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March 23, 2017
What to do in an avalanche
February 3, 2017
If you participate in snow sports you’re aware of the danger of avalanches. These masses of snow and ice can sweep down a slope wiping out everything in their path and burying vast expanses in deep snow and rubble. The recent avalanche in Farindola, Italy which killed 29 people and buried a hotel reminds us of the powerful damage an avalanche can cause.
Of course, not all avalanches are as dramatic and there are thousands which occur every year. The commonly quoted number of deaths per year in avalanches globally is 150. Based on data collected in Switzerland in the 1980’s-1990’s and published by the American Avalanche Association (AAA), if you’re caught in an avalanche buried for 15 minutes before rescue your chances of surviving are 92%. At 35 minutes, however that rate of survival drops to 43%, and then decreases rapidly at 90 minutes (27%) and over two hours (3%).
This means that the key to surviving an avalanche is prevention – avoiding situations where an avalanche is likely. Know the avalanche risk in your area. This isn’t just advice for those skiing and snowboarding it’s also for those hiking and relaxing. Do you hear them blasting the snow every morning from your resort? There’s a reason. Almost all ski areas and resorts offer guidance as to the likelihood of avalanche and you should take these seriously. If you’re extreme skiing or skiing off-piste have a beacon and don’t ski alone.
Most avalanches are caused by someone. A 1996 study indicated that 83% of all avalanches are caused by a person. If snow sports are your thing then get some training on how to participate safely. You might be someone’s best chance of survival after an avalanche.
If you cause an avalanche you can attempt to get above it or to the side of it but this is hard to do. It’s likely that you will be swept away with it and then you need to focus on survival. Experts recommend attempting to ‘surf’ or ‘swim’ it – staying as close to the surface of the slide as possible. Because your body mass is heavier than the snow you would naturally sink into an avalanche. If possible, try to hold on to something – like a tree – which isn’t getting uprooted or swept away. As the avalanche settles get to the surface. Unfortunately, you might not know which way is up so at least get the largest air pocket around you that you can. This might just be around your face but that can be enough to keep you from asphyxiating in the time a rescue takes.
The AAA has a great tutorial which teaches you more, including:
How to recognise the red flags of a potential avalanche
How to increase your safety if you’re in an area that is avalanche prone
What to do if you’re caught in an avalanche.
What to do if a ski partner is caught in an avalanche.