Three Myths of Avlanche Survival, #2 – The Warm and Fuzzy Burial

Post by blogger | February 6, 2008      

Today, on WildSnow Myth Busters:

Avy Myth #2, If I’m buried in an avalanche, I’ll just snuggle in my nice little snow hole till my friends dig me out.

In my experience, quite a few backcountry skiers don’t understand the ferocity of snow avalanches. Sure, most probably read the accounts of popping bones and exploded internal organs. But in many cases those stories don’t seem to have much effect on the common view that once buried you’ll just puff on your Avalung till your friends tickle you with their probe poles.

So where does Myth # 2 come from? Denial and wishful thinking are certainly part of it. But a specious undercurrent in the whole skiing ethos supports the story.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
The myth is an old one, this photo from 1946. When doing web research, I found there is still a lively market for “barrel collars.” Something for your husband during your next hut trip?

Public service and industry advertising contribute. How many times have you heard the mantra “bring shovel, beacon and probe” as if those three talismans will insure your survival? Page through a magazine, and you’ll see ads for shovels and beacons that imply such gear has a remarkable effect on your personal safety. Reality is they’re just backup systems with a high failure rate.

And what’s going on with avalanche education? Formal training has gotten better over the years, with less emphasis on beacon drills and more on judgment and “human factor.” But when we do informal avalanche safety training we still focus too much on beacon drills, when we should address issues such as shoveling, judgment and acceptable risk. As an example of the worst in avalanche education, consider what’s going on with avalanche rescue dogs.

What they call “avalanche dogs” are really nothing more than cadaver finders — if they’re actually trained to be much more than an excuse for a ski patrol pet. Nonetheless, the constant bombardment of PR these dogs create is something to behold. You know, the cute photos of them riding the lifts or romping at the patrol shack. It all seems to imply that you can get buried and lie there waiting for your furry friend. All they need is the barrel of brandy dangling from the dog’s neck to make the fantasy complete.

Avy dog demos fuel the mythological fire. I was watching one just the other day. They’d have a kid climb into a snow hole, then cuddly fido would bound up to the opening and nuzzle his way in for some face time. There they were, educating children in a lie, training them that being buried in an avalanche is a snuggle in a snow cave with a pet ready to come lick your face. I call BS on that whole deal, and submit that anyone doing this sort of thing is doing a disservice to avalanche safety education.

(Note: S&R dogs provide a useful function and every ski patrol should have one or two — it’s how they’re used for education and PR that I’ve got a gripe with.)

The benign avalanche burial myth also comes from the fact that the dead tell no tales. In the general ethos of backcountry skiing, our knowledge of what an avalanche ride is like comes from the percentage who survive. They tell stories of outrunning a slide, or how scary it was to be buried but how nice it was to be dug up. The morbid side is there, but in the end it’s the survivor stories that tend to define our point of view. Thus, we don’t see avalanches the way we view the business end of a gun — though we frequently need that more brutal point of view.

Comments? Should we show kids movies of real avalanche brutality, or let them cuddle with ski patrol pets? Are we looking at snow slides as brutal life-changing events, or something less?



29 Responses to “Three Myths of Avlanche Survival, #2 – The Warm and Fuzzy Burial”

  1. Randonnee February 6th, 2008 11:21 am

    Great point about the need to clearly illustrate the real “avalanche brutality.” Like much of reality, such facts are ignored or presented in the self-serving disingenuous manner of the ski business.

    I worked at a ski area whose Management in the early 80’s would not allow Patrol to close a run because of the negative message when Size 3 avalanches were hitting the piste. A few years later, 6 piste skier customers were caught and carried, injured, and the ski area just got out the checkbook to pay the injured skiers. It is unfortunate indeed that such incidents are required to force some ski area management nimrods to face up to the reality of avalanching. (In balance, I also dealt with the other side of the issue on occasion, with subordinates unwilling to put in the slogging avy control work which I also performed and make the call to open for skiing when it could be done reasonably and safely with some effort.)

    Now about my beloved black lab rescue dogs… In practice with a Pro Patrol on practice probelines with dummies and humans buried it was absolutely evident that the only reasonable timely rescue available for a complete burial was a dog. Admittedly, that rescue matters only within the percentages of intact and live buried bodies after avalanche burials. However, that percentage justifies having a good dog available.

    In reality my ABS, when inflated during avalanche entrainment, is about the best bet for help. I do have all of the other stuff- transceiver, Avalung, helmet, dog, but except for the ABS the effectiveness and end result is indeed in doubt.

    Some online Forum postings have lengthy debates about shovels, probe use, beacons, and features. Some ski tourers have told me that they prefer larger groups to facilitate shoveling during a burial rescue…!!! What a lot of folly. The question begins and ends with the concept that becoming entrained in an avalanche is unacceptable and is not survivable.

