

The factors that increase (or diminish) the likelihood of an avalanche occurring are surprisingly complex—things like weather, sun, temperature, wind, the angle of the mountain’s slope, and snowpack conditions all play a role. And the avalanche hazard level can fluctuate daily and even hourly as conditions change.

Thus, the ability to scout for potential avalanches takes a goodly amount of both know-how and skill. You should be able to do things like measure the angle of the slope and test the stability of the snowpack, in addition to being trained in how to search for a buried victim using a transceiver.

In order to learn this life-saving knowledge and skill set, it is highly recommended that you take an avalanche safety and survival course. And I’m not just saying this because Sarah was so nice and helpful with me! Talk to any mountain or ski guide and you’ll hear the same thing: if you’re going to be heading out into the backcountry, you need to take an avalanche course.

Avalanche professionals make up less than 1% of avalanche fatalities, and the closer you can get to thinking like a professional, the better.

Equipment

In addition to your knowledge and skills, you also need to carry a few key pieces of equipment into the backcountry with you.

Transceiver. Sometimes referred to as a beacon, a transceiver is a radio that both transmits and receives electromagnetic signals. If you’re buried by an avalanche, the signal from your transceiver will allow your partner to find you. But obviously you both must be wearing one, and you need to set your transceiver to transmit when you head out. People have died because they got buried with their transceiver set to receive. Using a transceiver takes skill, so you want to practice with it before your backcountry adventure.

Avalanche probes. Using a transceiver will get you close to the victim, but a probe will allow you to pinpoint him in the snow. The best kind to get are collapsible probes that you put in your pack and assemble like a tent pole. Ski poles that can be screwed together to form a probe are also available. If you lose your probe in the avalanche, try using a long tree branch–it’s better than nothing.

Shovel. Digging with a shovel is almost 5 times faster than digging with your hands, and as we’ll discuss below, the speed with which you can dig is absolutely critical in saving the life of an avalanche victim.

What to Do If You’re Caught in an Avalanche

Sarah says that “If you’re caught in an avalanche, the best thing you can do is try to get out of the avalanche!” Sound advice. How do you do that?

When the Avalanche Starts

If the avalanche starts right under your feet, try running uphill or to the side to get off the fracturing slab of snow. If you’re on skis or a snowboard, head downhill first to gather some speed, and then veer to the side and off the slab. If you’re on a snowmobile, continue in the direction you were going and throttle it off the sliding snow.

If you’re not going to make it out, drop your ski poles, pack, and equipment, and abandon your snowmobile—you want to be as light and buoyant as possible in order to minimize how much you sink into the snow.

Once the snow topples you, “swim” to try to stay on top of the snow. You may have heard that you should swim like you’re bodysurfing a wave, but that will actually take you towards the “toe” of the avalanche (the tip of the avalanche debris) which is the most turbulent zone of the avalanche—not a place you want to be. Instead, you want to roll to your back with your feet pointed downhill. Do the backstroke and try to head uphill. You can also try to dig into the bed surface–the layer the avalanche is sliding on–with your feet in order to slow your descent.

You may have also heard that you should try to crouch behind rocks or trees, but this is a bad idea. Trees and rocks slow snow down, causing it to pile up in that area. Hiding behind a rock will just bury you deeper in the snow.

If you can grab onto a tree, do it. But being able to do so is easier said than done. “Grabbing onto a tree is a lot less likely than it sounds, as avalanches move at a high speed,” says Sarah. “Grabbing trees is possible when the avalanche is first triggered.  It is much less likely as the avalanche gains momentum.” Indeed, avalanches can move at 60-80 mph!

Once the Avalanche Has Buried You

If the avalanche buries you, and you’re still alive, consider yourself lucky. About 1/3 of avalanche victims are killed by trauma; the avalanche can carry you into a tree or over a cliff and the debris it picks up as it storms down the mountain can clobber you.

Once the avalanche stops moving, it will begin to set around you like concrete. So your window for taking any kind of action is very small.

Immediately create an air pocket by putting your arm across your face—this gives you a little room to breathe. As the snow begins to set up, take a big breath. This expands your chest, which can give you a little extra breathing room as the snow hardens around you. If you’re near the surface, try to reach an arm or leg up to penetrate it; this will obviously make finding you a lot easier.

But which way is the surface? You may have heard about the trick where you spit in order to see which way is up. But you’ll likely be so entombed that this will be very difficult to do, and knowing the direction of the surface won’t help you anyway; unless you’re very near the surface, once the snow sets it’s going to be impossible to dig yourself out.

The big thing is to stay as calm as possible, which Sarah admits is “easier said than done.” But the calmer you are, the slower you’ll breathe and the less quickly you’ll use up the oxygen. Don’t yell either—the snow is so insulating that rescuers are unlikely to hear you.

Now you just have to wait for your buddy to rescue you. Hopefully, he’s prepared.

