How to survive an avalanche

Every year roughly 100,000 avalanches sweep down mountains across the U.S., damaging everything in their path and killing 28 people on average.

In fewer than seven weeks, beginning on Dec. 18, 2020, avalanches took the lives of seven people in the U.S while skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.

We asked Simon Trautman, a national avalanche specialist for the USDA Forest Service, to provide a few pointers to help make sure fun days in the snow stay that way. Or, if the worst happens, how to increase your chances of survival.

1. Know Before You Go

“Not surprisingly, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get caught in one in the first place,” said Trautman. Trautman works at the avalanche forecasting center in Bellingham, Washington – one of 14 the Forest Service operates.

“Avalanche danger changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. That’s why it is important to, before going out, look for the most recent information and keep in mind those changing conditions.”

To determine that risk, you should check the avalanche forecast at your destination through Avalanche.org. The online tool, a partnership between the Forest Service and the American Avalanche Association, helps connect the public to avalanche education and understand the avalanche danger scale that ranges from low to extreme.

The risks are calculated daily by avalanche forecasters on the ground who observe the conditions, such as snowpack behavior, humidity, temperature, wind and how those elements act on different terrains. Their findings are updated continuously and posted on the site.

2. Have the Appropriate Gear and Training

“Emergency services are usually too far away from the scene of an avalanche, and time is important,” said Trautman. “A person trapped under the snow may not have more than 20 or 30 minutes. So, in a backcountry scenario, you are your own rescue party.”

Trautman recommends three essential pieces of gear that will help rescue yourself, a companion, or even a stranger: An avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel.

Avalanche beacons are radio transceivers that pinpoint where you are. They are simple and easy to use. Everyone heading out for the day wears a transceiver and turns it on before leaving the house. If someone in your group is covered by an avalanche, you can switch the transceiver to receive and quickly locate your friend’s signal.

Then you can use a probe, a collapsible fiberglass pole like a tent rod, to determine the location and the depth of where a person is buried under the snow. Once located, you can use your third tool – a shovel – to expeditiously free your friend.

“There’s a level of responsibility that you have to yourself and to the people you go out with,” said Trautman, “You have to have the appropriate gear, and you need to know how to use it.”

Appropriate training to learn more about identifying dangerous conditions and using the equipment is available for beginners and professionals alike. For beginners, Avalanche.org has an interactive online tutorial. There are many educational opportunities for those who want to learn more, including finding upcoming workshops and courses on the Avalanche.org website.

3. Surviving the Avalanche

Even if you check your local forecast, have the appropriate gear, and are trained for surviving an avalanche, there is still a possibility that you will find yourself looking up at a fast-moving wall of snow. If you’re well-trained, those learned instincts should kick in to increase your chances of survival.

Many factors can affect the survival rate, such as how long you are buried under the snow, how deep you are buried, and the injuries you suffer as you’re swept down the mountain.

“First, try to get out of the way. Do everything you can not to get caught in the slide,” Trautman said. “Being in an avalanche is like being caught in a fast-flowing river. The most common advice is to move diagonal to the avalanche or try to make your way to the edge, where the slide is not moving as fast and where you’re not likely to be buried as deep.”

However, there is something you can do if you find yourself in the path of a reasonably large avalanche. Try to orient your feet downhill so that your lower body, not your head, takes most of the impact. You may also get into a tight ball as another way to protect your head.

“And once you finally come to rest, you should relax because you know your partners are trained, and they are coming to get you,” Trautman said.

Avalanches have caught many people of varying skill levels off-guard.

“You see a lot of people who get caught in avalanches that are out there really pushing the envelope. And then you also see people who don’t realize that they are pushing the envelope,” he said.

Regardless of a person’s snow activity of choice, anyone traversing a snowy range should trained, properly equipped, and know the dangers.

“Remember, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get in one in the first place,” said Trautman. “In the end, we all go out there to have fun. Have fun: Go prepared.”

