How to Survive an Avalanche

Avalanches are powerful natural phenomena that can carry a mountain of snow and debris, burying people or animals in its path. Avalanche rescue is often about staying alive for as long as you can until help arrives. Knowing how to survive an avalanche will prepare you for the worst scenario so you don’t become another statistic.

The “how to survive an avalanche in a car” is a survival guide that tells you how to survive if you are trapped in your car and the snow starts to pile up.

Avalanches killed 25 individuals in the United States last year. Although the figure may not seem significant, it is 23 more than sharks killed last year and 25 more than a Yeti has ever killed.

Backcountry recreationalists—skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and snowmobilers—are the most common casualties. Snowmobilers are responsible for twice as many avalanche fatalities as the other groups, owing to their growing numbers and the fact that the weight of the snowmobile and rider is greater than that of a person on skis, making them more likely to stress the weak layer in a snowpack and trigger an avalanche (the noise, by the way, isn’t the reason). It’s a fallacy that noise may induce an avalanche. 89 percent of avalanche casualties are males, and they are frequently risk takers who put their safety concerns aside in pursuit of their ambitions.

While the majority of avalanches occur naturally, avalanches generated by the victim or someone in the victim’s party account for 90% of avalanche deaths. Avalanches aren’t exactly freak events, and there’s a lot you can do to prevent them and improve your chances of survival if you do get caught in one.

The avalanche danger in Oklahoma is now hovering around 0 percent. So I contacted Sarah Carpenter, an instructor at the American Avalanche Institute in Victor, Idaho, to learn how to prepare for, survive, and assist a friend in an avalanche.

Preparation

Of course, the greatest method to prevent being caught in an avalanche is to avoid it in the first place! How do you go about doing that?

Education

Avalanches can never be completely avoided, but recognizing and anticipating the factors that make them more probable may dramatically lower your chances of being an avalanche victim.

Weather, sun, temperature, wind, the angle of the mountain’s slope, and snowpack conditions are all elements that enhance (or decrease) the chance of an avalanche happening. As circumstances vary, the avalanche danger rating might alter daily, even hourly.

As a result, scouting for prospective avalanches takes a significant amount of both knowledge and talent. In addition to being taught in how to use a transceiver to search for a buried victim, you should be able to determine the angle of the slope and verify the stability of the snowpack.

It is strongly suggested that you complete an avalanche safety and survival course to obtain this life-saving information and skill set. I’m not just saying this since Sarah was so kind and accommodating to me! If you ask any mountain or ski guide, they’ll tell you the same thing: if you’re going into the backcountry, you should take an avalanche course.

Avalanche experts account for fewer than 1% of all avalanche deaths, therefore the closer you can think like one, the better.

 

Equipment

You’ll need to bring a few crucial items of equipment into the wilderness in addition to your knowledge and abilities.

Transceiver. A transceiver, sometimes known as a beacon, is a radio that broadcasts and receives electromagnetic signals. If you’re buried by an avalanche, your transceiver’s signal will help your spouse locate you. However, you must each wear one, and you must configure your transceiver to broadcast before leaving the house. People have perished as a result of their transceiver being set to receive when they were buried. Because using a transceiver requires ability, you should practice with it before embarking on your backcountry expedition.

Avalanche probes are used to detect avalanches. You can approach near to the victim using a transceiver, but you’ll need a probe to find him in the snow. Collapsible probes that you store in your bag and assemble like a tent pole are the ideal sort to acquire. There are other ski poles that can be screwed together to make a probe. If your probe is lost in the avalanche, a long tree branch will suffice–better it’s than nothing.

Shovel. Digging with a shovel is almost 5 times quicker than digging with your hands, and as we’ll see later, speed is vital in saving an avalanche victim’s life.

If You’re Caught in an Avalanche, Here’s What You Should Do

“The greatest thing you can do if you’re trapped in an avalanche is attempt to get out of the avalanche!” Sarah explains. This is good advice. How do you go about doing that?