What to Do if Your Partner Gets Buried by an Avalanche

If you see an avalanche sliding towards your friend, do your best to keep your eyes on him and track where he ends up. Once the avalanche stops, be sure the danger is over, and immediately begin to search for him.

Don’t go for help. It might sound counterintuitive, but one of the worst things you can do for your buddy is hike to a rescue station for help. To survive an avalanche, time is of the essence. There are different sets of data on survival rates, but generally speaking, the best chance of survival is within the first 15 minutes of getting buried; if the victim hasn’t been killed by trauma, he has about a 90% chance of making it if he’s rescued during that window. At 30 minutes, his chances of surviving drop to 45%.

So again, it’s essential to begin your rescue efforts right away.

If you weren’t wearing transceivers, Sarah recommends looking “for clues on the surface–skis/poles/hat/gloves.” “Oftentimes,” she told me, “people are buried in line with these surface clues.  There are also likely burial spots that should be searched with a probe–above rocks and trees, on the outside of the avalanche path if it curves, on benches. These are areas where people tend to be buried, based on the dynamics of moving snow.”

How to Dig for an Avalanche Victim

When you picture yourself trying to rescue your friend from an avalanche, chances are you imagine frantically looking for where he is buried. But locating a victim with a transceiver and probe is the easy part; it’s the digging that takes the longest. In uncovering an avalanche victim, you’re going to have to move 1-2 tons of snow—that’s no easy task.

Thus, understanding how to dig efficiently and effectively is one of the most important keys of avalanche victim rescue.

If the victim is buried under a meter or less of snow, just start digging like a mad man. But if they’re buried in snow that’s over a meter deep, you should employ one of two different digging strategies, depending on how many people you have with you.

If you have a big group of available diggers, use the “V-shaped conveyer belt” method. The rescuers line up like a flock of geese in a “V.” The front person does the digging, and moves the displaced snow just a little ways behind him. The two people behind the digger then push the snow to the people behind them, and on down the line. The front person is rotated every minute or so, so that the digger remains fresh.

If it’s just you and the buried victim, you’ll want to employ the “strategic digging” method.

When you locate someone with a probe and know exactly where they are in the snow, you don’t want to dig straight down into where the probe is sticking out of the snow. The probe might be at their legs, and when you dig down, you may shovel snow behind you and onto their air pocket, collapsing it. And you’ll end up with a cone-shaped hole that’s not at their airway.

Instead, shift downhill from the probe, about 1.5 times the length of the depth the victim is buried, and start digging into the side of the slope, straight into the buried person. To save more time and energy, shovel the snow out to the side instead of behind you, until the snow rises to your waist—then start moving it downhill. Uncover their face and clear an airway as soon as you can.

If there are two available shovelers, position one just downhill of the probe, and the other downhill 1.5 times the depth of the buried victim. You should both start digging the hole, moving the snow to the side. When you have to lift the snow above your waist, start shoveling it downhill—the digger furthest downhill works on keeping the hole clear as the front digger keeps shoveling into the victim.

Another advantage of strategic digging is that you can create a platform onto which you can pull out and then work on the victim. From this position, it will be easier to clear their airway, perform CPR, and administer first aid, if needs be.

___________________________________________

A big thanks to Sarah Carpenter for her patience in answering my many, many questions for this article! If you’re looking to take an avalanche course, be sure to check out the American Avalanche Institute. For more than 35 years their seasoned experts have been teaching recreationalists and professionals alike with hands-on courses that are at least 60% field-based.

Additional Sources:

Forest Service National Avalanche Center

National Snow and Ice Data Center: Avalanche Awareness

Strategic Shoveling with Backcountry Access

 

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

 

 

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Midway Panthers December 14, 2011 at 11:48 pm

This is totally unrelated to the article, but I wanted to get this out in AoM. This Friday at 8 pm at cowboys stadium, my football team is playing for the Texas Football 4A Division 1 State Championship. This game also happens to be the FSN National Game of the Week. If you get any Fox Sports channels in your area, it would be well worth it to tune in to watch two Texas football teams having at it.

2 Haden Griggs December 14, 2011 at 11:54 pm

Yes, that definitely is unrelated, Midway. A good article. Something easier read then done, I’m sure, but It’s good to have a basic idea of what to do. Ideally, don’t trigger or get caught in the avalanche. Thanks for the advice, you’re absolutely right, it may save a life.

3 Bryan Wells December 14, 2011 at 11:55 pm

I once saw MacGyver escape an avalanche. All he needed was a ski pole and a piece of fabric to shoot a signal flare and wait for his mullet to be spotted through the snowpack.

4 Baldy Ski Patrol December 14, 2011 at 11:59 pm

As a ski patroller for over a decade and having advanced level certifications in avalanche and mountaineering – this is priceless information… I have set off avalanches, but never been in them — But know plenty of people that have. You would think that the Ski Patrol would even know better, but a few ski patrollers from southern california have died in the past few years. Yes, Southern California — There are avalanches just outside of Los Angeles.

