The topic of avalanche safety sits squarely in the realm of “you’ll probably never need to know it but just in case you do…” category. To some people, it may seem akin to learning how to dodge a meteor strike; information that isn’t pertinent to their life and probably won’t ever come in handy. Yet if you and your kids are winter sports junkies or prone to exploring avalanche prone areas, then it doesn’t hurt to take a moment to sit down with them and cover the basics of how to survive an avalanche. During the 2007-2008 winter season alone, 36 people in the United States were killed in avalanches, a record that experts largely attribute to the growing popularity of back-country sports. And as remote as the risk my be, it’s still higher than the likelihood of your child being murdered by a registered sex-offender. So before you head out to the back country, take a little time to go over avalanche safety.
Keys to surviving an avalanche
1. Don’t bother trying to outrun the snow. An avalanche can reach speeds of up to 80 M.P.H. in a matter of seconds. If you’re skiing and you think you’re far enough ahead of it, your best bet is to veer sideways at a 45 degree angle and try to have it miss you. When you’re the one who triggers it, you’ve got about 3 to 5 seconds to ski off of it. But racing it is a losing cause.
2. If that doesn’t work, grab a tree and hang on for dear life. No, that’s not a joke. If you can manage to keep your grip, trees often form natural air pockets on the opposite side of the avalanche. It may buy you extra space or even allow you to climb out once things settle. It can also act as a shield against some of the deadly debris. Even if you can’t hang on for the duration, the more snow that slides past you, the better your odds of survival. It’s always best to be at the upper end of the avalanche as opposed to buried under the bottom of the pile.
3. Paddle. That’s right, paddle. Humans are 3-times denser than dry snow, so if you’re not swimming, you’ll sink like a log. Either that, or perhaps safety experts just have a sense of humor.
4. Create space, or make air pockets. Once the snow stops moving, it will set like concrete. So as the snow slows, cup your hands in front of your mouth and take a deep breath so that your lungs will create extra space. Try to move as much as possible. The more space you create to move, the more air pockets and maneuverability you’ll create, and the better your chance for survival.
5. Reach for the surface. As you’re tumbling along, raise a hand and try to break through to the top. If you can manage to get any body part or piece of clothing showing it will help rescuers find you.
6. Stay calm, and breathe slowly. Don’t bother yelling until you hear rescuers directly on top of you. Any farther away and it’s unlikely they’ll hear your muffled cries for help. It will only use up your precious oxygen, while filling your air pocket with carbon dioxide.
7. If you or a loved one is out in the high country often, invest in a good avalanche beacon or some of the other safety products that are available.
The key to surviving an avalanche is getting out quickly and avoiding collisions with deadly debris, such as rocks or tree trunks. Those who are uncovered in the first 15 minutes have a 90% survival rate. Yet as time ticks away, spending between 15 minutes and 45 minutes under the snow reduces your odds of survival from 90% to 30%. So there you have it. Information you’ll probably never need but that all winter sports junkies should have just in case. See us next time for tips on how to dodge a meteorite. Hint: it involves using the Michael Jackson moonwalk.