by Cliff Montgomery, Copyright © SecretsofSurvival.com. All rights reserved.
Consider this real-life diary submission from a man hiking in Nepal:
Friday, 10 November. Ang Tsering and I ask all to pack essentials
in their day packs for possible bailout if this [snow] continues. We
meet in the dining tent (resurrected). I hear Ang Tsering yell
"avalanche!" and the next thing I know I'm doubled over -- pinned
against the table. We all get out OK, and we're clearly blessed. The
table either saved us or the avalanche had run its course.
Three of our tents were eight feet deep and five people would have
been buried had they still been packing. Three tents and the dining tent
were totally trashed. Most people were now without duffels, sleeping
bags or day packs. We decided to get the hell out and return to dig out
our tents when this stopped.
About ten minutes down the trail, the route looked suicidal. Below us
in a narrow valley, a group was trying to dig a trail. In 30 minutes, we
moved about 50 feet. Visibility was 200 feet, snowing in sheets, and we
could hear but not see avalanches booming on all sides. This was a
doomsday scenario; there we were, standing in this mess without food,
clothing or sleeping bags. We went back and built a snow platform behind
a safe rock.
Three of our tents were eight feet deep and five people would have been buried had they still been packing. Three tents and the dining tent were totally trashed. Most people were now without duffels, sleeping bags or day packs. We decided to get the hell out and return to dig out our tents when this stopped.
About ten minutes down the trail, the route looked suicidal. Below us in a narrow valley, a group was trying to dig a trail. In 30 minutes, we moved about 50 feet. Visibility was 200 feet, snowing in sheets, and we could hear but not see avalanches booming on all sides. This was a doomsday scenario; there we were, standing in this mess without food, clothing or sleeping bags. We went back and built a snow platform behind a safe rock.
We'll take a quick look at the necessary conditions for an avalanche, then study how you can survive an avalanche - or even avoid it altogether - during your next ice climbing, snowboarding, or skiing trek in the snow.
Williams insists the keys to fewer avalanche deaths are education and prudence, especially when people visit deep, rural regions.
"Wouldn't it be better to not get buried at all?" Williams continues. "The key to survival is avoiding accidents altogether through knowledge and good decision-making in the backcountry."
Because snow avalanches are really a whole season's snow released down a mountainside at once, an avalanche may release tremendous forces and are a serious threat to the winter traveler.
If you like skiing or snow-related activity, it is very important that you learn how to avoid being in an avalanche, and increase your chances of survival if you find yourself in one.
Survival Tip: both experience and statistics show that fully-buried avalanche victims who are still alive when the avalanche stops moving must usually be found and dug out within 15 minutes to have any reasonable chances of survival.
To tell the truth, in North America the chances of an organized professional rescue team arriving in that time frame are pretty slim unless the accident happens in an area where an avalanche safety program operates. But even in such areas, alerting a team and quickly mounting an organized rescue may well take longer than the 15-minute window of opportunity.
Survival Tip: Don't just take a group of people up in the snow. Be sure to discuss what kind of conditions (see below) can trigger an avalanche, and also what to do should your group be caught by surprise. Knowing the ins and outs of avalanche danger can go a long way -- but sometimes you may still be caught unexpectedly. After reading this article hopefully the chances of that will become slim.
Every situation has some rules all its own, but these general
guidelines should give you a good footing (no pun intended) when you're
trying to cope with the fallout (pun here is intended) of an ugly
Slope profile - Convex slopes are clearly the most dangerous; stay away from them when you can, especially during the period from late December thru January. Concave slopes are less dangerous, but they can - and sometimes do - avalanche.
Slope aspect - North-facing slopes are the most likely to avalanche during the dreaded middle of winter. But south-facing slopes can become dangerous in the spring and during sunny days, as the sun begins to rise higher in the sky.
Also, slopes that garner snow during windy conditions are dangerous because wind-borne snow adds to their rapid accumulation; the hard, hollow-sounding wind slab may develop there. However windward slopes (those slopes sitting into the wind) generally have less snow and benefit from wind compaction.
Ground cover - Areas with large rocks, trees and heavy brush here
and there are a good help in anchoring the snow on the mountain. Smooth,
grassy slopes are much more dangerous.
Rapid snow settlement is actually a favorable sign. Look for settlement cones around tree trunks and over rocks. Moist, dense precipitations create those sought-after settlement cones, because the snowfall settles rapidly. During windy periods all bets are off however, as even this snow can suddenly become very dangerous.
Lack of settlement is a danger sign; loose, dry snow can easily trigger an avalanche.