5 Jon December 15, 2011 at 1:03 am

Well, I know what I’m having nightmares about tonight.

6 Adam December 15, 2011 at 1:09 am

I read “Avalanche” by Arthur Roth in junior high – a fictional story about a boy caught in an avalanche and his struggle to survive. Talk about nerve-racking!

7 Josh December 15, 2011 at 9:23 am

BlackDiamond makes a product called the AvaLung that helps victims breathe under the snow.

8 Josh December 15, 2011 at 9:24 am

BlackDiamond makes a product called the AvaLung that helps victims breathe under the snow. Apparently it’s pretty spectacular.

9 Gabe Gibitz December 15, 2011 at 9:45 am

An amazing little article! I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. I won’t be in an avalanche anytime soon here in Kentucky, but I will definitely be putting that in my back pocket for a rainy (or snowy) day.

10 Don December 15, 2011 at 11:00 am

I can’t wait to read this on Lifehacker next week.

11 Greg December 15, 2011 at 11:50 am

Something for the snowmobilers out there-

remember to keep your av gear on you – not you your sled. A few years ago there was a bad avalanche in Sparwood (Canada) that caught a group of snowmobilers. some of the riders were not burried, but all the sleds were. They all had there gear on the sleds. The rescuers found the sleds because they had the transcievers.

Remember – gear does you no good if it is not with you.

12 Jordan Smith December 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I don’t think the article ever DID tell you how to tell which way you’re facing (to dig yourself out of the snow if trapped) is that because there really isn’t a way?

13 Fox December 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Another great article full of useful tips. I’m a recreational snowboarder and not many people I know are sure what to do outside of secure an airpocket. Most get their advice from action movies like Triple X lol.

14 Travis December 15, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Great article. Although I’m heading up to the mountains to do some snowboarding next week and will now be terrified of dying the whole time. At least I will be prepared though if an avalanche does happen though. haha

15 safeway_sage December 15, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Haha… Great article… totally useless to me. I live in the hot desert Southwest and have zilch interest in skiing. But, just because I can’t use it I hope it does save someone’s life!! :)

16 Xavier December 16, 2011 at 8:17 pm

sick article this made me mad scared for avalanches tho haha I already knew about the air pocket cus a lot of my friends go on ski vacations but I would never go now what about hypothermia

17 Alejandro December 18, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Good to know….but it is also good to pass on the knowledge… you never know whose going to need it…

18 Eug December 19, 2011 at 11:31 am

fat snow can be like an extreme art.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rihMXwLhg9o&feature=related

19 Climber December 19, 2011 at 5:50 pm

The “swimming” technique is considered somewhat outdated actually. The issue is that you can breathe through snow, not ice. You MUST, attempt to keep your hands close to your face. This is so that when the avalanche sets, you can claw at the snow in front of your mouth slowly. This prevents it from forming an “ice mask” that will suffocate you. Aside from that, the trauma is usually extreme for many people, and it isn’t uncommon for arms and legs to become shattered- which is less likely if you keep your arms and legs close to your body.

20 The Dutch Dastard December 20, 2011 at 8:27 am

@Jordan

There is a way to tell which way is up. It may sound disgusting, but we’re talking about survival. The way to go is to urinate (a Mr. Grylls might argue that you get a nice drink out of it too!). Your urine will drizzle down, informing you which way is up. Don’t be hasty though, because initially you will feel only warmth. Give your urine a little time to come down.

Happy surviving everyone!

21 Ash Bhardwaj December 21, 2011 at 8:37 pm

This is a great post. Very timely too

22 Paul December 23, 2011 at 9:57 pm

” 25 more than have ever been killed by a Yeti.”– oh, really? Are you sure?

23 azz December 26, 2011 at 9:22 am

do not spit to find out the direction, simply take a piss. It works better

24 Stefan December 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

How do you shovel snow without chopping poor guy’s head under it off?

25 Kevan January 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Speaking of Avalanche safety, I just got back from a back-country survival trip over new years.

Awesome article, excellent information here.

26 Dan January 7, 2012 at 11:46 am

Here in Montana, we’ve had several avalanche deaths in the past several weeks. Amazingly, 4 days after the death of its owner, a resourceful Welsh Corgi showed up at the ski lodge where they had been staying. Apparently this isn’t that uncommon – another skier followed the dog’s tracks back to its hole in the avalanche, where it had dug itself out over several days.

27 R2 April 9, 2013 at 1:18 pm

Personally, if I ever get caught in an avalanche by the time it stops I’m not likely to have anything left in my bladder to determine “up”. I want a Michelin Man suit, or one of these:
http://www.gizmag.com/helite-airbag-skiing/26190/

28 Bobby March 22, 2014 at 12:18 pm

I have found this information very helpful. But i think your website could be more useful, if you included what to do before, during and after an avalanche.

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