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An avalanche is simply defined as the rapid falling of snow, ice and rock down a hill or mountainside. It can be caused by many things, but humans cause up to 90% of these disasters. Any time you’re surrounded by mountains of snow, you’re at risk of causing and getting caught in an avalanche.
Humans sometimes walk or ride over snow that has an underlying weak layer. It will start a slide that will follow its natural path downhill causing damage along the way. Chances of survival if you’re rescued after being buried for 15 minutes is 90% but it gets bleak quickly.
The best thing you can do is to educate yourself on early warning signs and check the forecast before you head out. Always travel in pairs using a buddy system and have an emergency plan before you set out.
The next best thing is to be prepared if you get caught in an unexpected snow slide because time is of the essence.
10 Tips on surviving an approaching avalanche
1. Keep an avalanche beacon
When heading out into the snow-covered mountains, always remember to have an avalanche beacon on you. It is an emergency locator beacon that allows you to transmit and receive radio signals.
This will come in handy if you or any members of your group get buried or lost during a disaster. Even if you’re buried under layers of snow, rescuers will be able to find you if you have your beacon on you.
Some key things to take note of when carrying an Avalanche Beacon:
- Place the beacon in your inner pants pockets or in the chest harness provided. The beacon works better when it has body warmth.
- Don’t place your beacon in your backpack. You want to make sure it stays with you and does not get yanked off.
- Turn off all other electronics to ensure that it does not interfere with the signal of your transmitter.
- Get familiar with your beacon. You will need to know your device well to ensure that you can use it correctly.
2. Carry basic survival equipment
Out in the mountains, ensure that you carry a basic survival kit. This will give you the tools you need to sustain yourself while waiting for help to get to you. Survival kits vary depending on the terrain you’re on so be sure to pack the right gear for you.
Essentials items you will need:
- Extra batteries
- Water purification tablets
- Fire starting kit
- Basic first aid
- Non-perishable food kit
- Snow shovel
Include in your kit some extra layers and a space blanket as this will come in handy if you need to spend the night while waiting for rescue. Everything in your kit should be checked regularly to be in working condition.
3. Move to the side of the approaching avalanche
The best way to deal with an avalanche is to avoid it.
Once you’re aware of an oncoming avalanche, quickly make your way to the side of it. You could be the cause of moving snow and if it starts right under your feet jump off and move higher than the crack. You would be able to avoid getting caught in the entire cascade.
If it started significantly higher than where you are, you may be able to outrun it. However, you want to ensure you’re not right in the centre of it where the snow is moving fastest and at the highest volume.
You could end up being buried at the bottom of the masses of snow which will make rescue difficult. Chances of hypothermia are also increased if you’re caught at the bottom of a snow pile.
4. Grab something sturdy
You might not always be able to move out of the way. First, get rid of any heavy equipment or gear you may be holding on to like your snowboard or snowmobile. Try to keep your backpack on you. It will keep your neck safe while also holding your survival kit.
Grab onto something sturdy like a boulder or a tree that’s grounded in place to help hold you up. In a minor snowslide, you will be able to allow it to pass and regain your footing. You may still get swept off but you will have the advantage of not being buried deep under the snow.
Grabbing onto something works best when you do it before the start of an avalanche. It becomes difficult to grab onto a tree when snow is surging down at high speeds. On the other hand, do not hide behind a rock because snow piling up behind it will bury you deeper in the snow.
5. Swim above the snow
While it is best to react immediately to signs of an avalanche, we don’t get to pick the exact situation we end up in. You may get caught in a tide of snow before you realize it. Staying above the snow is important to ensure you don’t get buried too deep at the bottom of the pile.
To do so, use a swimming motion to move uphill and keep yourself at the surface of the gushing snow. Violently moving your hands and legs around will also keep you from sinking.
Swimming against the current will help you stay towards the top of the snow pile. Alternatively, swimming backstroke with your face upward and your feet dug into the snow will slow down your decline.
6. Keep one arm over your head
Efforts to stay afloat may not always be successful. When you feel the momentum starting to slow down, have one hand over your mouth and the other one straight above you.
Once the snow comes to a complete stop, it will start to become compact around you. This happens very quickly so you have a very short time to act.
Keep an arm over your head to help determine which way is up. Rescuers will be able to spot you quickly if you’re not buried completely and your arm will give them a signal to where you are. You can also use your snow shovel to dig your way out of there.
7. Create space to breathe
Before the snow flow stops, take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. This will give you breathing room once it starts to settle around you. Without this space, you might not get to expand your chest at all.
Create a pocket of air to breathe by digging a space around your face with your free arm.
You may be buried for a while and you want to ensure asphyxiation does not get you first. The air pocket you’ve created should give you enough air to breathe for 30 minutes while waiting to be rescued.
8. Check for the direction of gravity
Getting buried in snow can be disorienting and you might have been tossed around before getting buried. Try the spitting technique to determine which way is up if you are unsure.
Once you’ve got a pocket of space in front of your face, spit and see which way gravity carries it. Then, dig in the opposite direction to get yourself out.
Digging yourself out will only be possible if you’re near the surface. If you feel that you are too far buried, it might be better to wait to be rescued.
9. Stay calm
Staying calm, while easier said than done, is vital. It is impossible to dig yourself out if you’re buried more than a foot deep and you will have to wait for rescuers. The best thing you can do for yourself is to take slow easy breaths and avoid panic.
Conserve air and energy to prolong the amount of time you have while waiting.
It might be tempting to want to free yourself but you will wear yourself out and reduce your chance of survival. You may hear people overhead and you can call out to them.
If they don’t hear you after a few times, don’t waste your energy calling out as they wouldn’t be able to hear you as clearly as you hear them. Rescuers will track your beacon and come to save you.
10. Enrol in an avalanche training course
Get prepared and enrol yourself in a training course that will teach you everything you need to know before heading out into the snow-covered mountains. Being trained will reduce the risks of being in an avalanche and increase the chances of survival.
There are many organizations that offer courses that will teach you to avoid avalanches, save yourself and rescue anyone who gets caught in them. Getting adequate training will also teach you to look out for signs of an oncoming avalanche.
The best way to survive an avalanche is to detect the early warning signs and avoid them. Once caught in one, you have to react quickly because the situation can be fatal.
Even the most experienced hikers get caught in unexpected situations so always be prepared before heading out. These tips could help you survive an avalanche but you will still require consistent practice to make sure you are ready for a real-life situation.