You could be out enjoying the sunshine on a beautiful day just following a snowfall, and out of nowhere, you notice an avalanche barreling towards you from far up on the hill. You only have a few seconds before it hits you. Besides being utterly terrified, would you know what to do? Fortunately, there are a number of steps for you to take that could very well save your life. Here’s how to survive an avalanche. In case you missed this post, Melting Snow for Survival Tips

How to Survive an Avalanche

How to survive an avalanche

1. Attempt to Jump Up the Slope

For a vast majority of the victims who get caught up in an avalanche, the avalanche usually starts off right at their own feet instead of falling from above. Now you may be thinking that this tip is next to impossible to do, and you’d be right, but it has been done before. That’s because avalanches usually don’t give you much time to react. But if you can, try to jump up the slope and across the fracture line so that you can get out of harm’s way.

2. Get to the Side of the Avalanche

Many victims make the mistake and try to run down the hill to get away from an oncoming avalanche, but this is futile. It will mow you over due to its speed. By moving as quickly as you can away from the middle, you’ll be getting yourself away from the fastest moving point, and the place in the avalanche that has the most volume of snow. If the avalanche takes place far above you, there’s the chance that you may be able to get out of the way in time if you react quickly.

3. Drop Your Equipment

Another factor that may save your life, is to take off any gear or other equipment that you might be wearing and ditch it. This will lighten your load and increase your chances of getting away safely. Be aware, some say that you should still keep your backpack with you because it may protect your neck and back from serious injury when everything starts to pile on top of you. It is very difficult to dig yourself out of the snow when covered, but if you happen to be nearer the surface the backpack may hold you back due to the weight. Each situation is different.

4. Try to Hold on to Something

If you know that there’s no way you’ll be able to get out of the way in time, try to get yourself to a nearby larger tree or boulder that you could hang onto. This method would work on smaller avalanches, but if it’s a massive avalanche, they’re known to completely remove these types of objects. Even if you’re not able to hold on to a particular object for the duration of the avalanche, it will still increase your chances of not being buried nearly as deep.

5. Just Keep Swimming

Once the avalanche has surrounded you, attempt a swimming motion by kicking your legs and moving your arms. This will help you stay closer to the surface of the snow instead of completely sinking beneath. There are two things that you need to keep in mind when you do this:

  • Swim uphill. By swimming up, you’ll be able to stay closer to the surface.
  • Swim on your back. Should you become completely buried, this will provide you with a better chance of getting oxygen with your head turned to the surface.

6. Figure Out Which Way is Up

This is where things can be a bit tricky, especially if the victim becomes disoriented. There are two ways that you can find out which way is up so that you can hopefully get yourself oxygen. Try holding your hand straight up over your head and see if it reaches the surface of the snow. This step may also help others find you easier. You could also try spitting saliva from your mouth. Your spit will move down, so you’ll want to work your way in the opposite direction.

7. Create a Pocket Around Your Face

When you’re thinking that the avalanche is about to settle, be sure to take in a huge gasp of air and hold your breath. Because once the snow rests, it may harden into something as heavy as concrete and you’ll need plenty of breathing room so that you can get some air. If you’re buried deep enough, it will be impossible for you to get out on your own.

Until someone is able to rescue you, in the meantime you need to create an air pocket around your face and nose so that you can get some air. Do this by using your free hand to form a hole in the surface, or by using a small shovel. This method should provide you at least 30 minutes of air. Depending on how deep the snow is, you may be locked in the space and position when the snow stopped moving, and moving you arms or hands may not be an option.

8. Conserve Energy and Air

If you happen to be close to the surface, you can try to dig your way out, but try not to lose your air pocket for breathing. If you’re unable to move at all, try to remain calm and conserve your energy. This will provide you with more breathing time until rescuers are able to dig you out. If you happen to hear people close to you, you can try to call out to them. Shouting will take away from your oxygen supply, and possibly won’t do you any good if you are buried deep in the snow. If you think you are fairly close to the surface it is certainly worth a try, but they may not hear you.

9. Wait Patiently

As long as you have an avalanche beacon and probe with you, help will be on the way. All you can do at this time is to wait patiently and try to remain calm. This is an important tip as part of your efforts to survive an avalanche.

10. Always Take Survival Equipment with You

By having the right equipment with you, your chances of surviving an avalanche will increase significantly. You should never hit the slopes without these crucial items:

  • Avalanche receiver and probe (The receiver helps signal where the person is buried, while the probe locates exactly where the person is. Everyone in your party should carry both.)
  • Helmet (Protect your head from the initial impact and from hitting other objects around you.)
  • Small shovel (For creating an air pocket so that you can breathe.)
  • Skier’s airbag (Helps keep you toward the surface of the snow.)

