In this article, we continue our series on cold weather preparedness by discussing a topic you’ll rarely see on the news: Avalanche. An avalanche is a mass of snow, ice, and debris sliding rapidly down a mountainside, and is a risk to any winter hiker.
Avalanches and Survival Medicine
Avalanches cause an average of 28 deaths a year. This may seem like a rare occurrence, but it happens a lot more often than, say, shark attacks (which get a lot more press).
Snowslides are part and parcel of the winter wilderness experience, and it pays to know what to do if you’re caught in one. If you’re not prepared to deal with issues associated with your environment, then you have made it your enemy. This is not just good advice for skiers or backcountry campers; anyone driving on mountain roads in winter could get in caught in an avalanche if not prepared.
What Happens to the Victim of An Avalanche
Besides general hypothermia, there are a variety of ways that you can die as a victim of a snowslide.
Trauma: serious injury is not uncommon in an avalanche, and not just due to the weight of the snow. Debris, such as rocks, branches, and even entire trees, can be carried along in the cascade.
Suffocation: it isn’t unusual to die due to asphyxiation when buried in the snow. Densely packed snow is like concrete, and many victims may find themselves immobilized and unable to help themselves.
Hypothermia is, surprisingly, the cause of death of only a small percentage of avalanche victims. It’s much more likely that they will perish due to traumatic injury or suffocation before they freeze to death. Factors involved in deciding your fate include the density of the snowpack, air pockets for breathing, position of the body in the snow, injuries sustained, and whether you brought rescue equipment along.
Pieps Avalanche Beacon
On any wilderness outing, it makes sense to go in a group. That goes for avalanche country, as well, except for one thing: Space yourselves out far enough so that there’s not too much weight on any one area of snow. Specialized gear for the avalanche-conscious in modern times would include (besides clothing that protects against the cold):
An avalanche beacon: A device that emits a pulsed radio signal. Everyone in the group carries one. If a member gets buried in an avalanche, the rest of the party picks up the signal from under the snow. The receivers interpret the signal into a display that aids the search.
An avalanche shovel: Special short shovels (aluminum) that fit inside your backpack and help chop and remove snow and debris from a buried hiker. These shovels usually have telescoping shafts. Shovels with D-shaped grips can be used with mittens.
An avalanche probe: Essentially, a stick that helps you pinpoint the exact location of an avalanche victim and see how far down he/she is. 2 meters or more in length, you can use it to tell a victim under the snow from the ground; the victim will feel “softer”.
A helmet: Many fatalities occur due to head trauma from rocks and debris flung around by the snow.
Skier’s Air Bags: Relatively new, these brightly colored air bags auto-inflate with a trigger; they work like a lifejacket to keep you buoyant and, therefore, closer to the surface and easier to find.
Ortovox brand avalanche airbag
WHAT TO DO AS THE AVALANCHE BEGINS
90% of avalanches are triggered by the victim. To survive, rapid action will be needed:
Yell: Let everyone in your group know that you’re in trouble. At the very start of the slide, wave your arms and shout as loud as you can to alert as many people as possible to your location.
Move. If you started the avalanche, you may notice a crevice forming in the snow. Jump uphill of it quickly and you might not get carried off. If this isn’t an option, run sideways as fast as you can away from the center of the event, which is where the snow will be moving fastest and with the most force.
Get Lighter. Heavier objects sink in snow, so jettison your backpack and unnecessary heavy equipment so that you’ll be closer to the surface. Throwing off something light isn’t a bad idea either: A loose glove or hat on top of the snow could signal rescuers to your general location and save precious time. Deploy your avalanche air bag if you have one.
Hug a tree (or rock). If the avalanche is relatively small, you could grab the nearest immobile object and hold on for dear life. In a very large avalanche, trees and rocks may not be safe anchors; trees can be uprooted by the force of the snowslide.
Swim! The key is to stay as close to the top of the snow as possible. Increase your surface area by spreading your legs (feet downhill) and raising your hands. While in this position, swing your arms while trying to stay on your back (easier to breathe if face up), similar to swimming backstroke. With any luck, this strategy will keep you towards the surface of the snow.
WHAT TO DO IF BURIED IN THE SNOW
You did your best, but still got completely buried in the snow. You’ve got a little more than 15 minutes, on average, before you suffocate. Snow may be porous, but warm breath melts the snow which then refreezes as solid ice. This makes breathing difficult.
As the snow slows: The larger the air pocket you have, the longer you’ll survive. As the snowslide slows to a stop, put one arm in front of your face in such a way as to form a space that will give you the most air. If possible, raise the other arm straight up toward the avalanche surface. Your glove might signal your location to rescuers. Expand your chest by breathing deeply so that you have more room to breath once the snow has settled.
Once buried: Once you are completely buried, the snowpack may be so dense as to prevent you from moving. Stay calm, in order to use up less oxygen. If you’re not sure which way is up, spit. The spit will go towards the ground due to gravity. If you can move, work to make a bigger air pocket in the direction of the surface.
You’ll only have a second or two to act to avoid most avalanches. Rapid action, and some basic rescue equipment, may prevent you from being the harsh winter’s latest victim.
Joe Alton, M.D., aka Dr. Bones, the Disaster Doctor