How to survive an avalanche

Words: Josh Rakic
Photography: Getty Images/ Lance King

Physicist and aerospace engineer Mark Denny explains how to survive an avalanche

Avalanches are no laughing matter, and account for an average 27 deaths every winter in the USA alone. It’s a risk any adventurer, meek or intrepid, takes every time they set foot on the snow, with late snowboard pioneer Craig Kelly among countless victims.

For avalanches don’t care for talent or experience, age or brand of gear, they’re a largely unpredictable natural occurrence that reach speeds in excess of 100mph and can trap and kill a person in seconds. And even if you survive the initial avalanche and aren’t impaled by tree branches or rocks, chances of survival are slim.

But physicist, author and aerospace engineer Mark Denny says preparedness isn’t futile, and chances of survival can increase dramatically by taking some potentially life-saving precautions.

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THE RED BULLETIN: First up, avalanches aren’t caused by echoes, right?

MARK DENNY: No, more likely by the weight of a person or animal in the wrong place, or from a change in weather conditions. An avalanche is snow sliding down a hillside - either a surface layer slipping over a lower layer of snow, or all the snow moving at once. Dry snow falls very fast - over 100 mph in some cases, but these avalanches last for only a few seconds. Wet snow slides more slowly, about 20 mph, but these slides can persist for over a minute.

What are the best ways to avoid an avalanche?

The easiest way to get caught in an avalanche is walking or skiing across the lee slope of a hill after a storm - the slope that faces away from the wind direction, where all the accumulative dry snow puts weight on the existing slope. Or skiing beneath a cornice, the overhanging layer of snow on the ridge of a hill. They’re two simple things to avoid. Of course, there are warning signs of avalanche danger around ski resorts that are there because experts have spotted tell-tale signs of a possible movement. Ignoring these and skiing off-piste is another good way to get yourself trapped in an avalanche.

What happens when one’s stuck in avalanche?

You find yourself tumbling like a rag doll end-over-end downhill at high speed amid a huge mass of snow, rocks and shattered trees. You can die from that trauma alone, hitting a rock or getting skewered on a tree.

I’ve survived the avalanche and am buried in snow. Now what?

Asphyxiation is the biggest threat to your life. If you are knocked unconscious, then you are in the lap of the gods. But you might be lucky to be at the top of the snow. If so, and you are face up, then you have a better than 50-50 chance of surviving. If you are near the surface but face down, you need to be rescued quickly or the snow will freeze to your face and block breathing. Asphyxiation is the most common cause of death among avalanche victims. And if you are more than six feet down however, you’re done.

When does frostbit set in?

You’ll be dead before frostbite bothers you. Or if you’re rescued then it will likely be before frostbite gets to your fingers and toes.

What can be done to increase chances of survival?

Remaining conscious. If you are conscious when in an avalanche, then you increase your chance of surviving by fighting it. During the downhill ride protect your head with your hands and arms. When the downhill ride ends, the snow sets solid so you won’t be able to move, let alone dig yourself out, unless by good luck you are right at the surface. But by protecting your head you may create an air pocket so you can breathe when under the surface. This gives time for a rescue dog to sniff you out, or a human with a tracker to locate you. Always remember to carry a transponder with you if you’re going off-piste. Otherwise, you’re on your own.

The ability to breathe can only last so long though…

Exactly. Apart from asphyxiation, you can die in an avalanche from hypothermia, if not pulled clear quickly. In fact, you’re dead after half an hour. If pulled clear within 15 minutes you’ve got a good chance of making it if you’ve avoided being skewered by a tree or rocks. Most injuries are to the limbs, and of course there will be a lot of contusions.

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