How to Survive an Avalanche

Final Word

You’ll be much likelier to walk away from an avalanche if you are able to follow these steps before and afterward. A key point is to check weather and avalanche forecasts BEFORE you go out, and stay away from the backcountry if there is any chance of avalanche activity where you plan to go. If you want to get more practice, I’d also suggest that you take an intensive avalanche training course, not only to protect yourself but others around you. Have you, or someone you know ever experienced being buried beneath an avalanche? What helped get you (or them) through it? How do you plan to survive an avalanche? May God Bless this world, Linda.

How to avoid them, and what to do if you get caught in a snow slide

By Tim MacWelch | Published Jan 14, 2017 10:44 PM

How to survive an avalanche

The very best way to survive an avalanche is to never go where avalanches are possible. But that’s not always realistic. We could stay in flatland areas, or even move to the tropics, but you’d be missing out on the real beauty of the season. Those snow-covered mountains call to many of us. When the steep slopes are robed in winter white, it’s a beautiful time to get out there. And if we understand not only our peril, but the right things to do if trouble starts, we can limit our risks and still enjoy our outdoor time in winter. And if an avalanche breaks loose under foot, you can use these techniques to survive it.

—Abandon all your equipment. Skis, poles, snowboards, snowshoes, and even snowmobiles will only get in your way, or hit you in the churning sea of snow.

—If possible, try to shelter behind rocks, trees or vehicles. Crouch down and turn your back toward the avalanche.

—If caught in the open, try to “swim” through the snow and try to avoid hitting stationary objects. Snow doesn’t exactly move the same way water moves, but there are similarities.

—Be aware of dangerous terrain features, like cliffs, boulder fields, groves of trees or any other hazard that the avalanche could ram you into or drive you over.

—As the snow nears you, take in a deep breath and cover your nose and mouth.

—Thrust, kick and swim to stay on the surface. Ride on top of the snow, and attempt to get to the edge of the avalanche.

—Do not yell or open your mouth as the snow hits you, it can fill your mouth, throat and nostrils.

—As the avalanche slows, bring your hands and arms up to your face and make an air space.

Assist Your Own Rescue

Finding yourself buried under the snow is not an enviable experience. But it doesn’t have to be a fatal one. Once the snow stops moving, it turns from a fluid medium to a cement-like consistency. Work quickly to dig your way to the surface as the slide slows. If possible, shove one arm toward the surface and move it around to create an air shaft. Use your hands to carve out a breathing space. Work methodically to avoid exhaustion. Conserve your breath, by waiting to shout until you hear rescuers above you. If it seems possible to dig yourself out, but you’re disoriented from your tumble, you need to know which direction is up. If the snow layer above you is relatively thin, daylight might shine through, so go toward that. If you’re too deep for light to be your guide, clear a space near your mouth and spit. Watch the direction in which gravity pulls the spit, and head the other way.

Have you ever been at the scene of an avalanche? Would you be ready if caught in one? Please leave us a comment.

How to survive an avalanche

Every year roughly 100,000 avalanches sweep down mountains across the U.S., damaging everything in their path and killing 28 people on average.

In fewer than seven weeks, beginning on Dec. 18, 2020, avalanches took the lives of seven people in the U.S while skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling.

We asked Simon Trautman, a national avalanche specialist for the USDA Forest Service, to provide a few pointers to help make sure fun days in the snow stay that way. Or, if the worst happens, how to increase your chances of survival.

1. Know Before You Go

“Not surprisingly, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get caught in one in the first place,” said Trautman. Trautman works at the avalanche forecasting center in Bellingham, Washington – one of 14 the Forest Service operates.

“Avalanche danger changes day to day, sometimes hour to hour. That’s why it is important to, before going out, look for the most recent information and keep in mind those changing conditions.”

To determine that risk, you should check the avalanche forecast at your destination through Avalanche.org. The online tool, a partnership between the Forest Service and the American Avalanche Association, helps connect the public to avalanche education and understand the avalanche danger scale that ranges from low to extreme.

The risks are calculated daily by avalanche forecasters on the ground who observe the conditions, such as snowpack behavior, humidity, temperature, wind and how those elements act on different terrains. Their findings are updated continuously and posted on the site.

