You drop, you roll, and then you stop. Whatever you do when you’re on fire, it’s totally different when you’re engulfed in an avalanche.
And the longer it takes to get rescued, the less likely that you’ll survive. But how can you beat the odds?
What should you look for? And what’s the best way to be prepared?
In an avalanche, a slab of snow gets detached from whatever slope it sits on, and tumbles downward, sweeping up more snow, debris, and any unlucky bystanders in its path.
Within five seconds, you could be moving at 130 km/h (80 mph), and then before you know it, you’ve stopped. The snow packed against you is as tight as concrete, and time is racing against you.
If you’re dug out within fifteen minutes, your chance of survival is 93%. After 45 minutes, the survival rate drops to 25%; and after two hours, it’s next to none.
But you don’t have to rely on fate! Leave room for fact, and remember these five steps the next time you hit the backcountry.
1. Be informed
Make sure you know how an avalanche works before you encounter one. Sounds obvious, but since most avalanche accidents are preventable, your best defense is understanding them.
Avalanches normally happen right after a heavy snowfall. A quick build up of snow creates a heavy layer atop a weaker one, which might easily fracture, causing a huge slab of snow to break off and slide downwards.
They can also occur in the springtime when the weather gets warmer and the snow starts to melt. But whatever the natural causes might be, 90% of avalanches are triggered by people. So know your terrain, and tread lightly!
2. Stay on top
Ideally, you want to get off the moving snow as quickly as possible, but chances are, when the snow slab breaks free, it’ll break all around you, and you’re going to have to fight to stay on top to avoid getting buried. If you’re near a tree, grab it and hold on. If not, ditch any equipment you’ve got, and start swimming. Moving your arms broadly and quickly should help you stay on top of the sliding snow.
3. Hands up
Avalanches end quickly, as soon as you feel yourself start to slow down, that’s your cue to raise an arm above your head. When you finally stop, having one arm up might make it easier for rescuers to find you if your hand ends up near the surface. And if you’re that lucky, you might even be able to start digging yourself out!
4. Spit it out
If you can’t tell which way is up or down, start spitting. It might sound gross, but spitting will help create some space in front of your mouth for you to breathe. And judging by which way your spit falls from your mouth, gravity should give you a clue as to which way to start digging.
After rolling downhill at the speed of a car, relaxing is probably the last thing on your mind. But staying calm might be your final hope for survival.
Suffocation is one of the biggest risks for avalanche victims, and panicking only increases that risk. Give yourself more time by calming down so that you can slow your breathing. R
Remember that rescuers are likely on their way, and while you wait for them, you should work on trying to carve a larger space in front of your mouth to give yourself more room to breathe.
Because avalanches are quick and unexpected, it’s natural to feel helpless if you’re ever caught in one. But realistically, you’re never helpless if you’re prepared.
Hot tip: get yourself an avalanche beacon before your next adventure. These things can transmit your location to rescuers if you’re ever caught in an avalanche. Thanks to improved technology and better safety tips, avalanche fatalities have gone down over the last few decades!