Ever wondered what you should do if you were caught in an Avalanche? In light of recent weather conditions and heavy snowfall across the globe, Swick thought they would investigate whether there is anything that you can do to either prepare yourself for this unexpected situation or help yourself if you are caught in the middle of an Avalanche.

Avalanche

What is an Avalanche?

An avalanche is a fast flow of snow down a mountain, which usually occurs when a snowpack becomes unstable and breaks away to start sliding down, which can be very dangerous for anything caught in its path. Many factors cause avalanches, but they are mainly due to weather conditions, although smaller ones can be caused by skiers themselves.

There are 3 fundamental parts of an avalanche -the starting zone, the track and the end or runout zone. The starting zone is where unstable snow peels off from more stable cover snow and this beings to slide. This is the most dangerous part of the slope, where the snow is at its most volatile. The starting zone is usually found higher up the mountain but it can be found at any point where the snow becomes unstable.

The track is essentially where this snow runs its course and carves its path. You can sometimes notice where a previous avalanche has been by the fact that there may be a clearing in between many trees.

The end or runout zone is where the avalanche finishes. You can usually see large piles of snow and other debris here.

An avalanche happens only if the right factors are in place. These are also warning or tell tale signs to look out for and be careful of. Firstly, you have to wonder -is the terrain steep enough. It might seem like common sense, but the terrain has to the steep enough for the snow to slide. Secondly, you have to have an unstable snow pack. You can look out for this by trying to find collapsing snow or certain cracks. Thirdly, do not underestimate the effect weather will have. An avalanche can be the product of a huge storm packing snow into a certain area where it waits to be unleashed, or perhaps can be the fault of sunshine melting a certain section of the snow and weakening it.

What is it like being in an Avalanche?

Being in an avalanche has been described as being in a very cold washing machine, that keeps you spinning round and round until you lose your sense of direction. An avalanche does not care what it sweeps up with you, and you may suffer trauma whilst sliding down in amongst all the snow and debris. Right at the end, you will feel the snow slowing down but then you must brace yourself as this is where the snow packs up around you and it can be very hard to get yourself out. Being in the snow at this point has been described as being encased in concrete, as the snow is heavy, all around and bears down on you.

Is it possible to survive an Avalanche?

It is possible to survive an avalanche, yes. This depends on so many factors however – the ferocity of it, how prepared you are, how many people are with you and how quickly you are found, among many other things. Statistically however it is claimed that your chances of survival are around the 93% mark if found within the first 15 minutes of being buried. This shows how important it is that you are fully equipped with tracking equipment and have many other people in your group that might be able to help if they do not get trapped with you. The odds decrease drastically after 45 minutes, where you are said to only have about a 20% chance of survival.

You can die for many reasons, firstly trauma may kill you on the way down. If that does not get you and you get completely buried, then you may either die of suffocation or hypothermia.

What to do to help you survive an Avalanche?

If you are going to ski in areas known for potential avalanches, then it would be a good idea to take an avalanche course. Learn how to track and find ski beacons. Learn what to do when you have found the signal and how to dig out a member of your group safely. Most importantly, learn how to avoid one.

However, even the most experienced skiers get caught out and find themselves in an avalanche. So what do you do?

1) Try to grab onto a tree or something else perhaps. Then you can let the snow ride over you and it will be easier to get yourself out of the snow. Easier said then done.
2) If you are in the thick of it, shout as loud as you can so that your friends know there is something wrong and to look out for you. If your friends have no idea that this has happened then you have little or no chance of being found.
3) Try to keep your arms and head above the snow and swim your way out. Flail your arms as much as possible and if the snow comes to a rest and your head is under, then at least try to have your hand out so it will be easier for someone to find you.
4) There are differing theories on this next step, but some say to lose all your ski equipment, as it will drag you down. Poles especially will stop you being able to swim the snow. However, skiers have been known to find those trapped by the tip of their protruding ski.
5) Once coming to a standstill, the snow will pack tightly around you. Try to create a space in front of your mouth for oxygen to build up and stay. Also be aware that your breath will melt the surrounding snow and as it refreezes it will limit the amount of oxygen that can get to you through the snow.
6) Do not fight the feeling of blacking out, as if you are passed out you will use up less oxygen.
7) As these are expensive this last one might not apply to all – but inflate your airbag so that it can help you float on top of the running snow and be found more easily.

As mentioned previously, the best way to survive is to not get yourself into the situation in the first place, but hopefully this article will help if you do!

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