2. Have the Appropriate Gear and Training

“Emergency services are usually too far away from the scene of an avalanche, and time is important,” said Trautman. “A person trapped under the snow may not have more than 20 or 30 minutes. So, in a backcountry scenario, you are your own rescue party.”

How to survive an avalanche

Annually, avalanches kill 150 people around the world and nearly 30 the U.S. Larger avalanches can move at speeds of 200 miles per hour and weigh as much as 1 million tons. (Courtesy of Avalanche.org)
Trautman recommends three essential pieces of gear that will help rescue yourself, a companion, or even a stranger: An avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel.

Avalanche beacons are radio transceivers that pinpoint where you are. They are simple and easy to use. Everyone heading out for the day wears a transceiver and turns it on before leaving the house. If someone in your group is covered by an avalanche, you can switch the transceiver to receive and quickly locate your friend’s signal.

Then you can use a probe, a collapsible fiberglass pole like a tent rod, to determine the location and the depth of where a person is buried under the snow. Once located, you can use your third tool – a shovel – to expeditiously free your friend.

“There’s a level of responsibility that you have to yourself and to the people you go out with,” said Trautman, “You have to have the appropriate gear, and you need to know how to use it.”

Appropriate training to learn more about identifying dangerous conditions and using the equipment is available for beginners and professionals alike. For beginners, Avalanche.org has an interactive online tutorial. There are many educational opportunities for those who want to learn more, including finding upcoming workshops and courses on the Avalanche.org website.

3. Surviving the Avalanche

Even if you check your local forecast, have the appropriate gear, and are trained for surviving an avalanche, there is still a possibility that you will find yourself looking up at a fast-moving wall of snow. If you’re well-trained, those learned instincts should kick in to increase your chances of survival.

Many factors can affect the survival rate, such as how long you are buried under the snow, how deep you are buried, and the injuries you suffer as you’re swept down the mountain.

No one is immune to the perils of an avalanche. Snowboarders, cross-country skiers, downhill skiers, snowmobilers, and others, regardless of their skills, have found themselves the target of an avalanche. Preparation is key for anyone heading out in avalanche territory. (Courtesy of Avalanche.org)

“First, try to get out of the way. Do everything you can not to get caught in the slide,” Trautman said. “Being in an avalanche is like being caught in a fast-flowing river. The most common advice is to move diagonal to the avalanche or try to make your way to the edge, where the slide is not moving as fast and where you’re not likely to be buried as deep.”

However, there is something you can do if you find yourself in the path of a reasonably large avalanche. Try to orient your feet downhill so that your lower body, not your head, takes most of the impact. You may also get into a tight ball as another way to protect your head.

“And once you finally come to rest, you should relax because you know your partners are trained, and they are coming to get you,” Trautman said.

Avalanches have caught many people of varying skill levels off-guard.

“You see a lot of people who get caught in avalanches that are out there really pushing the envelope. And then you also see people who don’t realize that they are pushing the envelope,” he said.

Regardless of a person’s snow activity of choice, anyone traversing a snowy range should trained, properly equipped, and know the dangers.

“Remember, the best way to survive an avalanche is not to get in one in the first place,” said Trautman. “In the end, we all go out there to have fun. Have fun: Go prepared.”

How to survive an avalanche

Getting caught in an avalanche is every backcountry skier’s nightmare, but with a little luck and the proper technique, you can live to tell one heck of a snowy story.

1. Be a Beacon

You can take one huge step toward survival before you ever set foot on a mountain. Buy and wear an avalanche beacon, a small radio that will transmit your location to rescue crews.

2. Stay On Top

“Swimming” to the top of the avalanche will help avoid being trapped under debris, which is solid advice. However, you don’t have to be as graceful as an Olympic freestyle champ. If “swimming” is too tough, “violently thrashing around so you don’t sink” will suffice. Just do whatever it takes to stay on top of the sliding cascade.

3. Reach for the Sky

This may be easier said than done, but try to keep one arm above your head as the avalanche tosses you around. The benefit of this maneuver is twofold: it will be easier for rescuers to spot you if your hand is sticking out of the snow, and with any luck, you’ll know which direction is up, a huge help as you try to dig out.

4. Get Spitting

Normally, it’s bad manners to spit. But if you’ve been trapped under an avalanche, spitting can save your life. As soon as you stop moving, quickly work to open a space in front of your face. Not only will this pocket give you room to breathe, it will give you space to spit. Note where gravity carries your spit, then dig in the opposite direction.

