This startling footage of a human-triggered avalanche was captured just a few days ago near Kirkwood Ski Resort, California. The snowboarder who sparked it was swept along for a terrifying 500 foot ride. Happily, he survived without injury after remaining on top of the debris as it thundered down the mountain.
90 per cent of people that die in avalanches do so in incidents either triggered by themselves, or by people in their group. However, there are steps that can reduce your chances of becoming a victim of the snow.
Look out for warning signs
Keep your eyes peeled for red flags, or other signs warning about the danger or avalanches. These signs don’t have to be literal. If there is debris lying around from recent avalanches, the likelihood of a new one is heightened.
Also listen for cracking, thumping, or whoomping sounds as you ski or snowboard. This can be a telltale sign of the snowpack being unstable.
Look out for what looks like fresh snow when you know it hasn’t dumped for a wile. This can be snow that’s been blown by the wind. It can be unstable, and exactly the kind of terrain that can start an avalanche rolling.
Of course, these conditions aren’t always easily visible, so always check with the local authorities or Avalanche Advisory in the area. Statistically speaking, there are more fatalities when the risk is set as ‘Considerable’, presumably because people exercise less caution than when the risk is ‘High’ or ‘Extreme’.
Know where the risks are
Avalanches are possible on any slope that’s stepper than 30 degrees, and are most common when the angle is between 35 and 50. You don’t need to carry a protractor around with you to find out what this looks like; most black runs start at around about 35 degrees.
If your run looks like a black, or steeper, then its within the avalanche spectrum. That said, if you’re riding back country a lot, you might want to invest in an inclinometer, a tool designed for measuring the dedgree of the incline. There are also a few good smartphone apps that’s do a good job as well now.
Asses the run you’re going to take. Try to visualise what could go wrong. That may sound a little negative, but the few seconds it takes could save your life. You should be aware of any terrain traps that may be on your route.
There are areas that, if an avalanche occurs, will be dangerous because they will collect large areas of snow. Imagine a perfectly constant slope: the falling debris will roll right off. Now think of a slope with a bowl in it. More falling snow will collect here, and will be much more likely to bury a victim caught in it. These are terrain traps. Avoid them.
Areas of high exposure are also to be missed where possible. These are things like cliffs and other large drops. if an avalanche takes you along with it, it can drag you off the cliff, increasing the chances of fatality significantly. Even if the alternative is going down an even steeper slope, avoid exposed areas.
Always work as a group
If you’re heading to an area where there’s an avalanche risk, never go alone. Always go with other experienced and knowledgeable people.
Although riding with your friends is always rad, when you’re in avalanche country, safety comes first. Never have more than one person riding potentially dangerous terrain at any time. Not only does this lower the exposure to danger, it also lets the rest of the group keep an eye on the one rider if there is a problem.
When it’s your turn to drop in, never take a line that’s directly above another person. If an avalanche is triggered, they’ll be in it’s path and potentially helpless. Where possible, start from a safe area, and end in a safe area. Never stop in a place where an avalanche is likely.
Know what to do in the case of an avalanche
If you get caught in an avalanche, you will not be able to outrun it, no matter how fast you’re going. However, it may be possible to get off the falling slab. If you can, try to angle yourself to the edge of the falling debris.
If you can’t do this, try to abandon your skis or snowboard, roll onto your back with your feet pointing down hill, and make a swimming action as ferociously as you can. This will increase your chances of staying on top of, or at least being near the top of, the pack.
As the avalanche slows, thrust a part of your body above the debris if possible. This will make you easier to find by your team. Also try to clear some space around your head or mouth, so you have some airspace to breathe.
If you do find yourself completely buried, try to stay calm. This is tough because your brain will tell you panic, and try to dig yourself out. However, you’ll be burning precious oxygen, an may be digging yourself further in. You’re in the hands of your team, now, so let them do the work.
If you’re part of a group where another person has been caught in an avalanche, alert everyone to the incident, but keep your eyes on the victim for as long as possible. If you do lose sight, establish a ‘last seen’ point. Begin the recovery only when it is safe to do so. Never head into an avalanche while it’s still moving.
Before you set out for the day, you should have established a group leader to take charge in the case of an incident. A second in charge should also be elected should the leader become a victim. These should be the most experienced and knowledgeable among the group. Let them lead. Every second debating leadership is a second where the victim is closer to death.
Begin looking for clues. Items of the victim’s clothing are often good indicators of their position. If you find something, inform the group, but leave the item in place. Probe the area before you start digging. it’s much quicker when trying to identify a buried victim.
Ideally, all parties will be wearing a beacon, making them easier to find. However, if they aren’t, or you don’t get a signal, do not give up. Continue to search.
Stay equipped. Stay educated
Remember, this is only a guide to the very basics of avalanche safety. This information, while sound, won’t save your life should the worst happen. If you’re going into the back country, or anywhere with a heightened risk of avalanche, ensure you have all of the essential equipment, and know how to use it.
Whether you’re completely new to avalanche safety training, or are a seasoned back country warrior, it’s worth booking some training before your adventures.
There are stacks of really good safety courses available both across the UK and the world. Many, including Henry’s Avalanche Talks offer online training as well, so no matter where you are, there’s no excuse to not be on point.
You avi’ bag should always include a transceiver, shovel, probe, a first aid kit, and a mobile phone. A helmet cant hurt, and a inflatable airbag – although expensive – can make a massive difference to your chances of survival.