    Lou, you are approaching the topic in a manner that I applaud. I have mused about putting together a scholarly study including behavioral theory and social dynamics along these lines, but feel it likely to not be accepted because it would be seen as uncool in much of the avalanche “community”.

    I must get out now into some nice powder, and hopefully I will heed my own nagging and return always safely to my family.

  2. Greydon Clark February 6th, 2008 11:49 am

    Lou, you are on a roll this week. But do we really need to worry about the children? Seems that 20 to 30-something males with college educations are the ones that need a reality check.

  3. Clyde February 6th, 2008 11:49 am

    Don’t think you can call that one a myth Lou. At least in Utah, 85.7% of deaths are from asphyxiation. In areas with Inter-continental snowpack, such as here in Colorado, trauma may be a bigger factor but I haven’t seen any data.

  4. Shane February 6th, 2008 11:53 am

    A friend of mine attended a meeting of some sort with our local S&R team. They showed pictures of a body recovery from a slide near Big Sky last season (Titanic Chute).

    The local news and the avy report said the victim went over a cliff and didn’t survive but didn’t give any other details. My friend described the pictures as the most bloody thing he’d ever seen. The victim wasn’t shown in the pictures but apparently there wasn’t a white speck of snow anywhere, just blood.

    I understand the many reasons why such pictures aren’t circulated but maybe that’s what needs to happen during the closing credits of every TGR flick.

  5. Fresh Tracks February 6th, 2008 12:10 pm

    You know, if they show pictures of car accident victims in drivers ed classes, maybe they should show photos of avalanche trauma victims in avalanche education classes. Judgement is the number one thing that should be emphasized, and its the one thing that many, if not most, slide victims didn’t use.

  6. Peter February 6th, 2008 1:23 pm

    I think there are too many people that do live in a “false reality.” The true reality of an avalanche is, “I would rather NOT be in one. And I don’t know anyone that does.” Lou, you also said it right, “Reality is they’re just backup systems (beacons, shovels, and probes) with a high failure rate.” One of the first avy deaths this year, the poor guy had a beacon. As fair as the education, I think any sort of education is good. They do need to educate both sides of spectrum. How about showing an example where the dog fails to find the victim? Everyone needs to realize that just because you are taking every precaution to be safe, doesn’t mean you are always safe. Mother nature has her way of showing us that often. Education should focus on making the right decision; asking yourself, “Do I want to risk my life and possibly die, or would I rather see my family at the end of the day and possibly come back tomorrow and ski again?”

  7. gonzoskijohnny February 6th, 2008 12:39 pm

    Your latests blogs are spot on (btw-your’e doing a great job- lets see another 1000+)!

    30 years ago I was in a big slide (middle teton glacier)-1000+ feet – lots of cartwheeling, choking, etc. Pooped my pants. Lucky for me it was a soft snow slide, and shallow enough burial so that when making an air pocket, I stuck an arm up into blue ski and cool air. There was nothing in the path to run into, just a great big snowfield that gently flattened out. I was just dumb lucky! It took 15 minutes to dig my legs and pack out of the frozen snow. It was scarry enough that I stayed away from ANY steep slopes in the BC for 10 years. If i wanted steep, I just went to resorts. If I wanted to enjoy a day in the BC, I stayed on low angle glades in the forrest (of course the floppy leather shoe-boots and 50 mm skiis of the day made that plenty entertaining).

    Time heals all and fades the memory, but in my advancing age I have learned how to dig pits, criticallly look at layers, keep eyes open for tell-tale instability signs, read CAIC reports and try to act conservatively.

    But recent blogs really make me re-assess my activity: What would I do at decision time if I didn’t have a beacon? Why do I solo ski BC (always with a beacon- in case I run into others) and act more conservative than if with well equiped experienced friends? Just how much saftey is there in numbers and modern equipment? Is a 50-70% accident survial rate acceptable?

    I think the question that should come to mind on do we ski it is:
    Is there more than a 1:5000 chance that I may have to be one to call my friends’ family after the accident?

    All the avy puppies and fancy electronic beacons in the world still don’t make pushing the limit until you go over it (and then have a 50-70% survival rate) worthwhile. We should keep our brains engaged and eyes open, and dilute the testerone factor while touring!
    And maybe I’ll start shopping for an ABS pack too.

  8. DH February 6th, 2008 1:40 pm

    Your critique of how we view avy gear as a surefire way to survive an avalanche (instead of a lousy backup) is spot on. Unfortunately I believe this is getting worse and worse. These last two seasons at Mt. Baker Ski Area there have been a few days where the avy danger has been high inbounds, and patrol made it mandatory to ride one of the chairs only if you had a beacon, shovel, and a partner (Baker doesn’t believe in probes). This was great for those who had gear, (really really great) however it sent a terrible message to those who were uneducated. The next week while working at a gear store, I had customers coming in to buy shovels and trancievers “just so my daughter can ride the lifts.” People now view this essential avy gear as just a lift ticket, something I need to get on the lift, and the knowledge to use it is pointless. Am I the only one who thinks this policy is sending the wrong message too? Ridiculous.