5. Remain Calm

The natural instinct for anyone buried by an avalanche is to get pretty nervous, but if you can keep your head, you can stay alive. In most cases, victims have a 15-minute window in which they can carve out areas to breathe under the snow. Panicking will speed your breath and shorten your window, so calmly work on digging your way out. If you’ve worn your beacon, rescue workers will hopefully be on the way, and you’ll get pulled out of the mess.

Each year avalanches claim more than 150 lives world wide, and even though many resorts take measures to help people survive an avalanche, this number is increasing. And don’t think you’re safe in Britain, you only have to look as far back as 2013, when four climbers were killed in an avalanche in the Glen Coe mountain range. This is a stark reminder that avalanches are a very real threat, even on the mountains of Britain, and that steps should always be taken to prepare to survive an avalanche, if the time comes.

So, what can you do if you see a wall of white powder hurtling down the mountain face at you? How can you survive an avalanche?

Ditch your gear

There’s no use holding on to your precious new skis or rucksack if you’re not going to be alive to use them. To survive an avalanche you’ll need to throw down as much gear as time allows – you want to get rid of any unnecessary weight as it will just weigh you down in the torrent of snow.

Gimme shelter

If you are near any rocks, attempt to seek shelter from the snow juggernaut behind them. Beware, however, that large avalanches will pick up big rocks and carry them down slope. If there’s no object to hide behind, crouch low, turn away from the avalanche, and brace for impact.

Swim for your life!

If you are unable to escape the line of the avalanche and it hits you, start swimming frantically (any stroke will do). You need to be doing anything that will keep you above the snow, and as the human body is much denser than snow you will be fighting very hard.

Use all of your strength to avoid getting pulled under, and as the avalanche starts to slow down try to ensure you are near the surface before the snow settles as it sets as hard as concrete. Not something you really want to buried in.

How to survive an avalanche

Make some room to breath

If you are unable to remain on the surface of the avalanche and you are pulled under, it is vital that you create an air pocket if you hope to survive an avalanche more than a few seconds. As the avalanche is coming to a stop, take a deep breath and cup your hands around your mouth. By doing this you are ensuring a small air pocket around your mouth which should last you about 30 minutes, hopefully enough time to be rescued.

By taking in a deep breath you are expanding your rib cage, so when the snow sets as your chest will have room to move. Failure to take the deep breath can result in death from asphyxiation, as you are unable to move your chest enough to inhale.

Keep calm

Panicking will quickly deplete your limited oxygen supply so remain calm and try to conserve your oxygen use. If you can hear the voices of rescuers close, you can shout, but keep in mind that you will be able to hear them better than they can hear you.

When it comes to how to survive an avalanche, prevention is a lot better than a cure. Stick to trails and stay away from known avalanche locations. You can also check avalanche reports, like this one for Glen Coe. This will increase your chances of surviving tenfold – if you’re not in an avalanche, the chances are it’s not going to kill you.

I’ve worked for Adventurize Media for nine years now, though I took a hiatus in 2011 to ski guide in Meribel. I’ve always chased adventure and I climbed the Eiger when I was 15, and Mont Blanc the year after. Having seen glimpses of the beauty that this planet has to offer, I’ve made it my mission to explore and experience as much of it as possible.

How to survive an avalanche

On the 9 February 2020, a huge avalanche struck the Indian state of Uttarakhand and killed several dozen people and caused over 200 to go missing. Its believed to have been started by a glacier high up in the mountains warming enough to cause a large portion of ice to break off, and create a chain effect of falling debris. This avalanche caused the highest loss of life in a single incident in years, and normally deaths caused by them are single group incidents, but is there really anything you can do to survive such a disaster?

Unfortunately this is one of those natural disasters that you are completely at the mercy of, and if you can’t avoid it then you have to wait until it spits you out or comes to a stop. The best way to survive an avalanche is to avoid being caught in one in the first place, and knowing what to look for is the key to this. Here are a few tips on how to increase your chances of survival should you ever be caught in one:

1) Try to avoid it

Probably the most obvious point is one you’ll do anyway out of instinct. If you see a huge wave of snow and ice come crashing towards you, then try and move as far out its path as possible. You won’t be able to outrun it so try to move out the main flow of it, or take cover behind something sturdy like a rock or tree.

