SOLO SAFETY BULLETIN – SURVIVING an AVALANCHE
We have had a lot of snow this winter and the avalanche dangers are extremely high. We felt this was a good time to review how to survive and avalanche.
In the USA, there is an average of 30 deaths per year.
In Europe, there is an average or 120 deaths per year.
Causes of Death in an Avalanche:
Asphyxia accounts for about 90% of deaths.
Trauma accounts for about 10% of deaths.
Head trauma and cervical spine trauma are the most common cause of
traumatic death in an avalanche.
Risk of Death = The Risk is Hypoxia, Hypothermia, and Asphyxia.
Increases with the depth of burial – how many feet under the snow pack.
Increases with the time or duration of burial under the snow pack.
Decreases with available air pockets within the snow pack.
Principle #1: The primary principle to increase the chance of surviving an avalanche is to STAY ON TOP!
Carry an avalanche beacon – avalanche transceiver
Grab something and hang on
Swim to stay on top
Get rid of anything heavy – anchors
Create an air pocket
Trail a rope – avalanche cord
Locate up from down and push and arm up
Be prepared – Take a course
As the avalanche flows downhill, there is more depth of snow in the center of the avalanche than along the sides. The avalanche also moves faster towards the center. Moving towards the side will bring you into areas of less depth of snow that is moving slower than in the center.
The fracture line of the avalanche may be directly under your feet. You may have caused the fracture line and simply stepping up hill may put you on solid footing, instead of on the river of flowing snow.
CARRY AN AVALANCHE BEACON/TRANSCEIVER
Wear the avalanche beacon under clothing so that it cannot be stripped off you in the avalanche. It is the quickest and most reliable way to locate a buried person in the snow pack. Time is life. A beacon is a big factor in surviving an avalanche due to the risk of asphyxia.
GRAB ONTO SOMETHING AND HANG ONTO IT
By grabbing onto a rock or tree, assuming the tree is not uprooted by the avalanche, it will allow the avalanche to flow past you, minimizing the depth of burial.
SWIM TO STAY ON TOP
An avalanche is a river of flowing snow and it acts just like water. The difference is that as soon as it stops flowing, it rapidly hardens into “snowcrete.” Snowcrete is just like concrete, only it consists of snow.
Swimming will help to keep you on top of the moving snow mass. Again, minimizing the depth of burial increases survival. Some experts say swim uphill and some downhill. The reality is you will probably not know up from down, so simply swim to try to stay light and on top of the snow.
GET RID OF ANYTHING HEAVY, ANCHORS!
Back packs, skis, ski poles, snow shoes can weigh you down and act like anchors dragging you deeper into the snow. Shedding these “anchors” will help to keep you closer to the top of the flow.
CREATE AIR POCKETS
As the flow begins to slow, place your hands in front of your face and push away creating an air pocket. Also, take a deep breath to expand your chest and try to move around to make space. Once the snow stops moving it will harden and turn into “snowcrete” in approximately one minute. Remember, up to 90% of deaths from avalanches are from asphyxia, i. e. you simply cannot breathe.
TRAIL A ROPE
This is an old technique. The idea behind this is if you are caught in an avalanche and you were trailing a piece of rope, when the rescuers find the rope they can follow it along to find you.
If you are in an area where they use rescue dogs to search for avalanche victims, the dogs locate primarily by scent. They smell you out. Urine stinks and peeing in the snow will give the rescue dogs a bigger scent, odor, aroma by which to find you.
LOCATE UP FROM DOWN AND PUSH AN ARM UP
Trapped inside of snow, it can be very difficult to tell up from down. The pressure on the body is consistent all around, and the light is the same all around as well. It has been said that drooling or spitting will give you the direction of gravity. This is probably a myth, as you will most likely be encased in snow. However, do try to figure up from down, and if you can, shove an arm or leg upward in hopes of being able to stick a hand out of the snow pack, or at least be closer to the top with hopes of being found sooner.
DON’T SHOUT OR SCREAM – DON’T WASTE YOUR BREATH
Snow is very sound-absorbing. Don’t exhaust yourself trying to call or scream for help; the snow absorbs the sound, and, therefore, the sound only carries a few feet.
BE PREPARED – TAKE A COURSE
Last but not least, if you are going into avalanche country, wear your beacon, consider wearing an avalanche airbag or float, carry hiking poles that can be converted to avalanche poles for probing the snowcrete, and pack a light weight shovel to dig out the victims of the avalanche. Get smart and take a course.
A few specific avalanche devices to consider which could save our life.
Avalanche airbags and floats:
These are safety devices that are fit to a backpack, designed to be deployed in the event of an avalanche. They are simply big bags of air that help to keep you afloat or buoyant, thus keeping you closer to the top of the snow pack.
There is an excellent review of avalanche airbags at www/outdoorgearlab.com/avalanche-airbag-review
The Avalung is a device that can be added to an existing back pack. It has a mouth piece for breathing attached to a shoulder strap. As you inhale via the mouth piece, the air is drawn in from your front and the exhaled air is exhausted out the back of the pack. This reduces the rate at which snow melts around your head and face and slows the rate at which ice forms. This buys you time to be able to extract oxygen from the snow pack, preventing hypoxia and asphyxiation.