Avalanche

The Sleeping Giant

Avalanche photo by Craig Gordon

Avalanche, it’s a sleeping giant in the snow, waiting below the surface like a troll under the bridge. Be on top of your game this winter. Avoid avalanche danger at all costs, and be prepared.

You need to be “street smart” and “snow smart” in the backcountry. Tyler St Jeor, professional Ski Patrolman and current patroller with Wasatch County Search and Rescue filled me in on the conditions that lead to avalanches. What happens is this; the snowpack gets grumpy with rapid temperature change. Strong winds can also move tremendous amounts of snow, stripping it from windward slopes and depositing it on the mountain’s leeward side, forming dense, stiff slabs of snow. Imagine a precarious stack of folded laundry or a house of cards. The wrong shift of weight or misplaced addition, and it all comes toppling down!

Some of the most likely days for avalanches to occur are those following heavy snowstorms. The snow needs time “to become comfortable in its own skin.” St Jeor understands waiting can be challenging. “As an individual who enjoys snowmobiling, I realize how tempting those beautiful days following the big storms are. The air is crystal clear, and the snow looks amazing. However, consider the new weight load the snowpack is trying to adjust to. Be smart and give it a little time.”

Early season snow or infrequent storms also lead to potentially unstable layering; as thin snowpacks tend to be structurally weak, the snow turns into a pile of sugary crystals, or what avalanche experts call facets. The slope angle defines avalanche terrain. Slopes 30°- 45° are considered avalanche territory. As the slope increases, so does the danger. The gravitational force increases with the slope (Weed, T. (n.d.) Steepness. Utah Avalanche Center. utahavalanchecenter.org/blog/16386). Don’t forget, the area below these slopes is not always safe either; they may be connected to other dangerous slopes above or adjacent to where you’re riding. Having the ability to identify avalanche terrain and the knowledge to travel through that terrain safely becomes imperative to survival in the backcountry, even on a “low danger” day. There is always danger in certain areas. Avoiding those areas entirely on high hazard days becomes the best practice for survival and safety.

How can you learn to identify avalanche terrain? The best and most responsible level of instruction is hands-on, intensive training held right on the mountain. The most responsible thing to do is to spend time with a professional on-site. To find local offerings check the utahavalanchecenter.org.

Craig Gordon has been a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center for 20 years. He explains, “Avalanche accidents don’t happen randomly; it’s not like getting struck by lightning. There’s a great deal of science involved . . . before loading up your gear, check-in with the Utah Avalanche Center and get the latest forecast. Remember — avalanches are incredibly violent events, and nearly 1 in 4 people are killed by trauma — getting slammed into trees or carried over cliff bands. Even if you’re prepared, if you trigger a slide and need to use your rescue gear, it means you screwed up. If you’re caught and buried, you can’t just pop out of the snow because avalanche debris sets up like concrete in just a second or two; you can’t even wiggle your fingers. That means you’ve got to have all the rescue gear, and you have to know how to use it. It’s the only chance to find your partner under the snow.” Gordon continued with, “Let’s face it, even the best rescues have sad endings. So your best offense is a good defense; simply avoid getting caught in the first place. Your local avalanche forecast gives you all the tools you need to safely navigate the mountains and get a great day of riding in. But avalanche avoidance — that’s the big-ticket item.” Before heading to the backcountry, always ask yourself this question; what is today’s avalanche forecast in my area? And discover the answer first before going out on your winter excursion.

Take someone with you! Four is a good, reliable number. If the group gets too big, risks increase, and communication becomes difficult. Buried alone, you won’t stand a chance. Be smart and take a partner or two that are trained. Remember, in the event you end up on the bottom of the pile, you’re entrusting your life to your buddies. Choose wisely.

Absolute MUST HAVES:

  • Shovel
  • Avalanche Transceiver
  • Probe

It is IMPERATIVE that you wear these items ON YOUR BODY. The avalanche transceiver must be worn under your coat, close to your chest. The shovel and probe should be in a sturdy backpack. Too often, snowmobilers will store their gear in their tunnel compartment. During the event of an avalanche, they may become separated from their sled. At that point, the tools are of no use.

Avalanche Transceiver: A transceiver, also referred to as a beacon, is a device worn on each person in a party that continuously emits a radio signal. If an individual becomes a searcher, they switch their transceiver to the receiving setting. This action stops their transceiver from emitting a signal, and it now becomes a receiver for radio signals of victims in the vicinity. Transceivers should be checked for functionality, both as receivers and emitters, before every ride. Be sure to change out your transceiver’s batteries once they reach 50%. The transceiver’s search function drains batteries fast. Lithium batteries are an absolute NO GO! Only alkaline batteries should be used. Extra batteries should be part of your avalanche essentials included for every ride.

Shovel: This is an essential tool with multiple options. Consider the style of your shovel as you invest. It should always be metal. St Jeor is emphatic that plastic isn’t allowed on the hill with his Search and Rescue crew. They break. It’s like trying to dig yourself out of jail with a plastic spoon! Shovels must fit entirely in your pack. If it is not a good fit, you risk losing it during your ride; especially in case of an avalanche, this life-saving tool could be torn from your pack (Delatado, N. (2020, January 13). The Best Avalanche Shovels for Portable Use. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from backyardboss.net/best-avalanche-shovel-reviews). You may feel that a shovel is too cumbersome and heavy to haul with you. However, the weight range is generally between 1-2 pounds, not a considerable burden at all when the cost of saving a life is in the balance (evo (n.d.). How to Choose an Avalanche Shovel. Retrieved October 10, 2020, fromevo.com/guides/how-to-choose-avalanche-shovel).

