How to stay safe when venturing into avalanche terrain
By Kevin Byrne, AccuWeather staff writer
There are several key safety tips that skiers and snowboarders should understand before they embark into terrain prone to avalanches.
Trent Meisenheimer, an avalanche forecaster and education and awareness specialist for the Utah Avalanche Center, said almost all avalanches are induced by human activity.
“Most of the time a snowpack needs a trigger, something to trigger the avalanche and usually that’s a human,” Meisenheimer said.
Despite the inherent danger, many recreationists will continue to flock to the backcountry to take advantage of vast areas of untouched powder, according to Meisenheimer. Still, he cautioned that there are a number of preparedness strategies and safety measures people should take to safely navigate through avalanche terrain.
Have the proper gear and monitor current conditions
According to the Jackson Hole News & Guide, in addition to being unfamiliar with the area, the victims of a 2016 avalanche near Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming did not have any avalanche gear or equipment.
For those heading out to the backcountry, the three basic minimum items to obtain would be an avalanche rescue beacon, shovel and probe, Meisenheimer said. A first aid kit and CPR training would be key as well, he added.
There are also avalanche airbag backpacks, which deploy airbags just like in a car and are crucial for keeping people near the surface of the snow. The bags are becoming increasingly popular and are said to roughly double a person's chance at surviving an avalanche.
Remaining near the surface is crucial, because 93 percent of avalanche victims can be recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. The survival rate drops to 20-30 percent after 45 minutes.
People should also always keep an eye on the current snow conditions and check the avalanche forecast to see where the highest risks for avalanches are located.
“You need to get that forecast, you need to know what the avalanche center is telling you to watch out for, what type of avalanches that you’re going to maybe find or encounter,” Meisenheimer said.
Identify the red flags and know the terrain
Snow and avalanche science can be very complicated, Meisenheimer said, but he pointed out that there are ways to monitor dangerous conditions.
Don’t go for the ride
Even if a person were to get caught in the middle of an avalanche, they still have several methods to escape danger, but they have to think fast.
“When you first trigger an avalanche, you’re only going to have a couple seconds to probably react,” Meisenheimer said. “The best thing you can possibly do is not go for the ride.”
The main technique for skiers or snowboarders is to head straight downhill to pick up speed then angle off to the side of the moving slab of snow. If a person is unable to get off the slab, swimming uphill to allow the snow to rush by, or grabbing onto a tree, are a few of the strategies that skiers or riders should try.
Most victims tend to die from carbon dioxide poisoning as a result of their carbon dioxide building up around them in the snow. To combat this, the Utah Avalanche Center recommends clearing an airspace in front of your mouth when buried.
The bottom line is that you want to keep fighting to stay toward the surface of the snow, and "go for the sunlight" Meisenheimer said.
Take an avalanche safety course
There are a number of free educational resources available online that cover a myriad of safety basics and highlight the science behind avalanches. Meisenheimer said he produced a video for Know Before You Go, a non-profit program created in 2004 to teach people how to have fun and stay safe when traveling through areas at risk for avalanches.
Local avalanche centers also regularly hold classes and tutorials which are taught by certified professionals and targeted to different levels of experience. To find the avalanche center nearest you, click here.
"You need to go learn from the [professionals] and know how they're traveling around in the mountains," Meisenheimer said.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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