Avalanche knowledge a must in the back country | SierraSun.com
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Avalanche knowledge a must in the back country

Nathan Laver, Sierra Sun

The first step in avoiding the consequences of an avalanche is to picture yourself trapped in one.

First imagine a pristine bowl in the backcountry glowing with a fresh layer of lightest Sierra snow. You dive in making textbook turns as whisps of powder fly by your head. You begin to recount the story of this perfect run in your head as it unfolds when you hear a shift, a muted rumble and then you’re knocked. Hard. Upside down. Or sideways, or right side up. You can’t tell any more.

What began as feather-light snow now packs your limbs with frustrating immobility. After the initial moments of fidgeting the space hardens around you and now escape under your own power is impossible.

When buried in an avalanche a victim is stuck until he is rescued. Once buried the victim soon finds himself (only 4 percent of avalanche fatalities are female) ensconced by an icy shell created by his breath and the heat of his body. At that point the victim has only the air left in that space to survive on.

Statistics indicate that those not rescued in the first 30 minutes have a very high chance of running out of air and suffocating. When buried under 6 feet or more the chances of survival drop near zero.

“There are a lot of people whose skiing and boarding abilities outweigh their avalanche safety knowledge,” said Alpine Meadows avalanche forecaster Gary Murphy. “Without an avalanche safety class it’s like diving out of an airplane without a parachute.”

Murphy recommends avalanche education for anyone venturing to the backcountry or even those pushing the outer bounds of resort exploration.

Anyone can make use of the same educational resources used by the patrolmen at resorts.

A great source for self-education is “The Avalanche Handbook” by David McClury and Peter Schaerer. The book covers everything from basic knowledge to advanced scientific studies. Also “Snowsense” by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler, who run the Alaska mountain avalanche center, is a guide to evaluating snow and avalanche hazard.

For a more classroom-oriented approach the Alpine Skills International facilities at Donner Summit ((530) 426-9108) offers courses on avalanche safety for all levels of avalanche expertise. Alpine Meadows will offer avalanche safety clinics at levels one and two in February, call (530) 581-8237 for more information.

The U.S. Forest Service puts out a backcountry avalanche forecast available at (530) 587-2158 and the same information can be accessed through http://www.avalanche.org.

Avalanche survival tips

Ski with a partner: You can’t rescue yourself from an avalanche. Partners should take care to avoid being in the same slide path at the same time. Experts recommend taking turns by skiing from safe point to safe point on the slope. High ridges and tree areas pose lower threats than traversing across the middle of a slide path or into a gully. Take the long way if necessary around high danger areas rather than increase risk.

Have the right equipment: “You should have a transceiver and have it on transmit. That’s the best way you’ll get found if you’re buried,” said Curtis Crooks, assistant ski patrol director and assistant director of avalanche control at Squaw Valley. Both partners should have transceivers, as they work in tandem, and each person should carry a shovel to dig through the tightly-packed avalanche debris. These are bare minimum requirements.

Be aware of danger: Certain factors indicate a higher risk of avalanche danger. Storm and wind conditions change the danger every minute by both adding to the snowpack and by transporting some of the existing snowpack. Most avalanches occur on slopes of 30-45 degrees, so especially during windy conditions these pitches should be avoided in the backcountry. Observing the occurrence of other fractures on similar aspect slopes is a warning that conditions may promote slides. Murphy also warns that “whumphing noises under the skis, hollow sounds under the snow and shooting cracks in the snowpack in front of you are signs of instability.”

Know survival techniques: If caught in the path of an avalanche while skiing or riding don’t panic. Stay on your feet and angle out of the slide path. If escape has failed, hold on to tree or bush and try to let the slide pass. If you can, kick off your skis and use a swimming motion to keep yourself at the top of the debris pile, which can be especially deep if the slide enters a narrow gully. If you are trapped in the debris you should cup one hand over your mouth to create breathing space in the snowpack and hold the other arm up in case it can be seen from the surface. It is important to hollow out as much space around your head as possible in the initial moments after being buried to increase airspace to breathe.

Obey closures: Ski Patrol works hard at all the local resorts to insure the safety of guests. If a rope or closure sign has been put up it is for a good reason. Going past these barriers increases danger and also may include the risk of being hit by an avalanche explosive if patrolmen have closed the area to bomb it.


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