  9. Thomas February 6th, 2008 1:41 pm

    Bloody pictures, blue faces, terror pictures for avalanche education.
    Screaming babies, no money in wallet for birth control education.
    Painful joints, no erections, hard time breathing for obesity education.
    The list goes on…you are right in the avalanche realm but my point is it is true for all other sectors too, in the US we are often sold a fantasy ,if you ever get to see for example the british advertising awards the public service messages are downright sobering and brutally honest. This of course makes it harder to sell products….so don’t look to the ski industry to promote reality or any profit generating entity. Avalanches are brutal and powerful . This only truly hit home watching a 40 feet deep pile of debris grind to a halt realizing that had my friend not been spat out as it solidified, that even if I located him immediately the odds of me actually digging to reach him before brian damage or death were very slim, athletic prowess and digging techniques were paltry compared to the power of snow and buried surface hoar.
    Reality is the best teacher and it should be used , however offensive.

  10. gonzoskijohnny February 6th, 2008 12:55 pm

    my previous comment said, A friend was involved in a small slide, and his dog chased into the debris and dug him out (very shallow burial) in just a couple of minutes. The other side of the story is the ski-dog avy tradegy at loveland pass this year.
    – speaking of overly fancy electronic gadgets that fail and need to be thrown out every 2 years-my 1977 pieps 1, with earphone, still works. Unfortunatly, now on the wrong frequency. I guess if they don’t fail, you have to invent a different way to sell more.
    – and just where do I find such a fair maiden to assist me with my ski adventures, as your fine 1946 photo illustrates?

  11. Skiing the Backcountry February 6th, 2008 2:06 pm

    Right on, Lou. These things need to be said, you are nailing it.

  12. Neil February 6th, 2008 2:14 pm

    Snap Corey. Spend the time to watch A Dozen More Turns (directed by Amber Seyler). Should help dispel any myths.

  13. cory February 6th, 2008 2:05 pm

    2 things-
    First, you should post the photo from one of your books (I can’t remember which) where you’re in the hospital holding the cath tube after the highlands slide (maybe even include the info…how deep you were buried, gear, dig out time, etc.
    Second, a dozen more turns is a fun little flick to check out:

  14. Chase Harrison February 6th, 2008 3:07 pm

    First of all TGR needs to be more responsible when ending there movies
    and tell the public about avalanche safety and how there skiers a supposedlly professionals and they risk getting killed. Second of all
    in my opinoin the way not to die in a slide is to minimise exposer to
    avy terrain. Ski in the spring, late April thru June. This year we will
    have one of the best spring corn seasons in resent memory.
    The skiing inbounds is epic. Why risk it.

  15. Barry February 6th, 2008 3:40 pm

    As a SAR member I can say that avy dogs are great. Finding a body is grim, hard work. Dogs can sometimes make this much easier. They do have limitations though. I also think we should refer to them as avalanche recovery dogs.
    All training should include digging and probing. Most people are enlightened by how long it takes to get their shovel and probe out of the pack and ready for action.
    Every avalanche safety course should include a couple of clips from the few survivors. Every one that I have talked to has been significantly changed by the experience.

  16. Nick DiGiacomo February 6th, 2008 6:41 pm

    Some more gruesome accident photos might help the few who actually take avalanche education courses, but it hard to compete with the “if you’re not dying you’re not trying” ethos that gear and media companies push. Want some evidence? It’s not an avalanche fatality per se, but consider the comments of Peter Metcalf (CEO of Black Diamond) after the recent death of Billy Poole at a Warren Miller shoot near Solitude: “In this sport,” the executive (Metcalf) said, “death is part of life.” Nice.

    Metcalf’s quote was taken from this article:

  17. Lou February 6th, 2008 8:46 pm

    Nick, the Dozen More Turns vid has some pretty harsh stuff. I just added a link to my Recommended Links in the right sidebar, titled “THE Avalanche Video.”

    As for Metcalf, that “death is part of life” platitude is indeed weak. Talk about stating the obvious. But to give Peter his due, it must be tough and sometimes a bit strange to be using modern day gladiators as a marketing tool. Seriously, I’d definitely be at a loss for words if it was me in that position. And I’m not saying it’s all wrong, as alpinism is a dangerous game in any form, and companies need to market their products and thus will have this sort of thing happen. But it’s still got to be difficult when something like the Poole accident happens. And one of course needs to question the balance of risk/reward/sponsorship etc. as I’m sure Metcalf is always doing, as he’s a smart and caring guy.