Probe: This is the tool that determines the exact location of an avalanche victim. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, the most popular length is 279 cm long. This also happens to be the minimum length of probe you should ever invest in. Probes come in various lengths and are either aluminum or carbon. Remember, speed is the most critical factor. Be sure you can use your probe effectively (evo. (n.d.). How to Choose an Avalanche Probe. Retrieved October 16, 2020, from evo.com/guides/how-to-choose-avalanche-probe).

 Good to HAVES:

  •  Air Bag
  • Personal Locator
  • 2-Way Radio
  • Basic First Aid Kit
  • Food
  • Water

Wear appropriate outdoor winter clothing! Shovels, probes, and beacons may save you if you’re buried, but they won’t protect you from the elements of the winter climate. The cold is real. The cold and wet may be unrelenting, and hypothermia can become your next problem, avalanche or not.

Airbag: This handy device has a ripcord attached to a pack. If you hear that unmistakable rumble, the airbag can be deployed. Large airbags help bodies stay near the top of the rubble. St. Jeor compares it to being a “big chip in the bag.” Just as the big potato chips stay close to the surface of your chip bag, you stand a better chance of rising to the top of the debris and chunks of snow when attached to a deployed airbag.

Personal Locator: Personal locators have direct locator technology and are a much faster and more reliable way of signaling for help than making a phone call. Pushing the SOS button sends an exact geo-tagged location directly to local search personnel.

2-Way Radio: Good old walkie-talkies may be the best way to communicate with your party. Communication is paramount when working together in locating and accounting for your crew.

Basic First Aid Kit: Knowledge of basic first aid skills and a simple set of first aid tools come in handy in countless situations. Materials for splinting are important must-haves as breaks and fractures are common. The top medical needs to address in avalanche rescues are airways and bleeding.

Food and Water: Calorie boosting foods and water are always vital to have on hand when traveling or participating in outdoor recreational activities. Remember, once victims are secured, keeping them in the best condition possible for retrieval and travel is essential. This includes being well nourished and having sources of hydration.

If you hear that distinct whoomph and the earth feels like it’s falling away from you — you’ll only have a nanosecond to do some quick thinking. Instantly, you are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Ideally, you have a game plan playing in your head before you even step foot on the slopes. Trees can be your best friend or worst enemy, depending on the stage of the game you encounter them. If you’re lucky enough to be next to a tree, immediately grab a hold. It is very likely to secure you through the slide and save your life. However, if you are moving with the avalanche and come in contact with a tree at the force of the slide, that tree is likely to be your demise. Experienced riders may be able to “ride it out” or make it to the side, out of the avalanche’s path. St Jeor says to deploy your airbag at once and do everything in your power to stay on top. “Fight like hell, swim, keep your head on top of the snow.”

Here are the facts:

In the event you’re lucky enough to escape the destruction yourself, you should know that right away, a clock begins to tick. In most cases, without an air pocket, you have about 10 minutes of survival time to save individuals buried.

  1.  One person take charge.
  2.  Get a headcount. How many searchers and how many victims do you have.
  3.  It now becomes a “resource management game.”

Searchers MUST switch their transceivers to search mode. Otherwise, their signal emission will interfere with the search, and they cannot receive a signal for the victims.

Use your personal locator now! DO NOT go call for help. The ugly truth is that unless rescuers are on the mountain with you, they will not make it in time to retrieve a live body. You are the rescuer! Search and Rescue can help get you off the mountain once you have located and unburied the victims. They will not be there in the crucial 10 minutes you have to find survivors.

Quickly scan the area for visual clues. You may see a glove, a ski, a sled. Check to see if any of the items are still connected to a person. If the person is not with the item, leave it where it is to document the scene. Keep searchers paraphernalia from cluttering the search area. Items not belonging to the victim can confuse the hunt.

Be aware that avalanches flow like water. Follow the “flow line” after the last seen point to find your victim. Immediately begin a beacon search to pinpoint your person. If the area to search is small, have others in the search party ready probes and shovels. If you have a vast area to cover, get several transceivers in a pattern to search simultaneously. Systematic searches where muscle memory can kick in and searchers are familiar with their gear are far more successful than unpracticed searches, which is why it is imperative to have training and practice. Practice keeps you prepared. Practice saves lives.

Once the beacons do their job, it’s time for probes. Begin probing until you have a strike. When you have a strike, LEAVE THE PROBE IN and get shoveling. Shoveling is the most time-consuming step. Once your buddy’s out, if they are unconscious, the first thing you need to check is that you are in a safe location, preferably out of the snow, then check their airway. If they are wearing a helmet, get it off, and clear their mouth of any snow packed in by the force of the slide. Breathing and bleeding are going to be your top priorities to address — in that order. CPR is a back-pocket skill you may need. At this point, it is time to make that phone call, if you didn’t already push a button on a personal locator. Remember, your friend will probably be in shock and need to be kept as warm and dry as possible.

Be on top of your game this winter and remember: Prevention is paramount. Get trained. Get supplied. Get a plan. Then, get out there and have fun!