How to prevent, avoid or survive an avalanche?
In the last weeks already 7 people died in avalanches in Switzerland. A total of 22 people died and many more were injured in snow slides last winter and in the past decade, 2,047 people were caught in an avalanche, with a third of them either injured or killed.
In the meantime more and more skiers, snow boarders and snowshoers head off-piste but these winter athletes who venture into mountain terrain often “poorly prepared” for tours.
Let’s be prepared and get to know more about preventing and surviving an avalanche!
- Take an avalanche safety training course and read up on avalanches. Knowledge is your best defense against the danger of avalanches.
- Learn to ask for local knowledge, especially when you’re from out of the area. It can also be helpful to look at internet records pertaining to the ski fields where you’re headed, to see what previous seasons have brought by way of avalanches.
- Recognize nature’s warning signs. The surest sign of avalanche danger is evidence of recent avalanches, an indication that local conditions are right for more. Keep in mind that 95 percent of avalanches occur during or within 24 hours of heavy rain or snowfall, and high winds also contribute to avalanche formation, so try to avoid heading off-piste in these conditions. Particularly warm days, with thawing or temperatures that approach or surpass freezing, are also high-risk. Another warning is if snow cracks, collapses, or makes a “whumph” sound beneath you; that’s a sure sign that the snow is stressed and can’t bear your weight. Any sudden change in temperature can trigger an avalanche. Even shadows creeping across the face of a slope can change the temperature enough to make snow unstable. If snowballs (rollerballs or sunwheels) are rolling down the slope, this is an indication of temperature increases. Low temperatures prolong the chances of an avalanche risk.The danger remains for at least 48 hours after snowfall and even longer when it is cold.
- Pay attention to forecasts and heed professional warnings. In many mountainous areas, these forecasts are regularly updated throughout the avalanche season.
- Take a partner with you, go in group.
- Carry some simple equipment that can save your life:
- Slope meter: because avalanches occur almost exclusively on slopes between 25 and 50 degrees
- Wear a rescue beacon on your top layer of clothing beneath your coat.
- Avalanche cord: Attach one end of the cord and drag the cord behind you. If you get buried in an avalanche, at least part of the cord should stay above the surface.
- Collapsible avalanche probes. Every member of a group should carry probes to search for buried victims in the event of an avalanche.
- Shovels: Everyone should also carry a shovel to dig out people that have been buried.
- Avalanche Airbag System: These relatively new devices have been shown to help avalanche victims stay above the surface.
Avoiding an Avalanche:
- Avalanches are most common on smooth, steep slopes, without a lot of obstacles or tree cover. Preventing an avalanche is far easier than surviving one.
- Never travel above your partner.
- Do not assume that existing tracks from other people mean that an area is safe.
Surviving an Avalanche: If You’re the Victim
Avalanche fatalities usually have one of three causes — physical trauma, suffocation and hypothermia. Survival techniques involve getting out of the avalanche before it stops, preventing total burial and reducing the amount of time that the victim is buried.
- Try to get away from the avalanche as soon as you realize what is happening.
- Abandon ski equipment. It can drag you down. If your pack is light and has emergency equipment inside, keep it with you.
- Use swimming motions to fight your way to the surface of the avalanche.
- Try to grab nearby trees to get away from the snow.
- As the snow slows, cup your hand or arm over your mouth so you will have an air pocket.
- Wait for rescue. Stay calm. Conserve oxygen. Do not try to call for help unless you hear rescuers above you.
- Most sources say that a person who is completely buried can live for about 18 minutes.
Surviving an Avalanche: If You’re a Witness
- If you see someone swept away in an avalanche, you are their best hope for survival. According to accident statistics, 92 percent of victims survive if their party digs them out within 15 minutes.
- If you see an avalanche overtake someone, you should keep your eyes fixed on the last point at which you saw him if he becomes completely buried.
- Wait a minute or so after the avalanche stops for the snow to settle. Evaluate the risk of another avalanche. Conduct an efficient search.
If you need more information about avalanches, look out for more on an interactive platform of SUVA, the accident insurance provider.
This platform called White Risk (www.whiterisk.ch) allows users to plan routes using maps, incorporating snow bulletin and weather information. White Risk also includes teaching and learning tools as well a separate platform for producing educational presentations.