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What to do if you're caught in an avalanche

Updated: May 2, 2022

By Julianna LaFollette

It’s mid-winter and the weather is perfect. You and some friends decide to go backcountry skiing through the fresh snow.

You hike up the mountain and although the snow looks unstable, you decide to ride down anyway.

Skiing down the slope, you notice the snow underneath you is starting to crack.

You look up the mountain and realize an avalanche is rushing towards you. What do you do now?

Every winter, people traverse the mountains to do backcountry activities such as skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing and snowmobiling.

Backcountry activities occur in unmarked and remote areas of a mountain. While these activities can be fun and high adrenaline, they can also quickly turn deadly.

Avalanches have taken the lives of 37 people in 2021, which is the most fatalities in about 70 years.

About 100,000 avalanches occur each year and more than 150 people are killed annually by avalanches throughout the world.

While an avalanche can occur anytime snow is on the mountain, they typically occur in the winter months between December and April, when there is the most snow on the ground.

In the last 10 winter seasons, an average of 25 people have died in an avalanche each year - and 2021 has been the deadliest in a long time.

These numbers are significantly higher than past years and are alarming to a lot of backcountry enthusiasts and avalanche rescue teams, who are always on call to attempt to rescue people when an avalanche has occurred.

Many individuals are looking at what has caused this major increase and what that means for backcountry enthusiasts.

Poor snow conditions mixed with more traffic in the backcountry is one of the major reasons for the increase.

Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center in Boulder, reported last year was “very active for human-triggered avalanches,” with nearly 600 of the at least 2,800 avalanches reported this winter in Colorado being caused by people.

Backcountry skiers and other enthusiasts are often at the root of the cause by disregarding snowpack conditions and underestimating the terrain.

Even if conditions are perfect, avalanche accidents can happen, so being aware of the dangers and knowing what to do in case of an avalanche is crucial for anyone who loves the mountains in winter.

What is an avalanche?

In backcountry activities, one of the biggest risks is the chance of being caught in an avalanche.

Whether you want to go riding on a snowmobile, or skiing on untouched, powdery snow, the chance of an avalanche occurring is more likely than people think.

When taking part in these extreme activities, people need to know what an avalanche is and what they are getting into before putting themselves in a potentially dangerous situation.

An avalanche is a mass of snow moving down a slope and occurs due to “a weak layer of snow, a slab, a slope, and a trigger,” says Andrew Nassetta, the avalanche education program manager at the Utah Avalanche Center.

In order for an avalanche to occur, certain snow, weather and geographical conditions need to be met.

A mountain typically needs to be steep enough for the snow to break and fall. Jason Konigsburg, an avalanche forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, says that the slope steepness most conducive for an avalanche is about “36 to 38 degrees.”

“You need a steep slope, and you need a snowpack that’s able to avalanche. In most cases, mountains provide the steep slopes,” said Simon Trautman, national avalanche specialist at the National Avalanche Center.

Avalanches can be deadly for a number of reasons and they are very hard to avoid or get out of.

“It’s kind of like a rug being pulled out from under you. Very tough to stay on your feet or get off, but we can't outrun avalanches. These things can move up to 80 or 90 miles an hour down the hill,” said Nassetta.

Considering the fast speeds at which an avalanche can tumble down a mountain, individuals who get caught in an avalanche can get severely injured or even killed.

“After a certain amount of time, people die from asphyxia,” says Trautman about the most common cause of death in an avalanche accident.

Avalanches can bury people and it can be extremely difficult to get out of. “50% of people don't survive if they're buried for more than I think it's like 30 minutes,” explained Trautman.

Avalanches are extremely dangerous, which is why there is such a high death toll in backcountry activities.

When an avalanche is occurring, a massive amount of snow is moving down the mountain, which can be very heavy. “That's going to be a powerful thing and anything in its way is going to be affected,” says Trautman.

It’s important for people to know the risks that come along with mountain recreation in the winter seasons. In activities with uncertainties as big as these, it’s crucial to not only know how dangerous they can be, but what can cause them.

Causes of an avalanche

While many people know what an avalanche is, they also need to be aware of the specific factors that go into causing an avalanche. One of the biggest and most obvious causes of an avalanche is the condition of the snow.

Snow conditions play a major part in all winter backcountry activities. When skiing or hiking, snow conditions can make or break your day, but at higher altitudes, bad snow conditions can be deadly.

“For backcountry sports, it’s a very important factor to consider before and during these activities. Avalanches only occur when the conditions line up, and the time is right. So weather is the architect of all avalanches,” said Nassetta.

Temperature and snowpack conditions significantly contribute to avalanches and can change on a daily or even hourly basis.

According to CNN, a snowpack refers to the accumulation of snow on the ground. Snow builds up in layers on the ground, and a weak snowpack can be a recipe for disaster.

“If you end up with a really weak layer, underlying a very strong layer, then you can have an instability and basically that upper layer can crack, break and fall,” said Trautman.

Of course, every area of the mountain is different and depending on where the mountain is, the snow and weather conditions can vary.

“Places with fairly intense weather and lots of change are going to create more unstable conditions as a whole,” said Simon Trautman.

Like most natural disasters, weather greatly affects avalanches. Warmer temperatures can weaken upper layers of snow, which can cause it to slide and avalanche.

