The Myths and Realities of Avalanche Survival
By Molly Newman
It’s a gorgeous winter day in Utah’s backcountry. After a series of storms, there’s a thick layer of fresh powder on the ground. You and your friends are thrilled to be outside again, carving down an untouched slope at top speed.
As you’re heading out on your third run of the day, the sun warms your face—and the top layer of snow. You lean into one sharp turn, then another. Suddenly, you hear a low rumbling from behind you. A swirl of snow rises in your wake. You zig and zag, hoping to outrun the cresting white tide. But it’s too late. You’re caught in the surge and hurled downslope, unable to see, fighting to breathe. You can only hope that your friends have escaped the slide…and that someone will be able to find you and dig you out once it stops.
Avalanches are a constant danger in Utah’s winters, especially in a super-snowy year like this one. But if you’re equipped with the right information and a little preparation, you can ski, snowboard or snowshoe right through the season without fear of being caught.
MYTH: Avalanches are just a natural outdoor hazard—there’s not much you can do to avoid them.
FACT: Avalanches are just as preventable as hypothermia or any other “natural” hazard.
“Over 90% of avalanches are caused either by the avalanche victim or by someone in the victim’s party,” says Bruce Tremper, Director of the US Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center. Tremper should know. His thirty-year career in avalanche monitoring and forecasting (including surviving an avalanche himself) have taught him plenty about what people can do to cause, and prevent, these disasters.
MYTH: Loud noises can trigger an avalanche.
FACT: Shout all you like. Avalanches are triggered by weight and movement, not sound.
Despite what you’ve seen in any number of James Bond movies, noises—even gunshots or helicopter engines—can’t trigger a slide. The most common cause of avalanches? Cutting across an unstable slope. Especially in the first 24 to 48 hours after a snowstorm, a slab of frozen fresh snow can form on top of a layer of looser, weaker snow. This lower layer can’t support the additional weight of a skier or snowboarder. When it collapses under the added strain, the result is a slab avalanche: the fastest-moving and deadliest type of snow slide.
Being aware of slope angles can help keep you from getting caught. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees, with risk peaking between 35 and 40 degrees. Pack an inexpensive slope meter to help you decide which slopes to ski and which to skip.
When approaching a run, use common sense: Make your ascent up low-angled slopes and along ridges whenever possible. Use your climbing time to assess possible risks, keeping an eye out for areas of windblown snow that may conceal treacherous slabs. Listen carefully, too: a hollow, drumlike sound may indicate that the terrain you’re crossing is unstable and ready to slip.
MYTH: Anyone can fall victim to an avalanche.
FACT: Anyone can be a victim, but most fit a particular profile.
According to Tremper, most people who are caught in an avalanche are similar, demographically speaking, to the U.S. prison population. “93% of avalanche victims are male; almost all are young; almost all are risk takers. It’s not the cautious skiers who are getting caught.”
Though a steep, untouched slope may be a great temptation, it’s important to know when to resist. “A snowpack is like a book,” says extreme skier Spencer Wheatley of Wasatch Powderbird Guides. “If you take the time to read every page, you won’t get caught by a surprise ending.” Wheatley encourages his heli-ski guests to take it easy on their first few runs when dealing with riskier terrain: “The worst thing you can do is ignore the clear signs of danger. You should always have a Plan B.”
MYTH: Most avalanche deaths are the result of hypothermia.
FACT: Only about 2% of avalanche fatalities are caused by freezing to death.
When you’re caught in an avalanche, snow fills your nostrils and mouth, making it nearly impossible to breathe. The vast majority of avalanche deaths—more than two-thirds, according to Tremper—are the result of asphyxiation as victims re-breathe their own exhaled carbon dioxide. If help doesn’t arrive quickly, an avalanche victim’s life expectancy is only about 15 minutes.
MYTH: Even if you’re caught, you can rescue yourself from an avalanche.
FACT: Forget being able to dig yourself out.
Snow turns as unyielding as concrete once you’re buried in it, making it impossible to move much more than your fingers. Avalanche shovels are important rescue equipment, but you’ll need someone else to wield one to save you.
Avalanche airbags, long popular in Europe, are gaining converts in the U.S. as well. These portable devices work by inflating when a ripcord is pulled, floating the wearer to the top of the snow. “They add about three pounds to your gear weight,” Tremper says, “but in a study of 300 real-life cases, they were 98% effective in saving lives.”
Not everyone is convinced of airbags’ efficacy, though. “They work well on open slopes,” says Wheatley. “In tree terrain like we have locally, though, they can reduce your control among obstacles. We’re testing them out, and we’ll start using them regularly if we see a clear advantage.”
Both Tremper and Wheatley recommend avalanche beacons, which can be rented from most outfitters. They caution, though, that these tools take knowledge and practice to use effectively. “In a situation where an experienced pro is involved in the rescue effort, beacons save lives about 60% of the time,” Tremper says.
MYTH: There’s safety in numbers.
FACT: More people in your party = more avalanche risk.
When descending a steep, potentially risky slope, leave plenty of space between yourself and other members of your party. Ski or snowboard one at a time between points of safety. That way, if someone does trigger an avalanche, only one of you is likely to be caught.
If a slide happens, don’t rush in all together to rescue the victim. Many people have been trapped by secondary avalanches when attempting to dig out a snowbound friend. Though the urge to help out may be strong, you’ll do your whole party more good by moving in one at a time, being cautious to avoid starting another slide.
MYTH: After reading this article, you know all you need to know about avalanche safety.
FACT: It’s a great start, but there’s much more to learn.
There’s no substitute for hands-on training with an avalanche expert. But books, videos and websites are also great educational options for keeping yourself and your companions safe. See the Resources below for our top picks.
Avalanche Safety Classes: Certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, these three-day classes are the gold standard for avalanche awareness. Look for schedules at REI and other outdoor stores.
Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain by Bruce Tremper: This comprehensive, 300-page book is widely regarded as the best avalanche safety book on the market. It’s an entertaining read, too.
Utah Avalanche Center: Visit utahavalanchecenter.com for up-to-date alerts for avalanche-prone areas throughout Utah. Watch the fast-paced 15-minute video “Know Before You Go” for quick safety basics and some stunning avalanche footage.
Wasatch Powderbird Guides: For experienced skiers, there’s no greater thrill than tackling a remote, untouched slope. Get there safely, and with plenty of energy for an action-packed day, with a Powderbird heli-ski trip. See schedules, rates and more at powderbird.com.
RECCO Rescue System
This two-part system sets up a radar link between the reflector (which you wear) and the detector (which rescue patrols carry). It doesn’t need batteries or charging, and is sewn directly into many brands of RECCO-equipped outerwear, such as this Volcom Stoney Snowboard Jacket $300 recco.com
Black Diamond Avalung
Weighing in at just nine ounces, this shoulder sling allows you to breathe fresh air if you’re trapped in an avalanche—potentially making the difference between life and death. $130 blackdiamondequipment.com
Voile Mini Telepro T6 Avalanche Shovel
All-aluminum construction means this collapsible shovel is lightweight enough to carry easily, sturdy enough to slice through snow. $50 voile-usa.com