Escape the avalanche. So as soon as you notice that you’re on the wrong side of the fracture line, you have one last chance to control your fate. After that, you have run out of choices and enter the grim, avalanche roulette wheel. If you are caught, here are some strategies that may work.
Avalanche, How to survive on snow terrain
While the Avalanche Is Moving
Staying alive in avalanche terrain probably has more to do with mastering yourself than mastering any knowledge of avalanches.
If you become caught in an avalanche, you can try many tactics to improve your chances of rescue.
Let your partners know that you are caught. Note: Some folks are known as hooters they like to hoot and holler on the way down to let everyone know how much fun they are having. Save the yelling for when you need it.
Try to path Off the Slab
Recall have an route planned. Hopefully, you triggered the avalanche while doing a slope cut, in which case, you can use your momentum (or the power of a snowmobile) to move toward the edge of the avalanche where you can ride onto still or slower-moving snow. If not, then remember that the snow below you can’t bury you, but the snow above you can.
Do whatever it takes to let as much snow pass below you as possible. If you are near the upper fracture line of the slab, you can sometimes climb uphill and dig into the bed surface. Some people have saved themselves by grabbing a tree, but you have to grab one very quickly, before the avalanche builds up to dangerous speeds, at which point your best friend suddenly turns into your worst enemy. Sometimes you can logroll horizontally on the moving slab to get into slower-moving debris. At this stage it’s important to fight like hell to get off the slab or into slower moving debris.
If You Can’t Get Off the Slab, Get Rid of Skis and Poles
Release your ski bindings. Skis with releasable bindings will be torn off quickly, but snowboards and snowshoes do not have releasable bindings, which is a big problem.
If You Have an Airbag or AvaLung, Use It
• Deploy your avalanche airbag.
• Get your AvaLung mouthpiece in your mouth.
Leave Your Pack On
• A pack provides valuable padding to your back and kidneys when your body bounces off trees and rocks.
• Should you survive, your pack contains everything you will need: shovel, probe, extra hat, mittens and warm clothes, food, water, first-aid kit, etc.
• Larger objects tend to end up on the surface, similar to how shaking a bag of tortilla chips moves the largest pieces to the top. Your pack helps make you a larger object, which will help keep you near the surface.
To Swim or Not to Swim
Every avalanche instructor since the beginning of time has instructed students to swim hard to stay on the surface. But there are no studies to indicate how much, or even if, swimming helps. Anecdotally, both times I’ve been caught in an avalanche, swimming seemed to help me stay near the surface, and there are many others who report the same.
Some data show that European professional guides tend to end up on the surface of avalanches more often than their clients do. Speculations as to why include: they fight harder to run; they swim; they wear larger packs and thus float better in avalanche debris but nobody really knows.
Since riding in avalanche debris feels very similar to floating through a rapid in a river, most people will automatically swim anyway, since swimming in water seems to be hardwired into every living creature on earth. Although avalanches move like water, they are actually granular flows, where larger objects rise to the surface through inverse segregation lucky for us, because the human body is three times denser than snow and would instantly sink to the bottom if avalanches flowed like water.
Most buried avalanche victims are within the top meter of the snow surface, and deeper burials usually occur only in terrain traps, such as gullies, or with secondary burials.
As the Avalanche Slows Down
Regardless of whether you swim, it’s critically important that, as the avalanche begins to slow down, you protect your airway. Do this early, because as avalanche debris slows, friction tends to cause the leading debris to pile up in front, and often large areas of debris will solidify even before coming to a complete stop. For this reason, victims often report being frozen in place much sooner than they expected. Far too often, victims are uncovered with their arms frozen in swimming motions.
If you don’t have an AvaLung, bury your mouth in the crook of your arm by reaching across your face and grabbing the pack strap by your opposite shoulder, even as you continue to struggle with your other limbs. The larger the cavity around your mouth, the longer you will likely live under the snow. It stands to reason that if you can get rid of your carbon dioxide as it diffuses along your arm or through your clothing, you will last longer than if your mouth is in direct contact with the snow. This action also helps prevent the formation of an impermeable ice mask, which exacerbates carbon-dioxide buildup.
Snowmobilers: A helmet with a full face mask can also help prevent the formation of an ice mask, at least in smaller avalanches. In larger avalanches, the helmet is often filled with snow, or the mask flips up. Even with a face mask, it’s probably best to practice the same technique mentioned above.
When the Avalanche Comes to a Stop
Relax. Right! Even Zen masters would have a hard time relaxing after all that. But remember that the clock is ticking on the carbon-dioxide buildup that will put you to sleep, so do your best to go into hibernation mode. Unless you’re lucky, you won’t be able to move anyway, so there’s not much choice. If you’re lucky enough to have a hand above or very near the surface, you may even be able to move snow, which could help to create a channel to dispense carbon dioxide. But the vast majority of completely buried victims quickly lose consciousness.