2) Try to stay on top

If you get completely buried by an avalanche, you have a 50% chance of getting out alive, so staying on top of the flow will greatly increase your chances of survival. To do this try and swim along with the flow, pushing yourself to the surface any way you can to try and avoid being buried. This is much easier said than done though and debris within the avalanche will make this much harder.

3) If you get buried, the top priority is air

The snow won’t be hard packed and will contain a lot of air, allowing you to push it away from your face and create a small pocket where you can get some air. At the point you come to a stop, you’ll be panicking and breathing very quickly, so it’s important to try and stay conscious so you don’t freeze to death and having enough air is the first step to achieving this.

How to survive an avalanche

(Hopefully you’ll never be in the position where this is your view after going on a skiing trip)

4) If you have the ability to dig, make sure you’re going the right way

The problem won’t be moving the snow itself, but rather the enormous amount of it you need to move to get out. After being flipped all over the place during the fall, it can be very disorientating and when you come to a stop, it’s hard to tell which way up you’re facing. The easiest way to determine direction is to spit and let gravity show you which way is down. This may sound odd but when your elevated in the middle of 30 feet deep snow after being rolled around a lot, it can be genuinely difficult to tell which way is up.

5) Don’t panic

This is a key rule for any survival situation, but it’s even more important when surrounded by snow. If you panic you’ll use more oxygen and breathe faster, which will cause you to sweat and create moisture within your space. The faster you can get out the better, but it still might take a while to dig your way out or wait until rescue finds you, and having moisture on your body and around your face when your deep beneath the snow is extremely dangerous and will shorten your survival time.

6) Try to find a way to signal for help

It might take a while for the rescue team to find you, especially if it was quite a big avalanche, so speeding this up by having a way to signal them will save your life. If you can see the surface but can’t quite reach it, then use anything you can to wave above the ground that you might have on you, like a ski pole or piece of clothing or anything that isn’t white. Any heavy debris like trees or rocks caught in the slide with fall below the surface, leaving the top as a sheet of untouched white. Anything that isn’t that colour will stick out and lead rescue teams straight to your position.

7) Don’t take your time

In many survival situations it’s important to plan and do things properly, but when you’re covered in snow which got inside your clothes during the fall, your time is very limited, and it becomes a race against trying not to pass out and freeze to death. Unless someone saw the point you went under and knows where you are, its highly likely you’ll pass out before anyone has the chance to find you, so don’t waste any time taking breaks or going slow, because when you’re buried under snow you won’t have the luxury of spare time.

How to survive an avalanche

(Every year there are millions of small avalanches that no one see’s and dont cause any damage, like this tiny powder fall that would struggle to bury a person)

A few facts about avalanches

  • An avalanche can start almost instantly and can reach speeds of up to 80 mph in only a few seconds.
  • You have a survival chance of 90% if found within 20 minutes, but this drops rapidly to a 1 in 3 chance of survival after 1 hour of being buried.
  • 9 out of 10 avalanches are caused by someone in their party walking or skiing on the wrong type of snow.
  • There are an average of 150 deaths each year to avalanches around the world.
  • In the vast majority of avalanches, the snow has to be at least 12 inches deep for one to be able to start.
  • If someone isn’t killed by an initial wounding in the fall, then they are guaranteed to die from either hypothermia or suffocation.
  • Powder snow avalanches can reach speeds of close to 200 mph and can contain several million tons of snow. These are caused in areas where the snow hasn’t had chance to melt and doesn’t stick together, causing a very mobile and powdery snow flow.
  • Wet snow avalanches usually don’t even reach 30 mph, but are much more destructive to objects and property. They are so slow because the snow is partially melted together and sticks as it falls down the slope, but they are much denser and therefore many times heavier, making them capable of pushing entire buildings over.

    How to survive an avalanche

The Big List Of Nasty Disasters: Part Three – How to Survive an Avalanche

In the movie “Avalanche” — starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow — a snow-skiing vacation quickly becomes a nightmarish struggle to survive, after an avalanche smashes into the ski resort, trapping the occupants inside.

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t great, but the concept is.

So, what would you do, if an avalanche came crashing your way? Do you know how to survive?

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, “Over the last 10 winters, an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter in the United States.”

