How to Survive an Avalanche?

The victims are typically backcountry recreationalists—skiers, snowboarders, climbers, and snowmobilers. Snowmobilers account for twice as many avalanche fatalities as the other groups, mostly because of their surging numbers, and also because the weight of the snowmobile and rider is greater than that of a person on skis, making them more likely to stress the weak layer in a snowpack and set off an avalanche. Avalanche victims are often risk takers that set aside safety concerns in the pursuit of their goals, and 89% of them are men.

"Caught in an Avalanche while snowboarding"

While the majority of avalanches happen naturally, 90% of avalanche fatalities occur in avalanches triggered by the victim himself, or by someone in the victim’s party. So avalanches aren’t exactly freak accidents, and there is a lot you can do to avoid getting swept up in one and to increase your chances of survival if you do.
Sarah Carpenter, an instructor at the American Avalanche Institute tell us how to prepare for, survive, and help a buddy out of an avalanche.

How to Survive an Avalanche?

"Avalanche Cliff Jump with Matthias Giraud"
Skiers Matthias Giraud and Stefan Laude try to outrun a massive avalanche in the French Alps. The only problem? Their escape route.

Avalanches will never be 100% avoidable, but understanding and watching for the elements that make avalanches more likely to occur can significantly reduce your risk of becoming a victim of one.
The factors that increase (or diminish) the likelihood of an avalanche occurring are surprisingly complex—things like weather, sun, temperature, wind, the angle of the mountain’s slope, and snowpack conditions all play a role. And the avalanche hazard level can fluctuate daily and even hourly as conditions change.
Thus, the ability to scout for potential avalanches takes a goodly amount of both know-how and skill. You should be able to do things like measure the angle of the slope and test the stability of the snowpack, in addition to being trained in how to search for a buried victim using a transceiver. You also need to carry a few key pieces of equipment into the backcountry with you.

"Transceiver": Sometimes referred to as a beacon, a transceiver is a radio that both transmits and receives electromagnetic signals. If you’re buried by an avalanche, the signal from your transceiver will allow your partner to find you. But obviously you both must be wearing one, and you need to set your transceiver to transmit when you head out. People have died because they got buried with their transceiver set to receive. Using a transceiver takes skill, so you want to practice with it before your backcountry adventure.

"Avalanche probes": Using a transceiver will get you close to the victim, but a probe will allow you to pinpoint him in the snow. The best kind to get are collapsible probes that you put in your pack and assemble like a tent pole. Ski poles that can be screwed together to form a probe are also available. If you lose your probe in the avalanche, try using a long tree branch–it’s better than nothing.

"Shovel": Digging with a shovel is almost 5 times faster than digging with your hands, and as we’ll discuss below, the speed with which you can dig is absolutely critical in saving the life of an avalanche victim.

"When the Avalanche Starts"
If the avalanche starts right under your feet, try running uphill or to the side to get off the fracturing slab of snow. If you’re on skis or a snowboard, head downhill first to gather some speed, and then veer to the side and off the slab. If you’re on a snowmobile, continue in the direction you were going and throttle it off the sliding snow. If you’re not going to make it out, drop your ski poles, pack, and equipment, and abandon your snowmobile—you want to be as light and buoyant as possible in order to minimize how much you sink into the snow.
When the Avalanche Starts
Once the snow topples you, “swim” to try to stay on top of the snow. You want to roll to your back with your feet pointed downhill. Do the backstroke and try to head uphill. You can also try to dig into the bed surface–the layer the avalanche is sliding on–with your feet in order to slow your descent. You may have also heard that you should try to crouch behind rocks or trees, but this is a bad idea. Trees and rocks slow snow down, causing it to pile up in that area. Hiding behind a rock will just bury you deeper in the snow.

"Once the Avalanche Has Buried You"
If the avalanche buries you, and you’re still alive, consider yourself lucky. About 1/3 of avalanche victims are killed by trauma; the avalanche can carry you into a tree or over a cliff and the debris it picks up as it storms down the mountain can clobber you. Once the avalanche stops moving, it will begin to set around you like concrete. So your window for taking any kind of action is very small.
Once the Avalanche Has Buried You
Immediately create an air pocket by putting your arm across your face—this gives you a little room to breathe. As the snow begins to set up, take a big breath. This expands your chest, which can give you a little extra breathing room as the snow hardens around you. If you’re near the surface, try to reach an arm or leg up to penetrate it; this will obviously make finding you a lot easier. The big thing is to stay as calm as possible, which Sarah admits is "easier said than done". But the calmer you are, the slower you’ll breathe and the less quickly you’ll use up the oxygen. Don’t yell either—the snow is so insulating that rescuers are unlikely to hear you.

"How to Dig for an Avalanche Victim"
If the victim is buried under a meter or less of snow, just start digging like a mad man. But if they’re buried in snow that’s over a meter deep, you should employ one of two different digging strategies, depending on how many people you have with you. If you have a big group of available diggers, use the “V-shaped conveyer belt” method. The rescuers line up like a flock of geese in a “V.” The front person does the digging, and moves the displaced snow just a little ways behind him. The two people behind the digger then push the snow to the people behind them, and on down the line. The front person is rotated every minute or so, so that the digger remains fresh.
How to Dig for an Avalanche Victim
Shift downhill from the probe, about 1.5 times the length of the depth the victim is buried, and start digging into the side of the slope, straight into the buried person. To save more time and energy, shovel the snow out to the side instead of behind you, until the snow rises to your waist—then start moving it downhill. Uncover their face and clear an airway as soon as you can. If there are two available shovelers, position one just downhill of the probe, and the other downhill 1.5 times the depth of the buried victim. You should both start digging the hole, moving the snow to the side. When you have to lift the snow above your waist, start shoveling it downhill—the digger furthest downhill works on keeping the hole clear as the front digger keeps shoveling into the victim.

How to Survive an Avalanche 1

Source: The Art of Manliness
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