Old Snow - When the old snow depth is sufficient to cover natural anchors, such as rocks and brush, additional snow layers will slide more readily. Also, the nature of the old snow surface is important. Rough surfaces are of course favorable for stability; any smooth surfaces, such as sun crusts, are not.
A loose, underlying snow layer is more dangerous than a compacted one. You can check this with a ski pole, ski, or snowshoe.
Ever wonder why you see those pro skiers banging the ends of their poles into a deep snow before beginning a day of skiing? Now you know.
Crystal Types - All snow is not created equal. You can readily
observe general crystal types by letting them fall on a dark ski mitt or
parka sleeve. Small crystals, such as needles and pellets, result in
more dangerous conditions than the usual star-shaped crystals.
Temperature - Snow persists in an unstable condition longer under cold temperatures. It settles and stabilizes more rapidly during warmer weather that's near or above freezing.
But beware high and rapidly rising temperatures in the spring months. They may result in wet snow slides, particularly from south- facing slopes.
Beware of any rapid change in temperature. Shadows creeping across a slope may change temperatures enough to create dangerous conditions.
Snowfall Rate - Snow falling at the rate of one inch per hour or
more increases avalanche danger rapidly.
Recent Avalanche Activity - Look around; if you see new avalanches you should suspect dangerous conditions.
Sound and Cracks - If the snow sounds hollow, particularly on a
slope full of wind-blown snow, conditions are probably dangerous; if the
snow covers cracks that are found running in the snow, slab avalanche
danger is high.
* Windward slopes are almost always the safest.
* If you cannot travel on ridges, the next safest route is out in the valley away from the bottom part of slopes.
* Stay high and near the top if you must cross dangerous slopes or avalanche paths; if you can see old or new avalanche fracture lines, be sure to avoid them and other similar areas.
* Go straight up or down if you must ascend or descend a dangerous slope; do not make traverses back and forth across it.
* Take advantage of areas of dense timber, ridges or rocky outcrops as islands of safety. Use them for lunch and rest stops and spend the least time possible out on the open slopes.
* Snowmobiles must not travel across the lower part of slopes, and especially not across long, open slopes or known avalanche paths.
* Look for, and obey, all signs or other warnings of avalanche
* Remove ski pole straps and ski safety straps; loosen all equipment, put on and fasten mitts, cap, and all other clothing before being exposed to avalanche danger.
* Carry and use an avalanche cord, as well as a sectional probe.
* Remember the terrain. Be prepared for falls over cliffs, collisions with trees, and the stop in the runout zone.
* Seek shelter behind rocks, trees, vehicles.
* Crouch low and turn away from the avalanche.
* Cover nose and mouth (snow can fill your nostrils and mouth)
* Brace against impact, hold onto trees, etc.
* Do not cry out or open your mouth as the avalanche is occurring.
* Thrust and kick to the surface just before the snow comes to a complete stop.
* Try to stay on top and work your way to the side of the avalanche.
* Thrust an arm toward the surface.
* Call out when you can, especially when rescuers are near.
* Though we're sure it will be close to impossible, try to stay calm.
The most important thing you can have at that moment is a clear head.
* Search for them in the fall line and directly below the last seen point.
* Search the area of greatest snow deposition first.
You are their best hope for survival. Do not desert those trapped and go for help unless you are certain help is only a few minutes away.
Remember, you must consider not only the time for you go to get help, but the time required for help to return. Also, the victim has only a 50% chance of surviving for an hour.
If you do go for help, mark the route so a rescue party can follow it
Open a window and check for depth of burial with some kind of stick, pole or probe. Do not leave the vehicle unless you feel sure it is safe to do so or you are in a remote location.
If you have a two-way radio, keep it turned on; it may quickly become your best friend in this situation. Use it to call for help.
1.) To make sure at least one of you possesses and can work an avalanche transceiver, which helps you find those lost in the snow, and;
2.) To always travel and work in a group when you are traversing through the snow.
Learning the induction-line technique is a practical skill and it should be practiced several times a season or, better still, at the beginning of each outing. Like most techniques, this procedure cannot be learned from a simple description alone.
In addition, at the beginning of each trip and at critical points thereafter, avalanche transceivers should be checked periodically to ensure the device is in working order.
The basis of the induction-line technique utilizes the fact that an avalanche transceiver actually has an electromagnetic field that surrounds it each time the transceiver transmits. This field has a three-dimensional shape somewhat like an apple, surrounding the device and whoever is using it at that moment.
