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Can You Survive an Avalanche?

An avalanche is a mass, consisting of ice and snow, which breaks free from a mountain slope, and surges downhill at a high speed. Knowing what to do if you are ever in an avalanche is crucial to your survival. Avalanches are deadly and disastrous. Annually, they claim more than one hundred-fifty lives worldwide. Many more become victims of avalanches, but are only partly buried or injured. Most victims are experienced people who engage in extreme mountain sports. They cross hazardous mountain terrain. Non-recreational deaths result from naturally released avalanches that bury buildings and roadways.

Mountains attract adventurists of all sorts: climbers, skiers and tourists. Each must be aware of the dangers posed by avalanches. Fortunately, scientists are perfecting the detection, prevention, and safety measures relating to survival and safety in potential disaster zones.

In the United States, the highest probability of avalanche activity takes place in wintertime. The greatest death counts occur in January, February and March of each year. This is when the snow is heaviest in mountain areas. However, there is a high death count in May and June, because of spring snows and melting that catches many by surprise. Climbers are often caught in avalanches during these months.

It is good to have some basic knowledge about the characteristics of avalanches, and how to avoid areas prone to them. Knowledge of weather and terrain in your area will help you in your survival if you become a victim of an avalanche.

The Parts of an Avalanche Path

Starting zone: This is the most volatile part of a slope. Unstable snow can break free from the adjacent snow cover and proceed on a downhill slide. These are usually high up on slopes, beneath cornices and bowl shaped areas on mountainsides.

Track: This is the actual route of an avalanche. Take note of any terrain that you cross on your adventures. If the slopes look like chutes, or if there are vertical gouges where there are no trees on a slope, these are signs that avalanches have run through in the past.

Run-out zone: This is the end of an avalanche run, where snow and debris comes to a stop. Also, this is "deposition zone" where it all piles up to a height. It is in this zone that any victims are most likely buried.

A large, North American avalanche is usually one that is naturally released, and contains approximately 300,000 cubic yards of snow. However, victims who are skiers and recreationists are caught up in smaller yet deadly avalanches, such as the "slab avalanche". It is the most common and deadly avalanche, where layers of a mountain snowpack break loose and slide down the mountain.

Factors that lead to an avalanche are weather, temperature, slope steepness, slope disposition, wind direction, terrain, vegetation, and condition of a given snowpack. Varying combinations of these can create low, moderate or extreme avalanche conditions. Study up on how these will affect mountain snow in your area.

If you are caught in an avalanche:

  • Yell to call attention to yourself
  • Let go of anything in your hands, such as ski poles, and take off any pack you may be carrying
  • Use "swimming" motions to thrust upward, and attempt to stay near the surface of the snow. Avalanches in the deposition zone will compact tightly in the lower area of a pile-up.
  • If you end up at or near the surface in the deposition zone, stick an arm or a leg out to make yourself visible to rescuers.