When the Avalanche Breaks Out

If the avalanche begins just under your feet, consider fleeing upwards or to the side to get away from the breaking snow slab. If you’re on skis or a snowboard, start downward to build up speed before veering to the side and off the slab. If you’re on a snowmobile, keep traveling in the same direction and throttle off the sliding snow.

Drop your ski poles, pack, and equipment, as well as your snowmobile, if you’re not going to make it out alive—you want to be as light and buoyant as possible to avoid sinking too far into the snow.

How to survive avalanche diagram for backstroke uphill.

Once you’ve been knocked down by the snow, “swim” to keep afloat. You may have heard that you should swim like you’re bodysurfing a wave, but this will lead you to the avalanche’s “toe” (the tip of the avalanche debris), which is the avalanche’s most turbulent zone—not a place you want to be. Rather, flip over onto your back with your feet pointing downward. Try to go uphill by doing the backstroke. You may also try digging your feet into the bed surface (the layer the avalanche is sliding on) to delay your fall.

You may have also heard that crouching behind rocks or trees is a good idea, however this is not the case. Snow is slowed by trees and rocks, causing it to build up in that region. Hide behind a boulder and you’ll be buried even deeper in the snow.

 

Do it if you can grasp onto a tree. However, it is easier said than done to be able to do so. “Grabbing onto a tree is a lot less feasible than it seems, since avalanches move quickly,” Sarah explains. “When the avalanche is initially generated, trees might be grabbed. As the avalanche gathers speed, it becomes considerably less probable.” Avalanches may travel at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour!

When You’ve Been Buried by an Avalanche

Consider yourself fortunate if the avalanche burys you and you’re still alive. Avalanche trauma kills around a third of avalanche victims; the avalanche might take you into a tree or over a cliff, and the debris it collects as it speeds down the mountain can pummel you.

When the avalanche stops moving, it will start to form a concrete-like barrier around you. As a result, your window for taking action is quite limited.

How to survive avalanche diagram illustration for penetrate surface.

Put your arm over your face to create an air pocket, which will allow you to breathe more easily. Take a deep breath as the snow starts to accumulate. As the snow solidifies around you, this expands your chest, giving you a bit more breathing capacity. If you’re near the surface, attempt to reach up and breach it with an arm or leg; this will make locating you much simpler.

But in which direction is the surface? You may have heard of the spitting method for determining which direction is up. But you’ll most likely be so buried that this will be impossible, and knowing the direction of the surface won’t assist you either; unless you’re extremely close to the surface, digging yourself out after the snow has settled would be impossible.

The most important thing is to remain cool, which Sarah says is “easier said than done.” However, the calmer you are, the slower you will breathe and the less oxygen you will use up. Also, don’t shout since the snow is so thick that rescuers are unlikely to hear you.

Now all you have to do is wait for your friend to come to your rescue. Hopefully, he’ll be ready.

What Should You Do If Your Partner Is Buried in an Avalanche?

If you detect an avalanche approaching your pal, try to keep your eyes on him and watch his progress. As soon as the avalanche stops, double-check that the danger is past and begin looking for him.

Don’t ask for assistance. It may seem contradictory, but hiking to a rescue station for assistance is one of the worst things you can do for your partner. Time is of the importance if you want to survive an avalanche. There are several sets of statistics on survival rates, but in general, the highest chance of survival is during the first 15 minutes after being buried; assuming the victim hasn’t been killed by trauma, he has around a 90% chance of surviving if recovered within that time frame. His odds of living decline to 45 percent after 30 minutes.

 

So, once again, it’s critical to get started on your rescue operations straight once.

Sarah suggests searching for “clues on the surface–skis/poles/hat/gloves” if you weren’t wearing transceivers. “People are often buried in line with these superficial cues,” she said. There are potential burial locations above rocks and trees, on the outside of the avalanche channel if it turns, and on benches that should be probed. Based on the mechanics of drifting snow, these are the regions where people are most likely to get buried.”

