How to Survive an Avalanche
You're enjoying the pristine mountain air and fresh powdered snow when suddenly, the ground rips out from under you. If you're in avalanche country, you'd better know how to act, and fast, or you could get buried under several tons of snow in under a minute. There are many steps you can take to keep from triggering an avalanche, but if you get caught in a dangerous situation anyway, here's what to do.
Reacting in the First Few Seconds
Jump up slope.Most avalanche victims trigger the avalanche themselves, and sometimes the avalanche will start right beneath their feet. If this happens, try to jump up slope, beyond the fracture line. An avalanche happens so quickly that it's almost impossible to react fast enough to do this, but it has been done.
Move to the side of the avalanche.Whether the avalanche starts above you or beneath you, you may be able to make your way toward the side. Don't hesitate: move as quickly as possible to the side of the avalanche slope. If the avalanche begins well above you, you may be able to get out of its path before it reaches you. The snow will be moving fastest near the center of the flow, and that's also where the highest volume of snow will be.
Let go of your heavy equipment.You want your body to be as lightweight as possible, so let go of your backpack, poles, and other heavy equipment you may be carrying. This raises the chances that you'll be able to stay toward the surface of the snow.
- It goes without saying that you should not let go of survival equipment, such as a transceiver and probe or snow shovel; you'll need these if you get buried.
- People searching for you later may be able to find you if they see some pieces of equipment on the surface of the snow, so you could let go of a glove or something else that's light to increase the chances they'll find you.
Hold on to something.If you're unable to escape the avalanche, try to grab on to a boulder or sturdy tree. If it's a small avalanche, or if you're near the edge of the avalanche, you may be able to hold on until the flow of snow passes you. Even if you get ripped away from the object you're holding, if you can succeed in delaying your departure downhill, you have a better chance of not being buried or, at least, of not being buried as deeply.
- Keep in mind that a very powerful avalanche can carry away even large rocks and trees...
Start swimming.This is essential to helping you stay near the surface of the snow. The human body is much denser than snow, so you'll tend to sink as you get carried downhill. Try to stay afloat by kicking your feet and thrashing your arms in a swimming motion.
- Swim on your back. This way your face is turned toward the surface, giving you a better chance of getting oxygen more quickly if you get buried.
- Swim uphill. Swimming up will get you closer to the surface of the snow.
Surviving if You Get Buried in Snow
Hold one arm straight above your head.It should be pointed in the direction of the snow's surface. This will help you figure out which way is up, since it's easy to get disoriented once you're buried. It may also help rescuers locate you. Spitting out a small amount of your saliva can also help with figuring out which way is up because the fluid will run down.
Dig a pocket around your face.Once the avalanche stops, the snow settles in as heavily as concrete. If you're buried deeper than a foot or so when it sets, it will be impossible to get out on your own. Your only hope then is to ward off asphyxiation long enough for people to dig you out.
- Use either your free hand or an avalanche shovel to dig an air pocket near your nose and mouth. When the avalanche slows down. With a small air pocket to breathe from, you should have enough air to last at least 30 minutes.
- Take a deep breath before the snow settles. Right before the snow settles, inhale deeply and hold your breath for a few seconds. This causes your chest to expand, which will give you some breathing room when the snow hardens around you. If you don't have this breathing room, you may not even be able to expand your chest to breathe while you're buried.
Conserve air and energy.Try to move once the snow settles, but don't jeopardize your air pocket. If you're very near the surface, you may be able to dig your way out, but otherwise you aren't going anywhere. Don't waste precious breath by struggling against the snow. Remain calm and wait to be rescued.
- If you hear people nearby, try to call them, but don't keep it up if they don't seem to hear you. You can probably hear them better than they can hear you, and shouting just wastes your limited air supply.
Increasing Your Chances of Survival
Never hit the slopes without avalanche survival equipment.There are a few pieces of equipment that greatly reduce people's risk of dying in an avalanche. Invest in the following items:
- An avalanche receiver and probe. The receiver puts out a signal to show where the person is buried, and the probe is used to locate the person and start digging. Every person in your party should carry both.
