How to Survive an Avalanche

How to Survive an Avalanche

Liam Gamache, Writer

Colorado is a prime location for skiing, snowboarding and other awesome winter sports, but such activities do come with certain risks. The biggest of those risks with over 150 deaths annually, is avalanches. That’s why, in this article we will cover the most important safety tips you can learn to increase your chances of survival in an avalanche situation.

The first step to surviving an avalanche is to avoid it all together. 90% of avalanche victims start the avalanche themselves, so it’s important to know how to minimize your chances of triggering one. First of all, steer clear of ski slopes with large open sections of snow and no trees. Trees help to stop avalanches by breaking up large, destructive chunks of snow. Secondly, avoid skiing, snowboarding or hiking directly after a large snowstorm. This is because avalanches are much more likely to occur after large storms, as they break apart layers of snow, as well as add new layers of snow, increasing the chance of an avalanche being triggered. Finally, if you do end up triggering or being caught in the path of an avalanche, their are still ways to avoid being covered. If you trigger the avalanche, Jump or run to higher ground to avoid sliding down with the avalanche.holding on to something sturdy such as a tree or chair lift pole can also reduce your chance of being pulled down with the avalanche. If you spot an avalanche heading down your way, it is important to remember to run to the side of the avalanche, perpendicular to the slope of the hill. It is extremely difficult to outrun an avalanche, so your best bet is to simply step to the side.

Of course, evading the avalanche is not always an option, so here are some tips to increasing your chances of survival if you find yourself  caught in the avalanche. Firstly, the moment you feel your feet slip out from under you, try to keep your bearings of which way is up, so if you do get buried, you know where to dig. Sticking your hand in the air can be a good way of doing this, as it gives you a compass for finding your way back up.  Also, paddling your arms and legs like your treading water can help you stay at the top of the snow. Swimming in an avalanche is not exactly as graceful as swimming in water, but it is still important to maintain good treading form, and keep your head above the snow. 

If you end up getting buried, you want to try to maximize the time you can breath under the snow, so you give rescue teams as much time as possible to find you. If you have enough room, trying to dig your way out is always advised. First though, try to dig a pocket of air by your mouth, to give you space to breath. This hole doubles as a space to spit. As weird as it sounds, spitting can be an amazing way of getting your bearings on which way is up, as the fluid will always drip towards the ground. Once you have your bearings and a space to breath, to a moment to breathe deeply and calm down before starting to dig. Trying to push through the snow in a panicked state is very dangerous, as it increases your chance of suffocating yourself.

The last thing I would like to cover in this article is survival gear and equipment. Maybe the most useful piece of equipment you could carry while skiing/ snowboarding is a avalanche beacon or receiver. This will help emergency responders pinpoint your location quicker, which is important because the average person can only last 15 minutes in an avalanche before suffocating. Another piece of equipment you can carry to increase your chances of survival is a “Ava Lung”, a portable, strap on breathing apparatus that can increase your time under the snow to up to an hour. 

I hope these tips can help you feel a little more safe on your next trip up to the mountains, so ski/ride hard!