What to Do If You're Caught in the Path of an Avalanche

And preventative measures you can take before heading out into snowy terrain.

Rescuer from the Mountain Rescue Service
Photo: Getty Images

It's only the beginning of March, but this year has already seen an unfortunate share of avalanches.

Cascades recently struck two California ski destinations, USA Today reported, resulting in partial burials, minor injuries, and one harrowing – but fortunately successful – effort to save a snowboarder buried in the fall.

But avalanches and snow burials do not always end so well. This past January, a 36-year-old husband and father died in an avalanche while snowmobiling in Idaho, and on Sunday, three feet of snow slid off the roof of a condo and killed a mother and her 7-year-old son.

Ski season is still in session, but with all of these tragic events occurring in such quick succession, it's worth learning what you can do if you're out on the slopes and the unthinkable happens.

Below, six things you can do to give yourself the best chance of surviving an avalanche.

1. Move to the Side

Once you see an avalanche heading your way, do not try to outrun it. The Clymb recommends immediately running perpendicular to its path to avoid getting caught up in the middle of it. In the event that the avalanche begins beneath your feet (which can happen when skiing or snowboarding), act quickly and try to jump upslope, above the fracture line.

2. Grab Something Sturdy

Boulders and trees won't help you much in a major avalanche, but they can hold out against less powerful cascades, The Clymb notes. If you find yourself in the path of one of these, try to grab onto a tree branch or sturdy rock to keep you steady and rooted to one spot.

3. Swim

To prevent getting buried under mounds of snow and debris, you'll want to stay on top of the avalanche. You can do this by utilizing all of your muscles and swimming with the current. And if you are struggling to stay afloat, Mental Floss says "violently thrashing around so you don't sink" is a good alternative survival tactic.

4. Hold One Arm Up

You should also try to reach one arm up so that, if you do get buried, you can give your rescue team a literal hand in helping find you.

5. Create Room to Breathe

Most avalanche-related fatalities are caused by asphyxiation. If you're caught in an avalanche, take your hands and cup them over your mouth while you're still moving. According to The Clymb, doing this will "create a small pocket of air for you to survive on for up to 30 minutes." The adventure travel site also suggests digging out some space around your face to get extra breathing room when the avalanche is over. "Expanding your chest by filling your lungs with air" will also achieve the same effect.

6. Stay Calm

You might understandably have the urge to panic, but it's of the utmost importance that you don't, Mental Floss notes. If you panic, your breath will quicken and you'll fill what little space you have with too much carbon dioxide, thereby shortening that 30-minute survival window. Try to breathe as steadily as you can so the rescue team has as much time as possible to come find you.

The best thing you can do to survive an avalanche, however, is to take certain precautions before you venture out into the snow. If you are a skier or snowboarder, or just happen to be visiting mountainous regions known for avalanches, stay up to date on all the latest weather news. Check not just the weather forecast, but the local Avalanche Information Center website as well.

Veteran mountain weather and avalanche forecaster Scott Toepfer also warns of blue-sky syndrome. "We may have a storm raging through the mountains in the morning, but after the storm clears out, we'll start to see some beautiful blue-sky days," Toepfer told Westword. "They'll think, 'It's an incredibly beautiful day. We've got some fresh snow. Let's go ride!' And they ignore the storm that just blew through and developed fresh avalanches that are just sitting there, waiting for a trigger."

And when you do go out into the mountains, do not forget to bring an avalanche beacon with you. These beacons work like radios: they transmit frequencies and can alert other beacon carriers to your exact location. Having a beacon could make all the difference between life and death as you wait for rescue.

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