During the winter months people head to the mountains on snowshoes and cross country skis. There are many benefits to hitting the great outdoors during the winter; less people, no insects, the serene silence of a snow-covered forest, endless visibility in crystal clear air, but there is a hidden danger that lurks just below your feet.
Every year dozens of people are killed or seriously injured in avalanche related accidents. Seemingly to strike unexpectedly, many states in avalanche prone regions like Colorado, Montana and Washington have very active programs to detect, warn, and when possible neutralize avalanche threats.
Identifying the potential risk for an avalanche is not an exact science. Weather including the volume and type of snowfall, temperature changes, even wind all play a role in increasing the risk. There is a classic scenario of a heavy snowfall on top of a weaker thin layer with rapidly increasing temperatures, but there is still the maybe it will, maybe it won't factor as long as man doesn't get involved. Sometimes people are advised to be alert of the risk and proceed at their own risk, sometimes trails are closed. In extreme cases mortars or artillery rounds are fired into high-risk areas purposely causing a smaller avalanche to prevent a larger event from happening.
People are complacent to the risks that a serious avalanche poses. Cartoons and movies show avalanches as a survivable, almost comical event. In one real life film a skier is seen outrunning the advancing avalanche as he desperately flies down the side of the mountain. The reality is the mortality rate of people caught in avalanches is extremely high and the chances of out maneuvering or outrunning a wall of snow and ice are pretty slim.
There are also a lot of myths about avalanches. Despite what you have seen in the movies a loud noise isn't likely to trigger an avalanche. Although a lot of people think that an avalanche is a wall of loose snow coming down the mountainside, most of the time it is a block or slab of snow that moves as one big piece. Instead of the shingles falling off of a roof, think of the whole roof coming down as one piece while you are standing on it. The reality is that very few people are killed by avalanches that come from above, most of the deaths occur when the person is standing on the slab as it breaks away. Avalanches don't typically just happen, and when they do they are pretty predictable. Man causes most avalanches and typically this happens when we are not where we are supposed to be or we are doing what we shouldn't be.
There are several things that you can do to increase your safety while in the outdoors this winter if you are in avalanche country. The first thing you should do is visit the Westside Avalanche Network. The website provides links to all of the avalanche centers in the United States and Canada. From there you can get information on conditions, advisories, closures, and predictions. Remember that your information needs to be current, checking the data out and then going on a two day drive to get to your outdoor destination won't be providing you with an adequate safety cushion.
When you get to your destination you should check with area experts, park rangers, supervisors, sheriff department, local rescue organization on conditions. If the area you were planning to trek is at risk consider a different route.
You should never travel alone. Although this is a key rule to all outdoor adventure this is especially critical in the winter months. However traveling with a friend isn't just enough, you need to have the proper gear and training to assure your safety.
Everyone in your group should have the proper equipment and know how to conduct a search and rescue operation in the event of an avalanche. Having the proper gear includes having a digital avalanche beacon and a durable collapsible shovel. If only one person has a shovel and they get buried in an avalanche, how are you going to dig them out? If you are traveling in an area where the avalanche risk is high, you should be skilled in doing a line search with poles. You can learn these techniques at an avalanche safety class.
A key issue to remember is that man causes most avalanches. Common sense should always prevail. Last year there was a highly publicized story about a man climbing up the side of a ridge in his skimobile that caused an avalanche. He was very lucky and was rescued uninjured with his sled undamaged. Instead of learning his lesson he went back to the same ridge and died in an avalanche later the same day. The bottom line, don't put yourself at risk.
If you find yourself trapped in an avalanche you have almost no chance of outrunning it. Your goal should be to ride on top of the snow if at all possible, on your belly with head toward the bottom of the slope if at all possible. This way you can steer with your hands (what little steering you can do at 80 MPH) and avoid obstacles as they come at you. Every effort should be made to stay on top of the snow.
If you get buried it is going to take a lot of luck and a quick rescue to save your life. As the snow settles after an avalanche it becomes as hard as concrete. You won't be able to move your arms or legs if they are buried. It is critical to fight panic, your air supply could be very limited and your own body warmth will be working against you. As you exhale you slowly melt the snow above you creating an airtight ice shield over your face with tragic consequences. Limit your breathing as best you can and hope that you are found quickly. Remember that struggling only increases how much air you use but use your best judgment, if you have a pocket that gives you a free hand you could work the snow around it to widen the area you can move around.
As long as you follow the simple rules above you shouldn't loose sleep over being caught in an avalanche. If you stay informed, take a safety course and don't put yourself at risk, the odds are very much in your favor that the only avalanches you will be seeing are in the movies.