When Snow Becomes Dangerous. What to do Before, During, and After an Avalanche

During an avalanche, a mass of snow, rock, ice, soil, and other material slides swiftly down a mountainside. Avalanches of rocks or soil are often called landslides. Snowslides, the most common kind of avalanche, can sweep downhill at speeds of 60 to 80 miles per hour — faster than the fastest skier. Avalanches are classified into four types: – Loose Snow Avalanche, which occurs when a lot of snow falls; Slab Avalanche, which results in a large block of ice falling down the slopes because of loose snow avalanches; Powder Snow Avalanche; and Wet Snow Avalanche.

According to Guinness World Records, the deadliest avalanche on record took place on 13 December 1916, near the Gran Poz summit of Monte Marmolada, Italy. That day became known as White Friday after thousands of soldiers from Austria-Hungary and Italy were killed by several avalanches in the Dolomites.

One popular myth is that someone yelling can cause an avalanche. Although a convenient plot device in movies, noise does NOT trigger avalanches. It’s just one of those myths that refuse to die. Noise is simply not enough force unless it’s an EXTREMELY loud noise such as an explosive going off at close range.

So, what are the warning signs? How do you know if an avalanche is coming? Cracks form in the snow around your feet or skis. The ground feels hollow underfoot. You hear a ‘whumping’ sound as you walk, which indicates that the snow is settling, and a slab might release. Heavy snowfall or rain in the past 24 hours are all good indicators, but having the right knowledge, gear, and weather forecast familiarity can save your life in an avalanche, and ideally, help you avoid them altogether.

Before an avalanche

Professional training is highly recommended for anybody wishing to explore the mountains in winter. Prevention is the absolute best way to survive an avalanche, by not being in one in the first place. In our winter skills courses, we will teach you how to evaluate the forecast and terrain to best avoid avalanche risk. Before setting off, check the local weather forecast, and take the proper equipment. Three essential pieces of kit are an avalanche probe, a shovel, and a transceiver that can send and receive a signal when buried in snow. Wear a helmet to help reduce head injuries and create air pockets. Use an avalanche airbag that may help you from being completely buried. Obviously, have a plan of your route and tell others whom you’re not travelling with where you are going, and for how long. And always travel in pairs.

During an avalanche

But what do you do if, despite the best of forecasts and preparation, you find an avalanche is coming toward you? Do not try to outrun it. Being in an avalanche is like being caught in a fast-flowing river, so, stay calm and grab onto anything solid (e.g., trees or rocks) to avoid being swept away. Keep your mouth closed and your teeth clenched. If you start moving downward with the avalanche, stay on the surface using a swimming motion. By activating your airbag during an avalanche, you can keep yourself on top of the snow instead of being buried beneath it. Try to move diagonally to the avalanche or try to make your way to the side of the avalanche where the slide is not moving as fast and where you’re not likely to be buried as deep.

If you can’t keep from getting buried beneath the snow, push your arm up as the slide slows to create an air pocket. People buried in avalanches smother, so an air pocket will provide you with enough air to survive until help arrives. An air pocket can also make room for this trick: If you’re stuck in the snow and you can’t tell up from down, spit. Gravity will tell you which direction to move.

After an avalanche

After the avalanche comes to a stop, the debris will instantly set up like concrete. So, any actions you take must occur BEFORE it comes to a stop. Unless you are very near the surface or have a hand sticking up out of the snow, it’s almost impossible to dig yourself out of an avalanche. If you get yourself free of an avalanche and you’re still missing your companion, time is critical. Hopefully, the in-trouble party has themselves managed to create some air space and stay calm. Get in touch with the emergency services.

Post-avalanche symptoms may include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and drowsiness. Get to a warm room or shelter as soon as possible. Warm the centre of the body first — chest, neck, head, and groin. Keep yourself, or your companion, dry and wrapped up in warm blankets, including the head and neck, and seek medical attention. Sometimes injuries aren’t immediately apparent due to the adrenaline rushing through your body.

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