How to Locate an Avalanche Survivor

If you envision yourself attempting to save a buddy from an avalanche, you’re probably seeing yourself frantically searching for him. However, finding a victim with a transceiver and probe is the simple part; the digging is the time-consuming portion. You’ll have to shovel 1-2 tons of snow to find an avalanche victim, which is no simple feat.

As a result, one of the most critical aspects of avalanche victim rescue is knowing how to dig swiftly and successfully.

Start digging like a madman if the victim is buried beneath a meter or less of snow. However, depending on how many people you have with you, you should use one of two alternative digging tactics if they’re buried under more than a meter of snow.

Use the “V-shaped conveyer belt” approach if you have a large group of available diggers. The rescuers form a “V” like a flock of geese. The guy in front digs and transfers the displaced snow a short distance behind him. The two individuals in front of the digger then push the snow down the line to the ones behind them. Every minute or so, the front person is changed to keep the digger fresh.

You’ll want to use the “strategic digging” strategy if it’s just you and the buried victim.

How to rescue avalanche survivor and a man digging with shovel.

You don’t want to dig straight down into where the probe is protruding out of the snow after you’ve located someone with a probe and know precisely where they are in the snow. The probe may be at their ankles, and if you dig down far enough, you could sweep snow behind you and into their air pocket, crushing it. And you’ll have a cone-shaped hole that isn’t near their airway.

Instead, go downhill from the probe, approximately 1.5 times the depth the victim is buried, and begin digging into the slope’s side, directly into the buried individual. Shovel the snow out to the side instead of behind you until it reaches your waist, then start pushing it downward to save time and energy. As soon as possible, cover their face and clear an airway.

If two shovelers are available, place one just downhill of the probe and the other 1.5 times the depth of the buried victim downhill. Both of you should begin excavating the hole, pushing the snow to one side. Start shoveling snow downward when you have to raise it over your waist—the digger farthest downstream concentrates on maintaining the hole clean while the front digger shovels into the victim.

 

Another benefit of strategic digging is that it allows you to build a platform from which you may take the victim out and work on them. It will be simpler to clear their airway, conduct CPR, and offer first aid if necessary from this position.

Uphill backstroke

Make a hole in the bed surface.

To generate an air pocket, cross your arms over your face.

With your arm, try to pierce the surface.

Make a hole the size of your wingspan.

When the snow is waist-deep, push it to the sides and then behind you.

When the snow is waist-deep, push it to the sides and then behind you.

Thank you so much to Sarah Carpenter for taking the time to answer all of my questions for this post! If you’re interested in taking an avalanche course, the American Avalanche Institute is a good place to start. Their seasoned specialists have been training recreationalists and professionals alike with hands-on courses that are at least 60% field-based for more than 35 years.

Additional resources include:

The National Avalanche Center of the Forest Service

Avalanche Awareness from the National Snow and Ice Data Center

Backcountry Access and Strategic Shoveling

Do you like the illustrations in this guide? Then our book The Illustrated Art of Manliness is for you! Get a copy from Amazon.

Ted Slampyak created the illustrations.

 

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The “how to survive an avalanche video” is a video that shows how to survive an avalanche. The video goes into detail about the best survival techniques for people who find themselves buried under snow.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the chances of surviving an avalanche?

A: The chances of survival are about 1 in 4.

Can you dig yourself out of an avalanche?

A: Im sorry, but this question is way too vague for me to answer. Should you have a better idea of what the avalanche consisted of and how deep it was, please rephrase your question or leave an inquiry on our customer service line.

How long does it take to suffocate in an avalanche?

A: It takes a lot of time, but it usually only happens in the case that an avalanche is triggered by someone triggering one manually. In this scenario, it would take around 10 minutes to be completely buried and suffocated

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