Using the transceiver in 'receive' mode, the searcher moves or orients their transceiver until it is passing along one of the "flux lines" of the electromagnetic field. That "flux line" is then followed like a railroad track curving into a station (naturally the flux lines are not actually visible, but you are in effect following an induction-line or flux line - hence the name of the technique).
Once you have picked up a signal, you begin by carefully scanning to
find the direction in which the signal is strongest. You now quickly
move in that direction for a distance of about 15 feet (5 meters). If the signal immediately gets weaker,
consider moving in the opposite direction instead. You always want to
travel in the direction that makes the signal stronger or sound louder.
On beacons with visual indicators, you want more lights or bars
illuminated on an LED or LCD display.
* When homing in on the victims location, move as quickly as possible and turn the volume of your transceiver down whenever possible.
* When pinpointing the final location, use a logical pattern and slow down so as not to miss the strongest point.
* Mark the area where the signal is strongest.
* Probe the marked area using a logical pattern.
* When the victim is hit with the probe, do not remove the
probe. Notify the rescue leader of the hit. Note the approximate
depth of the victim. Begin rescue digging.
If the victim is deeply buried, begin digging well away from the probe. As a rule of thumb, the hole required to expose the victim will be at least the square of the depth: that is, if a victim is buried 6 feet deep (or 2 meters), the hole required to remove the victim will be at least 6 feet by 6 feet.
Dig on the downhill side of the probe and throw snow downhill.
Too many people digging at once get in each others' way. It's a better idea to use only a few diggers at one time. Besides, diggers should be rotated often anyway - every few minutes if possible. As soon as one begins to tire or slow down someone fresh should take over. There's no room for ego here. Time is absolutely of the essence.
Deep holes may require tiers with diggers on each tier moving snow from the bottom to the surface.
When the victim is found, uncover the head and chest immediately, clear the mouth and airway, and begin first aid while the rest of the victim's body is still covered.
If a transceiver search is unsuccessful, secondary procedures - such
as setting up a probe line - must be used.
Make sure to mark recently probed areas. With every second counting, you don't need to look over the same real estate twice.
If probing around found items or in likely areas of burial is
unsuccessful, an organized probe line may be useful if there are enough
searchers on the scene to set one up. A probe line needs at least 6
searchers to be efficient. If there are not enough searchers, continue
with the probing of likely areas.
To set up the probe line, establish the most likely area of burial. Line up searchers in a straight line and space them apart approximately from wrist to wrist. Searchers probe three times: once directly in front of them, then reaching left and right with their probe about 1 1/2 feet (or about 45 cm) on either side of the middle hole. Searchers take one normal step forward and repeat the process.
As noted above, the '3 hole per step technique' has distinct
advantages, particularly where a small group of rescuers must search a
large area. It has been widely adopted throughout many areas as one of
the quickest, easiest ways to find someone trapped under an avalanche
The Open Space Coarse Probe On particularly rough terrain or when fewer rescuers are available, probers spread out from fingertip to fingertip. Each prober then inserts their probe once just outside of the left foot, then again just outside of the right foot. This technique provides much of the efficiency as the '3 hole' technique, but the speed with which the area is covered diminishes.
* Stop in a safe location.
* Direct vehicles and people to a safe area.
* Check dimensions of avalanche and determine whether vehicles could be caught in it.
* Before carrying out any rescue procedures, carefully assess the potential for further avalanches. (Remember, you do not have as much information as you might in a backcountry situation.)
* If you feel the situation is unsafe and that no one is buried in the avalanche, simply send for help and wait for assistance.
Also, before going for help note the following information:
* the exact location of the accident;
* access (road, trail, helicopter);
* time of accident;
* weather and snow conditions;
* if number of people buried, how many;
* rescuers on site
Continue searching for as long as you can, but make provisions for the feeding, sheltering, and safety of searchers if an extended hunt is anticipated.
Also, if it weren't for the watchful eyes of the man who wrote that Nepalese diary entry and his associate, many of their friends might still be lost in the mountains of Nepal if they hadn't been on the lookout, and if all those involved hadn't worked together thru the whole ordeal. That, dear friends, is probably the most important avalanche lesson we can give.
The Avalanche airbag may even be a bit dangerous. Let me explain: It may give the wearer a false-sense of security and thus cause that wearer to be a little less cautious up in the snow.
Survival Tip: If you're going to wear one of these packs -- kudos to you. It just might save your life. But don't let it give you a false-sense of security and make you less cautious up in the snow. Be cautious and be smart up in avalanche country. People die every year. People are crushed, their bodies turned into pretzels. Know the terrain. Proceed with caution.
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