Avalanches are huge snow slides, they are extremely destructive to everything in their path.
Avalanches come in two main types: The potentially survivable kind and the very lethal kind. The potentially survivable kind are often triggered by skiers/snowboarders but most commonly snow-mobilers. The very lethal kind such as the Galtur disaster are almost impossible to survive. Both types of avalanche are cause by similar conditions. An unstable snow pack and a layer of snow that is liable to slide off.
If you are in an environment where Avalanches are likely to occur then there is no better subsitute than an expert guide. They will know if and when you should ski or snow mobile. The avalanche warning system in Europe and North America should be displayed at all resorts. This is the first information that should be consulted before going on the mountain.
Avalanches are determined by: angle of slope, snow conditions, weather.
The best way to survive one is to not be involved in one at all.
Preparing for an Avalanche
Zoning laws generally prevent housing being built in avalanche areas, where it is allowed there are certain safety requirements and building standards. The general danger is for the recreational user. Should one be in avalanche terrain every member of the group should have:
- An avalanche transceiver.
- Avalanche probes.
- An avalanche shovel.
Optional and highly recommended equipment include:
- Avalung - a system designed to help an avalanche victim breathe whilst awaiting rescue.
- Backpack with "Avalanche Wings" - canister that deploys inflated wings to keep the person above the avalanche.
- Powder ribbons
Combined with this all members should understand how their equipment works and have taken an avalanche safety course.
Biggest part in preparation requires checking with the ski patrol and weather guides. The ski patrol know more than you and will be happy to give advice. They would rather tell you off than be digging your corpse up.
- 112 from any mobile phone in Europe gives you the emergency services.
- Swiss Air Rescue can be called direct on 1414 (REGA).
Anyone serious will have the ski patrol's number on their phone. This can often be found on maps or lift passes.
Surviving the Avalanche
If you are caught in an avalanche try to stay calm. Try to keep sight of the sky and keep yourself upright. Attempt to swim and stay close to the surface. If you have your avalung already in your mouth, bite down on it and keep it there. If you have you avalanche wings, pull the strap and inflate the wings. Keep moving as you feel the avalanche coming to a slow, you want room to move. Try to work out which way is up but don't dig down. Don't panic and don't take big breaths, you only have a limited supply of oxygen.
Chances are your friends are already using their transceivers to find you and get you out. Stay calm.
If you see the avalanche , try to get out of its way, ski to the side. Don't try to outrun the avalanche unless you are directly caught in it. Keep looking for the person in the avalanche. Pointing and shouting to help draw attention. As soon as the avalanche slows, ski carefully to the last place you saw your friend.
The avalanche has stopped and you are near your friend. You have 15 minutes to find them, after this the survival rate drops dramatically. Turn your transceiver from transmit to track/find and listen for the beeps. Make sure ALL people in the group not in the avalanche do this otherwise it will be confusing. As soon as you are above the area, make a line and use your probes to find the person. Once found it is time to start digging. If there are multiple victims other should try to locate them first before digging.
Digging is important, digging straight down is often not the quickest way to find the avalanche victim. You should dig into the slope. Dig until you find them. Then extract them and administer first aid.
At any time during the avalanche ski patrol should be called. Location is very important and how many people are involved. They should contact air rescue, (REGA in Switzerland).