An avalanche occurs due to weak snow layers but what typically causes the weak snow to fall or slide down the mountain is a trigger.

A number of things can trigger an avalanche, such as snowfall and wind, but according to Nassetta, “In 90% of avalanche accidents, fatalities or occurrences of an avalanche, iIt's usually a person who is that trigger.”

While weather and snow conditions are an important thing to consider when looking at why avalanches are caused, people play a tremendous part as well.

“Avalanches can occur naturally, meaning from snowfall or wind, but they could also be caused by people triggering them, which makes them unique among natural hazards,” says Konigsburg.

An avalanche that is triggered by a person occurs when an individual walks or rides over a slab with an underlying weak layer.

Given the fact that people most commonly trigger an avalanche, it is not only important, but necessary for people to know how to avoid, get out of, or survive if they end up triggering an avalanche on their backcountry excursions.

What to do if caught in an avalanche

People who participate in backcountry activities can trigger an avalanche at any time, especially if conditions are dangerous.

The snow in an area could be weak, the temperatures could be too warm, and one wrong step or move could cause the snow on the mountain to avalanche.

Before participating in mountain recreation in the winter seasons, people need to be prepared for any situation that could arise, and there are many ways to do that.

Before going out on the mountain, individuals need the proper training and knowledge about the snow and the area.

“I think that the best way to do it is you need information. You can get that information through avalanche forecasts, assuming there's one for the area that you want to go to,” said Trautman.

“The best tool we can bring is our brain when we go out in the backcountry.” - Andrew Nassetta, the avalanche education program manager at the Utah Avalanche Center.

Avalanche forecasts contain information regarding the avalanche and snowpack conditions of a certain area with a danger rating on a scale from one to five.

“The most important thing if you want to go out there and avoid an avalanche is to be able to read the slope angles, to read a map, to plan your trip so you can avoid slopes that are more conducive to avalanches, and then getting the forecast every day,” explained Konigsburg.

Like any other extreme sport or dangerous activity, people typically don’t go out and participate without knowing what they are doing.

People should not only read up on the forecasts and snow conditions for a particular area, but they also need proper gear and training.

“We tell people to get the forecast, get training and get gear. That’s kind of the little tagline,” says Trautman. Training is something that people can do very easily and is crucial in order to save your own life and others’ in dangerous situations.

An avalanche can happen at any time if the conditions line up. Therefore, with conditions constantly changing, a lot of avalanches are hard to avoid and get out of.

It’s crucial for people to be able to read the terrain and determine whether the snow is dangerous or not.

Regardless of how the snow looks, people should always be prepared for the worst, and they can do so by just looking around.

Before getting on a steep slope, people should be aware of their surroundings. “You always want to think of an escape route,” said Trautman.

There is advice on what to do if you get caught, or are about to get caught in an avalanche.

“Try not to get caught, of course. And if you are caught, you do everything you possibly can to get out of it,” said Trautman.

Truatman also suggests balling up if you are being dragged down in an avalanche, to try and avoid breaking appendages on trees or other debris in an avalanche.

“If you're caught in one, there's certain ways to be able to escape. You can ski, ride or try to get off to the side of it. Sometimes you're just in the middle of it so you can't, and you can just try to swim or fight like hell,” said Nassetta. “You want to try to be able to grab a tree or something like that, or get off to the side of it.”

Trautman has similar advice on trying to avoid getting caught.

“You try to get off of it, you try to get out of it. If you can do that with speed, great. If you can do it with digging into the bed surface, great. If you can do it by grabbing trees, great,” he said. If you do get caught in an avalanche and there is no longer time to get out, the situation can become dangerous very fast.

Although there are rescue teams prepared to help people who are potentially buried, there isn’t a lot of time that you can be buried and survive. “If you end up fully buried, and you don't have somebody that can come take you out, you're not going to survive,” says Trautman.

While the chances of getting out of being buried by an avalanche alone are slim, there are still things that you can do to try to stay breathing for longer and give someone more time to rescue you.

“When we feel ourselves becoming buried, we try to punch a fist through the top or something like that. Move around, make an air pocket,” said Nassetta. Since not being able to breathe is a major concern while being trapped under snow, this is a good way to help and buy some time.

It’s important to do backcountry activities with at least one other person, so that you don’t get stuck in an avalanche with no one to help. People almost always need to be rescued if they are caught in an avalanche.

“The best chance for a person to make it out of an avalanche, if they get buried, is to have a good partner and for their partner to rescue them properly,” said Konigsburg.

This is why it's also crucial to have safety gear, so that if you don’t have someone with you to rescue you, you can have a better chance at getting out or having someone evacuate you.

“The best way to reduce risk is awareness and education,” said Nassetta. “The best tool we can bring is our brain when we go out in the backcountry.”

Doing extreme sports in the backcountry is no easy task. People risk their lives to be able to participate in these activities and while taking part in these sports can be rewarding in many ways, people need to be aware of the dangers.

People who want to participate in winter backcountry activities need to be knowledgeable on how to best reduce their chances of getting hurt.

“If you don't have partners, and you're buried, the chances of getting out are basically zero. We're just not built to dig ourselves out from under snow,” says Trautman. “There's always caveats, but that's the reality.”

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