Surviving an avalanche depends on a combination of situational awareness, equipment, and luck. But we want to take as much of the luck element out of it as possible and increase our chances of survival through the other two factors.
Situational awareness means being aware of the situation (simple, huh?). When you’re in mountainous snow country, it’s important to understand what causes an avalanche, and avoid those conditions. A snowy day in Kansas won’t produce a slide, no matter what conditions exist. But on a steep slope, gravity is always trying to pull the snow downslope, and if you’re in the way when a cornice breaks or a slab of snow slides loose, you’re in trouble.
If you’re caught in an avalanche, the key to survival is to stay on top of the snow. You might get tumbled and tossed on the way to the bottom of the canyon, but you don’t want to end up buried when the snow stops sliding. It’s something like fighting your way to the surface if you were tossed out of the raft on a whitewater trip, and were carried along by the violent current. That’s the same principle for surviving an avalanche.
The biggest threat for avalanche victims is being beneath the surface when the slide stops. Suddenly the snow sets up hard like concrete and you can’t move anything that’s below the surface. And you can’t breathe very long. Suffocation is a real threat. If someone doesn’t locate you almost immediately, you’ll probably die within 15 or 20 minutes. Most victims die because they can’t be located and rescued in time.
One technique for survival is to attempt to “swim” on the sliding snow, to keep yourself on the surface so you can either self-extricate or be spotted and rescued by others. Staying on the surface also allows the trapped individual to be able to breathe.
Swimming is still a good technique, but new developments in technology now raise the survival rate dramatically by employing an old concept — an inflatable avalanche life vest. In fact, just this past weekend, a deadly avalanche in Washington State caught four backcountry skiers and swept them down a chute. Three of the four died, but the one survivor (ESPN Freeskiing editor Megan Michelson) deployed the airbag from her backpack, and she credited that device (and her decision to use it) with saving her life.
With the ABS® TwinBag system (www.abs-airbag.de.us), you have a flotation volume of 170 liters by simply pulling the activation handle. Using this device, the chances of remaining on the surface are considerably increased during the critical phase when the avalanche comes to a stop. In 97% of avalanches in which ABS® TwinBag systems were activated, the airbag was visible on the surface when the avalanche came to a stop, allowing the individual to immediately take self-rescue measures or be rescued by a friend.
Getting out alive sometimes requires a combination of good technique and good equipment. This advance in avalanche survival is something all backcountry skiers and snowboarders or snowshoers should consider carrying.