US Fatalities Graph

And the Most Dangerous States are?

Colorado, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska, and Idaho — all my favorite states!

Avalanche Types

The graphic below is from Allen & Mikes book. (See bottom of article for this and other recommended books.)

There are two main types, slab (on the left), and sluff release (on the right).

Slab Avalanche

A slab avalanche occurs when a large sheet of snow begins to slide over a wide area. Watch the video below to see an example.

Sluff Avalanche

A sluff avalanche occurs when loose surface snow releases at a point and begins to fan out as it descends.

What Causes An Avalanche, And How To Assess Potential Danger

Three things cause an avalanche: slope, snowpack, and a trigger.

Slope

Avalanches usually occur on slopes greater than 35 degrees.

Snowpack

Recent avalanches, heavy snowfall or rain in the past 24 hours, windblown snow, significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures, and persistent weak layers are all red flags that a dangerous snowpack condition may exist. Learn to recognize these red flags.

Additional warning signs of a dangerous snowpack: cracking or collapsing snowpack, whumping sounds, and hollow drum-like sounds on hard snow.

A Trigger

It doesn’t take much to trigger an avalanche; people, new snowfall, and the wind are all common triggers.

Measuring Slope

There are three easy ways to measure slope.

ONE: Smartphone apps

TWO: Folding compass with sighting mirror

THREE: Ski poles or other straight poles.

See all three methods demonstrated in this excellent video.

How to Survive an Avalanche

First, always check the US Avalanche Advisory at avalanche.org. Click on the avalanche centers tab to access more detailed information for your area.

Use this guide: By Grant Statham et al. (CAC – Parks Canada) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty-five to thirty percent of fatalities are due to trauma during the slide, and the survival rate when completely buried is only thirty percent.

That’s why the best way to survive an avalanche is to watch it from far, far away.

However, if you decide to disregard this advice, and ride one anyway, here are some tips that might help you stay alive.

Get off the slab, hang on to the downhill side of anything you can grab, and angle to get to the edge of the slide.

Discard skis, poles, or board, if applicable.

Roll on your back with feet pointing downhill.

Thrust some part of your body above the surface as the avalanche slows and try to make airspace around your mouth.

Remain calm if buried and pray that your friends rescue you.

Carry a beacon (also called a transceiver.) Make sure that each person in your party has a beacon such as the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS Avalanche Beacon.

Performing a Rescue

DON’T GO FOR HELP.

You don’t have time. You only have fifteen minutes to perform a successful rescue.

Carefully watch the victim for a last seen point.

Yell for help to alert others in your party or anyone else in the area.

Be cautious. Maintain situational awareness and observe the area to make sure it is safe for you to perform a rescue.

Look for surface clues such as shoes, poles, skis or anything else that might help you locate a buried person.

Listen.

Conduct a beacon search, if equipped with a beacon, as you should be!

Probe around surface clues.

Be prepared to administer first-aid and possibly spend the night out.

Practice rescue before you need it.

Equipment to Carry in Avalanche Country

Essential items

Beacon/Transceiver – If you plan on engaging in activities that could put you in danger, just get a beacon, and hope you never have to use it.

Probe – You can use a probe to measure snowpack depth, as well as to find a buried person.

Sturdy Aluminum Sports Shovel – You’re going to need a shovel to dig your friend out.

Ortovox has an excellent package that includes a beacon, probe, and shovel.

Optional items

The latest research shows that your chances of surviving an avalanche are twice as good if you’re wearing an airbag than if you’re not. The Float 22 features enough volume to stash your climbing skins, a hydration pack, snacks, an extra layer, and, of course, all the avalanche safety essentials. In fact, it has dedicated shovel and probe sleeves so you can quickly access your avalanche rescue tools when the worst happens.

The Black Diamond AvaLung is one of the most significant developments in avalanche safety since the avalanche beacon. It should be a part of every backcountry traveler’s tools.

Many ski resorts are now using the Recco system for added safety. Often the reflector is attached to your ski vest so that search and rescue can find you when you unintentionally go off the cliff. Also, there are a number of ski clothing companies that are embedding reflectors in jackets, pants, boots, and helmets.

However, it must be understood that the reflector is not a beacon or transceiver. It does not send or receive signals, it is a passive device that enhances the radio signals sent by the RECCO detector units used by many search-and-rescue organizations.