- A small shovel. This is used to dig an air pocket around the face.
- A helmet. Many avalanche-related fatalities happen because of the initial impact of the snow knocking people off of their feet.
- Skier's air bags have become more popular in recent years. They help to keep your body toward the surface of the snow, so you're less likely to get buried.
Take an avalanche training course.Avalanches happen frequently enough that many organizations provide intensive training courses to coach skiers and snowboarders on how to avoid avalanches, save themselves, and rescue each other. If you're traveling to avalanche country, it's worth taking a course.
QuestionWhat if you are buried?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerRead the part of this article called "Surviving if You Get Buried in the Snow" for details. In summary, try to create an air pocket around your face so you can breathe. If you hear people nearby, try calling to them, but otherwise stay quiet and still to conserve energy. The air available to you will last longer if you can calm down and slow your breathing, extending the crucial time period for rescuers to find you before you run out of air.Thanks!
QuestionWould it be safer to be in a car?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerNo, the car might get buried and you would be unable to open the doors or windows. The windows and windshield might also shatter.Thanks!
QuestionHow fast is an avalanche? Can I out run it?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIt depends what type it is, but you will never be able to out run it and you should run to the side to try to avoid it.Thanks!
QuestionShould I try and dig myself out while the snow is still freshly placed above me, if I do not have equipment?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerIf you're buried less than a foot, you could try to dig yourself out. But if you're buried a foot or more stay put, create an air pocket, and conserve air and energy.Thanks!
QuestionHow does an avalanche start?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerAvalanches can be caused by heavy snowstorms, new snow, earthquakes (even mild tremors), people or animals disturbing the snow, and extremely loud noises.Thanks!
QuestionCan I eat my way out of the snow?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerEating the snow will only use up enough energy to warm you, and is not an effective way of removing snow.Thanks!
QuestionWhat do I do before an avalanche?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerAn avalanche won't have many warning signs, if any. However, if you see one try to jump or run to beyond where the avalanche started. It won't be able to get you there.Thanks!
QuestionIs there an avalanche warning system?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerNo. Avalanches are generally caused by tremors, earthquakes (even tiny ones), people, animals, sudden movement, and loud noises. There are usually no warning signs.Thanks!
QuestionHow can I run out of air in an avalanche?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerTheoretically if you were in an enclosed space underneath the snow, you would be exhaling CO2 without any way to get more oxygen than what's already in the space, so eventually you would suffocate. However, this is unlikely.Thanks!
QuestionWhere is the safest place to be if an avalanche occurs?wikiHow ContributorCommunity AnswerBe on avalanche slope. It only comes and goes in a minute, so you can easily survive there.Thanks!
How do you stay calm if you do see one
- If you get stuck in the avalanche and feel like urinating, do so. Although this might make you feel uncomfortable, rescue dogs strongly rely on smell to locate a victim while walking on the snow surface, thus urine can become a very useful tool in this kind of situation.
- If you get buried in a remote area and know there's no one around to dig you out, your only chance of survival will be to dig yourself out. It can be difficult to tell which way is up, so if you can see any light, try to dig toward it. If you can see your breath, dig in the direction that it rises.
- Pay attention to weather reports and ask rangers and others in the know about local conditions and being savvy about where avalanches occur. Never presume that an area will be safe - do your research in advance.
- Once your buried in an avalanche it's hard to tell which way is up or down! If you can't tell, use your spit. Gravity will let you know what's up and what's down!
- Often it's not possible to ditch your skis before you're buried in snow. Don't worry if you can't; it sometimes works out OK. There are many cases where victims were quickly found because a ski tip protruded above the surface.
- Take avalanche survival course if you're going to an area that's known to have avalanches. Make sure you bring the proper safety equipment on your trip with you.
- When you breathe under snow, the moisture in your breath will form an ice coat in your air pocket. Save your breath.
- Once you're caught in an avalanche, your survival mainly comes down to luck. The only sure way to survive an avalanche is to avoid one altogether. Learn how to do so, and always err on the side of caution in avalanche country.
Sources and Citations
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