How to survive an avalanche

Move to the top of the debris. Create an air pocket in front of your face.

How to survive an avalanche

By Malia Wollan

“The snow breaks all around you like a pane of glass,” says Karl Birkeland, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont. And when it does, listen for what Birkeland calls “a whumpf sound,” as the slab of snow fractures. Don’t wait to see what happens. Try to find solid ground by moving to the edge of the flow or digging into the stable base layer using your hands, ski edges or poles. If you are swept away, do everything possible to maneuver yourself toward the top of the debris. “If you get buried, you want to be shallow so your friends can dig you out,” Birkeland says.

In the United States, 37 people died in avalanches last winter, most of them backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. If you plan to explore ungroomed snowy areas on or below slopes steeper than 30 degrees, go to Avalanche.org and check the conditions (wind and new snow tend to exacerbate risk). Don’t go alone. Equip yourself with an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel. Consider buying a pricey avalanche airbag, which inflates and helps buoy you up to the surface of the tumbling snow. Take a safety course.

Inside the whirling whiteness, you might lose your sense of direction. If the snow doesn’t strip off your gear, it will drag you down; wear releasable bindings and keep your wrists out of your pole straps in avalanche terrain. Try to get your feet pointed downhill, belly up, flailing your arms in a backstroking motion. “It’s more like active struggling than swimming,” says Birkeland, who was caught in his first avalanche as a 21-year-old ski patroller in Utah.

If you don’t die from the blunt force of hitting a tree or a rock, and your fellow skiers can dig you out in under 10 minutes, you have about a 90 percent chance of surviving an avalanche. As the avalanche begins to slow, vigorously move one hand in front of your face to create an air pocket (once stopped, you will feel as if you’re encased in concrete). At the same time, punch skyward with your other hand. “There are a lot of people who get found in avalanches with just a hand sticking up out of the snow,” Birkeland says.

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.

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.”

I learned the hard way that there’s only one real way to survive an avalanche.

How to survive an avalanche

As the pandemic wears on, more Americans are exploring the great outdoors than ever before—and getting into trouble. Survival movies may glorify feats of man versus nature, but expert adventurers like Jill Fredston know the truth. For decades, the author of Snowstruck, Snow Sense, and Rowing to Latitude, led avalanche training and rescue efforts in Alaska—until one day, she had seen enough. On a recent episode of How To!, Jill shared what we get wrong about risk and what led her to stop doing avalanche rescue missions. The key to surviving an avalanche, or any dangerous situation in nature, Jill says, is to put aside our egos and not get caught in the first place. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David Epstein: Can you tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in avalanches?

Jill Fredston: I have had a fascination with snow since I was 5, which is a little bit mysterious because I grew up in suburban New York. It led me to a master’s degree in snow and ice, which led me to Alaska, working with the university on anything frozen—sea ice, glacier ice, river ice. And one day it was proposed that I be put in charge of the Alaska Avalanche Forecast Center because I knew something about snow. The only problem was I really had never even seen an avalanche.

So I went to the state’s reigning avalanche authority, and he was a big bearded guy who looked a little bit like Moses. He sat back in his chair and he said, “Well, if you want to learn about avalanches, what you have to do is go into the den of the dragons. You have to go to the mountains when everybody else is leaving and you have to climb up the ridge. And it’s probably going to be snowing so hard that your eyes are going to freeze shut. But that doesn’t matter because if you do that for 5, 10, 15, 20 years, maybe, just maybe, you’ll learn something.” I was such a nerd that I wrote everything down and I started doing that. Over the next few years we did a very strange dance where he went from being probably the biggest skeptic I’ve ever had in my life to mentor, to partner, to husband.

Oh, wow. So this was a very fruitful partnership.

Yes. Avalanches have been a big part of our partnership, really. I mean, it’s kind of funny because I spent all this time focused on the union of circumstances that make avalanches possible—snow terrain and weather—and got completely blindsided by this opposite union of circumstances that ended up having us married for three decades now.

Can you tell us about your work with avalanches?

It’s been a lot of teaching people how not to get caught. In avalanche classes, I would try to trigger avalanches because there’s no better way to learn. If you pick a small slope and you use a bunch of student bodies, it’s quite fun to make small slopes avalanche. In the bigger realm we would use explosives. We also ran the rescues in Alaska for many years. It’s not so much about saving people, because if a call is going out for help, it’s pretty much a body recovery. I think I’ve dug more than 40 people dead out of avalanches and I have done one life recovery of someone completely buried in an avalanche.