Want to have fun in the snow outside of a ski resort? Then avalanches are going to be a huge risk. 50 people have already died in the Alps this season alone. But, with a little preparation, a few gadgets and some basic knowhow, they can be survivable.
Before skiing out of bounds into the backcountry outside Jackson Hole Resort this week, I took a lesson in avalanche survival and rescue from Aimee Barnes, chief guide for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Climbing School. This is what I learned.
In addition to your cold weather performance gear and the helmet you should be wearing during any snow activity, you'll need a few extra things to keep you safe during and give you the ability to respond to avalanches.
Avalanche Beacon: You strap these on under your outer layer(s) and they both transmit your location should you be buried and allow you to locate people if they've been buried.
Avalanche Probe: These snap together like a tent pole, folding down small enough to fit in a pack and assembling to three metres in length. Once you've used a beacon to locate the general area where an avalanche victim is hidden, you use one of these to find where they're buried and how deep they are.
Snow Shovel: A collapsible, metal bladed, metal handle snow shovel gives you the ability to dig out avalanche victims.
Avalanche Airbag: An airbag-equipped backpack or jacket allows you to pull a ripcord to inflate it the second you're trapped in an avalanche, then the inflated airbag will help you float to the surface as the snow is cascading down the mountain. That should keep you from getting buried
Backpack: To carry this stuff, you'll need a slim pack that doesn't impair your ability to ride a chairlift and which attaches securely to your body so it doesn't come off in a crash or affect the way you ski, snowboard, climb or ride a snowmobile.
Shot this January, this incredible video shows an avalanche rescue from start to finish. This took place in Switzerland, in-bounds at a popular resort. The Alps are experiencing a particularly bad avalanche season; over 50 people have already been killed there. The skiers shown here were not carrying beacons, but did have probes and shovels. Read more about their mistakes and experience here. Let's just say that they were incredibly lucky.
How And Where Avalanches Happen
According to PBS:
"An avalanche is a natural process in which snow responds to the pull of gravity. Avalanches occur regularly on mountains around the world, and are harmless, unless someone happens to be in the way. They tend to run down the same pathways every year, and danger zones are usually well known.
Avalanches are born from a weakness in the snow. Snow is a shape-changer, depending on prevailing temperature and weather conditions. Snow begins life as a fluffy six-armed crystal flake, but while it's laying on the ground, as part of a snowpack, changes occur. During mild weather, water vapours can slide down the arms of a flake and refreeze at its centre. If this happens, the individual flakes develop strong bonds and form a solid and cohesive mass. But when it is cold, water vapours can slip to the bottom of the snowpack, forming angular crystals. These crystals tend to weaken the snow and undermine it from below.
Sun and light rain can also produce thin surface crusts, which make it difficult for new snow to bond securely. Rain weakens the bonds in the snow and increases its mass. But when rain freezes, it can strengthen and bind the snow. Hoar frosts, which are flat frozen crystals, can also form on the surface of the snow in extremely cold weather, creating a slippery layer when covered by new snow.
Avalanche Instabilities in the snowpack can be triggered by the wind, a heavy storm, a change in temperature, or the weight of a person. They are most common on slopes between 30 to 45 degrees. A rule of thumb: if a slope is good for skiing, it can avalanche. Nearly all avalanches are triggered by their victim, or someone in the victim's party."
In most places where people recreate in winter mountains, you'll be able to find an Avalanche risk report, ranking conditions from moderate to severe. And, it's pretty easy to spot the slopes where avalanches regularly occur: they're steep, snow-covered and tent to wear signs of previous slides like bent over trees, debris piles at the bottom and slopes clear of obstacles that would have been removed by previous slides. In short, they're the kind of slopes where you want to ski and snowboard.
What To Do If You're Caught In One
You're in a group, right? If you're headed downhill, let one person go at a time, completing the slope before the next person goes. That way, if a slide begins to form, you can shout a warning and the person in its path may be able to flee to safety across the slope away from the avalanche. If they are carried away, the people up top will be able to watch where they're carried.
If you are caught in one, immediately pull the rip cord on your airbag, if you have one.
If you don't have an airbag, you need to try and powerfully swim uphill. The idea is to try and stay on or as close to the surface as possible, avoiding getting deeply buried.
As you and the snow begins to come to a rest, thrust one hand upwards toward the surface. The idea being to either brake the surface, helping people locate you or to at least give yourself an idea of which way is up. Simultaneously, use your other hand to clear an air pocket around your face. Doing so can give you up to 30 minutes of breathable air. And, just before the snow settles, take a deep breath and hold it. Snow sets like concrete after an avalanche and giving your lungs the space to inflate in it is crucial.
If you're close to the surface, you may be able to dig or wiggle your way out. If you're not, save your energy and oxygen. Your beacon will lead your friends to you.
How To Find And Rescue Avalanche Victims
This is why everyone in a party needs to carry each item of equipment. First, employ your avalanche beacon in search mode to find the rough position of a victim. You hold one like a compass, flat and straight out in front of you and it gives you both an idea of direction and distance to the beacon you're searching for.
The numbers on it are listed in metres, use it to search until you think you found the smallest number possible. Then, move the beacon to the left, right, fore and aft until you're certain you've got the number down as far as possible. If it still reads "2.0," for instance, then the beacon you're searching for is 2 metres beneath you.
Mark that position and assemble your probe, then use that to search in a grid pattern around that area, poking straight down. If your probe goes in 3m deep everywhere else, but only 2m in one place, then that's where your victim is. If you find someone, leave the probe in to mark that position.
Now it's time to dig. Rather than going straight down on top of the victim, move slightly downhill and dig in, horizontally, to them. This way, you won't collapse any airspace they may have or cause snow to topple into a vertical hole on top of them, creating more work for yourself. If you have multiple people, dig in a "V" shape, pointing towards the victim, with one shoveler on each side and any others clearing the snow from below.
Once extricated, check the victim for clogged airways, a pulse and any life-threatening injuries. If they aren't breathing, you'll need to perform CPR until SAR arrives. Any significant bleeding should be stopped immediately.
It's any backcountry traveler's responsibility to stop at any fresh slides and employ their beacon in search mode to see if anyone may be trapped in them. Those slides should also be reported to the relevant SAR authority in that area. As with any emergency, your first step should be to alert SAR; if you see a buddy go down in an avalanche, radio or call them, then proceed with your rescue.
This article is intended to provide an overview of avalanche survival theory, gear and techniques. Before going on a winter climb or a backcountry snow trip, you should take an AIARE Level One course. Most outfitters and guides provide those (and the equipment listed above) at the beginning of any trip and traveling with a certified guide is also a good idea, at least for your first few times in this environment. Avalanches are more common than you think.
Top photo: Marc Lagneau