How to survive if you get caught in an avalanche

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

“I remember feeling panicked, but also incredibly helpless,” recalled Matt Clevenger, a skier who got buried 6 feet beneath an avalanche in December 2008 at Utah’s Little Water Peak. “There was nothing I could do.”

He knew he didn’t have much time before he asphyxiated as he lay encased within the heavy snow, he shared in an interview with the Utah Avalanche Center. Fortunately, Clevenger was able to be saved by his friends.

Not all avalanche accidents end in successful rescues. They kill more than 150 people worldwide annually, and after an hour, only one in three victims buried is found alive, according to

Most avalanche victims die from being buried beneath the snow and suffocating, sustaining a serious injury while being tossed around during the traumatic event or hypothermia – freezing to death in a coffin of concretelike snow.

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(Photo/Lysogor/Getty Image)

“I’m constantly surprised at how large of avalanches that people can get caught in and survive and how small of avalanches can kill people,” said Dr. Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

“It’s not that you can’t survive them; it’s that once you get caught in one, you’re along for the ride and you’re not sure where you’re going to end up,” Greene told AccuWeather.

Many survivors describe the terrifying experience as similar to getting hit by a truck, being tumbled inside of a washing machine and then not being able to move at all once the snow settles, said Paige Pagnucco, avalanche education and outreach specialist with the Utah Avalanche Center.

“All of a sudden, you realize you can’t help yourself out of this situation, and you were just out for a fun ski or snowmobile ride,” she said.

If a person is buried beneath the thick snow of an avalanche, it’s extremely difficult to dig oneself out.

“You’re going to need someone to help you,” Greene said. “Even if your head is out and your arms are not, you’re pretty much stuck there until someone comes and rescues you.”

If caught in an avalanche, there are steps a person can take to increase their odds of survival.

Have the right gear before you go

Experts recommend always carrying an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe with you, at minimum.

If you keep your transceiver on and set to “send” or “transmit” mode, it emits a signal that the rest of your group can use to locate you if you end up buried beneath snow.

Avalanche airbags can also help save you, Pagnucco said. “You can deploy it and it blows up into this big giant pillow that can help you float to the surface.”

Pagnucco noted that taking a class and getting trained to use the gear in advance is essential. “It’s not something that you can learn on the spot when an avalanche happens; it’s too stressful,” she said.

Online resources like Know Before You Go, which is a free avalanche awareness program, offer tools that can help better prepare those heading out into avalanche terrain.

Fight to stay on top

“The first thing is to get out of the avalanche,” Greene said. “If you're on a slope that fractures and it starts to slide and you can out of the way, you have less chance of taking the ride and getting injured.”

If you’re unable to escape and get buried, experts advise doing everything within your power to stay on top of the snow. Try swimming to stay on top of the debris as it moves, because once the snow stops, it reconsolidates and becomes similar to concrete.

“There’s a lot of debate about what to do, but in general, fight like hell, stay on top and continue to fight to stay on top until the debris stops,” Greene said.

Make sure you can breathe

People buried beneath avalanches often can’t expand their chests to breathe as snow packs into their ears, nose, mouth and eyes, according to Greene.

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“If they can breathe, they’re quickly inhaling the carbon dioxide that they’re exhaling, and that’s what kills them,” he said.

You‘ll have a much better chance of surviving long enough for someone to dig you out if you’re able to create an air pocket and your airway is not blocked with snow, Greene said.

Pagnucco suggested clearing snow from your face and putting your face into your inner arm by holding onto a backpack strap with the opposite hand.

Do your best to reach the surface

“Try to get a hand to the surface so that maybe you can punch through and someone can see your hand, depending on how deeply you’re buried,” Pagnucco said.

Stay calm

Calming yourself down the best that you can is also advised if you find yourself buried.

“Try to breathe slowly as you wait for your partners to rescue you,” Pagnucco said. “Hopefully, you’ve gone out with people that have gear, have taken classes and understand how to perform a successful rescue.”

(Avalanche survivor Matt Clevenger details his harrowing experience. © by Utah Avalanche Center. All rights reserved.)

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