Avalanche Common SenseLive Fire Gear
Snow covered mountains can be as dangerous as they are beautiful……especially off the beaten path. Many skiers, snowboarders,
climbers and snowmobilers are drawn to the untouched beauty and thrill of the backcountry. Even experienced skiers and snowboarders tend to risk it all for the thrill of a pristine slope! This is a dangerous game. Snow conditions outside the confines of ski areas are neither controlled or patrolled.
So before you decide to follow the path less traveled, here are some things to consider….
• Unless you’ve taken an avalanche safety course or clinic, you’ve already put yourself at risk
• Most avalanches are triggered by the victim or someone in their party• Learn to recognize avalanche terrain and avoid it
• Always carry avalanche equipment (helmet, beacon, probe, shovel and know how to use them)• Avoid traveling the backcountry alone
• One at a time down the slope
• Avoid the backcountry after a storm, snowpack needs to settle
• Weather conditions can change quickly so stay alert
• Never assume a route is safe just because other tracks are on it• Do your homework on the area before you go
• Be sure others in your party are experienced, prepared and aware as well• And again, wear a beacon
A little more about avalanches….
There are three conditions that must be present for an avalanche to occur:
• The slope must be greater than 30 degrees
• Unstable snowpack. There are layers upon layers of types snow. Some weak, some hard that can create a recipe for disaster
• A stress (the trigger) that causes the weak layer to collapse and the snowpack to slough off, creating an avalanche
In general, there are three different types of avalanches. The slab avalanche, sluff avalanche andwet avalanche.
According to the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, 90% of avalanche related deaths are the result of slab avalanches. These are typically triggered by skiers midway down a slope. The slab avalanche occurs when hard packed snow rests on top of loosely packed snow, hence the name “slab” This type of avalanche usually contains large volumes of rapidly moving snow. Apparently these are very difficult to escape.
Sluffs, Powder or Loose Snow Avalanches
This type of avalanche occurs from new snow that is loose and hasn’t been packed down that causes a surface slide.These slides can travel long distances along flat valley bottoms and even uphill for short distances.These are suppose to be the least dangerous of the avalanches. Still sounds dangerous to me!
The wet avalanche is a combination of water and snow. When temperatures rise they will melt the surface snow which then saturates the lower layers creating a wet slide. The wet slide tends to move a little slower than the previous types of avalanche; however, powerful enough to take out trees and move boulders. Well that sounds absolutely horrifying!
If you’re caught in an avalanche….
• If you are fortunate enough to be above it, keep heading uphil
l• if it started at your feet, jump uphill• run to the side, the center is the fastest moving part so you want to get the side as quickly as possible
• grab a tree• If you’re going to be taken, drop your poles etc, you want to remain light• keep your mouth closed to avoid inhaling snow
• “swim” move your arms and legs in a backstroke motion, with feet pointing downhill, this will hopefully keep you close to the surface
Once an avalanche stops moving, it will begin to settle and pack you in. If you’ve been buried you have a very short window of opportunity to attempt to dig yourself out.
• try not to panic (easier said than done, right)
• immediately create an air pocket by cupping your mouth
• take a deep breath which will expand your chest and allow you more room to breath and maneuver once the snow has settled
• spit to determine which way is up
• If you can, dig towards the surface, punch a hole for air and visibility to rescue workers• Hopefully you have a beacon
Just like anything else in life, prevention is the key. Before embarking on a winter wonderland adventure, take an avalanche safety and awareness course. There really is a lot involved in avalanche terrain identification etc. For a list of course providers check:http://aiare.info/providers_list.php They can help find a course near you and also offer a lot great avalanche awareness information.
Photo courtesy of Joe Shlabotnik, used with permission