What to do if you’re caught in an avalanche

What to do if you’re caught in an avalanche

(Stock Photo; East Idaho News)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — With 2019 being well above average in terms of snowfall, avalanche danger has increased, causing a number of fatal accidents for snowmobilers and skiers alike. Here are some ways to protect yourself in the event of an avalanche.

How to protect yourself from avalanches

Get the appropriate gear for backcountry activities:

  • Always have a beacon, probe, and shovel when in the backcountry in case you or a friend is buried.

  • Make sure the beacon is turned on and working.
  • Ride with an inflatable backpack so that, if caught in an avalanche, you can remain above the snow.
  • Consider using an Avalung to extend the length of time with oxygen while buried.
  • Practice using backcountry gear and even take a class, as valuable seconds can be lost when trying to learn how to use it.

Get trained on the basics of recreating in the backcountry and first aid:

  • Take a backcountry class in your desired activity, whether it be snowmobiling, skiing, or snowboarding. They help educate on different kinds of avalanches and how they’re triggered, how to minimize risk in avalanche terrain, how to rescue those who are buried, and more.
  • Take a class on first aid and CPR in order to help injured members of your party.
Check the weather in advance:

  • Use Avalanche.org to track avalanches, and Weather.gov to monitor current conditions. Depending on how conditions look, prepare or avoid locations accordingly. In high avalanche danger, consider not even visiting the area in question.
  • Be prepared to assess weather conditions logically, as forecasts can change on a dime.
  • Do your research in advance and bring a map in case you find yourself in a sticky situation.
  • Let someone at home know when you leave and plan to return.
Pay attention to the slope angle before crossing on or below it:

  • Slopes with 30-45 degree angles are the most dangerous, while those with less than 25-degree slopes are safest.
  • Concave slopes tend to be safer than convex ones.
Let the snow settle:

  • Most avalanches occur right after heavy snowfalls, so experts recommend taking the time to let snow settle and wait at least 48 hours. Local variables might extend that amount of time.
Be situationally aware:

  • No matter how much research into forecasts you do in advance, sometimes conditions in the mountains are just unpredictable. Be aware of recent avalanche activity, watch for changing wind, snow, and temperatures, and be aware of snow that appears to be cracking.
  • Pay attention to other groups both above and below.
  • Never intentionally trigger avalanches without being absolutely certain there’s nobody below.
Stay out of harm’s way:

  • Only one person should ski down the slope at a time. Even if a buddy loses a ski, let them reclaim it themselves and get to a safe location before going down.
  • Stay in constant contact with each other either visibly or auditorily.
Stick to hiking along ridgelines:

  • Hiking up ridgelines with gradual slopes tends to be safer, as the snow is thinner there and less likely to slide. Be sure to keep well away from cornices, which are wave-shaped drifts extending out from ridges that can break and cause a hiker to fall.

What to do if you find yourself in an avalanche

Move up or to the side; never try to outrun it:

  • Move perpendicularly along the avalanche’s path to avoid the middle of it and try and get out of the way in time.
  • If the slide starts under your feet, try and jump above the fracture line.
Abandon all of your gear

  • All equipment will do in an avalanche is get in the way. Try and rid yourself of it as soon as possible.
Stay on top of the avalanche by ‘swimming’

  • Staying on top of the avalanche will keep you from getting caught under mounds of snow and debris. Try swimming with the current using all of your strength, or violently thrash around to stay above the cascade.
  • Stick an arm into the air so that, in the event you are buried, your team can find you more easily.
Anchor yourself

  • If possible, find shelter behind rocks, trees, or a vehicle. If the avalanche is slow-moving, grab a rock or tree and use it to anchor yourself and stay afloat.
  • Turn your back to the avalanche, cover your mouth and nose to protect your airway, and don’t yell or shout.

Create some space to breathe

  • Cup your hands over your mouth while you’re still moving to create an air pocket, which might help you breathe for up to 30 minutes. Digging the space in front of you once buried will help to expand that air pocket.
Backcountry adventures are undoubtedly dangerous, but staying prepared and responsible will make recreating off the beaten path a lot safer.


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