Avalanches are normally not in the forefront of a skier’s mind. Unfortunately, if you’re not prepared for one it can be devastating.
From the 1950-51 winter seasons to the 2015-16 winter seasons, 275 people have died in avalanches just in the State of Colorado according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Though Colorado is the undisputed leader in avalanche deaths it’s certainly not alone as the same site reports Alaska comes in second with 50 and even Arizona has 1 in the same time period.
On average, 27 people die due to avalanches every winter over the last ten years in the U.S. There’s no way to count how many people are buried and survive because not every instance is reported, but due to more and more snow enthusiasts playing in the mountains, that number is sure to rise.
Education is Key
“The best way to survive an avalanche is to not be in one," a sentiment that not only makes sense but is mentioned by Jeff Lane, a Snow Ranger at the Mount Washington Avalanche Center in New Hampshire during an interview on Avalanche safety at NationalGeograhic.com. Whether you’re skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, or just trekking on snowshoes, learning avalanche safety is your first step to avoidance. There are many organizations such as, Back Country Access (BCA) which offer classes on Avalanche avoidance, rescue and research, and which also has handouts available on Searching, Probing and Shoveling 101 among other titles.
Do Your Homework
There are many outlets that provide info on avalanche forecasts and conditions. Go to Avalanche.org, a site sponsored by the American Avalanche Association (AAA) and Back Country Access (BCA), to get an idea of conditions where you’re headed. This site also offers tutorials and a whole wealth of information on avoidance and survival techniques as well as links to every state’s avalanche centers. Knowing where to go along with when to go is crucial to enjoying the back country safely. One rule of thumb is to avoid known avalanche terrain if the area has received a foot or more of new snow in the last 24 hours.
Get the Gear
Beacons, probes, shovels, and helmets are essential and as the old commercial says, “Don’t leave home without them." Airbags have become so popular as to be ubiquitous these days. They tend to cause you to rise above the slide if overtaken and when positioned behind your head will provide additional protection from head trauma.
While an airbag is designed to keep you above the slide, an Avalung is to help you survive if you’re buried. They’re designed to keep you alive by enabling you to breath in all the surrounding air space around you which is advantageous as asphyxiation is the number one killer in avalanche burials.
Airbags can be very expensive, usually starting around $500 and up but mainly listed at over $1000, while a basic Avalung can be found for about $100 and up. Once again, an airbag will keep you up top, and an Avalung will help you survive if you’re buried.
It’s Not Just What You Know, but Where You Go
While having the education and the tools to survive a slide greatly increase your odds, there are other intangibles to consider. One of the biggest is geography. If you’re skiing above cliffs, you could be swept over them. If near or above tress or large boulders you could be swept into them as well. Stay aware, not just of what you’re skiing on but, of what is above and below you at any time in the backcountry.