An avalanche is a very powerful force of nature. Devastating momentum is the key to an avalanche’s potency. In physics, momentum is the weight of an object multiplied by the magnitude of its velocity. Imagine for a second other forces of nature that carry a lot of momentum and have the potential to severely damage life and property. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, for instance, killed over one-hundred thousand people and damaged countless cities and towns in one day. For a more familiar example, envision the power of a water park wave that knocks you backwards into the surf. An avalanche, on the other hand, can be as powerful as any natural disaster and can be more difficult to survive. With the following tips, however, you can avoid and survive avalanches so that winter skiing is always a safe and fun adventure for you and your friends.
The first step to surviving an avalanche is not to encounter one in the first place. The easiest way to avoid an avalanche is to avoid back-country skiing whenever possible especially when you are not accompanied by an expert who knows the location and risk of avalanches at different locations on the mountain. When back-country skiing you may travel through an area that the ski patrol has not targeted for avalanche control and you might inadvertently start an avalanche by skiing over a loose patch of snow. The threat of avalanche is highest after a particularly heavy snow. Ski areas will typically post signs warning people of the risks of back-country skiing and my best advice is to heed these signs at all times. The risk of an avalanche while skiing inside the ski area boundary is negligible because the ski patrol works hard to ensure that an avalanche never threatens the area (they do this by using dynamite to blast high-risk sections of snow cover off the mountain).
If you efforts to avoid an avalanche fail and you find yourself trying to outrace an avalanche bearing down the mountain behind you, don’t panic. There are several smart techniques that can be employed to increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.
First, if you hear an avalanche behind you determine if there is a suitable escape path or if you have time to make it down the mountain and to safety before being swept up in its path.
Second, if you are unable to escape the avalanche (most avalanches travel faster than you can ski) start moving your arms and legs in a swimming motion as soon as you feel yourself being picked up by the avalanche.
Third, if the avalanche succeeds in burying you, try and determine if you are facing down or up. This is extremely difficult if the avalanche has eliminated all sources of light but can be achieved by spitting and determining whether the spit is running down your face or up your face or peeing and determining whether the pee is running down your legs or up your stomach.
Fourth, if you cannot make an air hole before your oxygen runs out the avalanche will suffocate you. Use your ski pole (if you still have one), ski or arm to try and punch a hole through the snow.
Finally, there is certainly a good deal of luck that determines whether you can survive an avalanche. Are you able to make a breathing hole in time? How far down has the avalanche buried you? These questions will ultimately determine your fate. Last but not least, if you insist on back-country skiing you should carry an avalanche beacon with you that can send a signal to potential rescuers. Follow these tips and use your good judgment and stay safe. Happy trails!