  18. Chase Harrison February 6th, 2008 9:55 pm

    I just got finished watching a dozen more turns. Talk about a dose
    of reality. This film should be shown at every avy course thats given.
    If that dosen’t want to make you wait untill spring to ski safe snow,
    I don’t know what will.
    Lou, I hope people really take this vid to heart.

  19. Mike Endres February 6th, 2008 8:57 pm

    Thinning the herd Lou, just thinning the herd; an underused and often underappreciated mangement technique in the case of some…..:-)

  20. Brittany February 6th, 2008 10:12 pm

    I like your recent blog posts Lou!

    I think you’re so right about the myths. Both myths you have written about remind me of something I’ve seen recently: the Avalung problem. Similar to Nordhaus’ point about the beacon, I see people with Avalung’s treat it as some sort of magic protection- popping the hose into their mouths and thinking it’s alright to ski a certain slope which they would not otherwise ski. But, hey, it’s alright. The Avalung will save them! They of course will not be impacted by any trauma, and of course the hose will stay in their mouths while they are being flung around by tons of snow. 🙂

  21. Lou February 7th, 2008 8:26 am

    Brittany, exactly!

  22. Tom Rossi February 7th, 2008 9:18 am


    This is a great piece of writing. Thank you.

    It seems to me too that the technology is an enabler of the “Extreme” mentality that pervades seemingly everything. It’s difficult to find a show about skiing/riding that isn’t about extreme Alaska, extreme heli skiing, etc. (Also really like the extreme cooking shows). It’s seductive and if you’re hormone-enabled and of a certain age, you think that can be you too. Another poster said it – maybe avy classes need to include pictures of recovered avalanche victims.

    There is a balance between promoting the sport (any sport) as exciting to create the market for products and educating on an awareness of the risks. Lou Whittaker once said that no one goes to the mountains to die – that should be on everyone’s mind every time they go out.

  23. Kimmers February 7th, 2008 9:28 am

    The “A Dozen More Turns” video was circulated throughout my backcountry skiing clan a couple of weeks ago. And I wouldn’t necessarily call it a “fun little flick”, I’ll assume sarcasm was intended, but definitely a must see for everyone travelling in the backcountry. I don’t think they stress enough in the Avy courses the amount of trauma you might sustain if you actually survive a slide. I don’t want to just dig out my friend, I want to be able to treat his/her injuries and get them back down safely. Which brings up a question – what type of first aid equipment do people usually bring for an all day ski tour? For the average backcountry recreationalist what sort of first aid education would you suggest?

  24. Lou February 7th, 2008 10:01 am

    Corby, I edited out the personal attack in your comment. Head over to TGR for that type of stuff. Lou

  25. Doug February 7th, 2008 10:25 am

    I can see Corby being a statistic before long. Hopefully luck prevails and he is able to live long enough to realize what a tool he was in 2008. I know Amber personally and rest assured she is not trying to sell 10 burgers. In fact she has sold most of her prized recreational equipment so that she can pay the rent. She has worked hard at MSU trying to finish her graduate degree, which this film is a small part to fulfill those requirements. Congrats Amber on a powerful and educational film. These latest discussions have been great. One of the most educational comments for me…”would I ski this slope without my beacon?” Thanks

  26. corby February 7th, 2008 9:29 am

    I happen to live in close proximity to the premier ski areas in the united states (power of four,baby.) To enjoy the resorts in my NATIVE hometown, you have to pay lavish amounts of money for parking($10), lunch($20),beers($6 a pop),etc…This doesn’t even begin to mention the on piste b. s. such as closed areas (always the best skiing on the hill), mass bombings (or should I say ‘snowmass bombings’) of avalanche terrain that leave a once deep powder field now closer in resemblance to a parking lot, slow signs (complete with angry cheerleaders manning the signs-and screaming the mantra-SLOW DOWN- at anyone having a little fun), etc…
    If you want to survive , just stick to slopes steeper than 50-55 degrees in the bc or ob.
    I think a dozen more turns was made by someone that is trying to sell $10 hamburgers to people at on mountain restaurants. I think I will pack my own.

  27. Bdc February 7th, 2008 10:38 am

    Wow. Corby, where do I begin? Should I even begin? Ski resorts are in the BUSINESS OF MAKING MONEY – SOME ARE RESPONSIBLE TO SHAREHOLDERS. People getting caught in avalanches, at resorts IS NOT GOOD BUSINESS. Slow skiing zones are there for new skiers and kids so they can learn the sport and hopefully get down the mountain safely – and come back again another day. What are you doing on 20 degree slopes anyway? You are right about skiing steep slopes in order to stay safer from avalanches, they do slide less but the average ski tourer isn’t skiing slopes that steep so how about offering some constructive advice? Your last point, lets just say this, if I truly wanted to express myself, the moderators of this site would never post my reply. What a complete lack of class, lack of understanding, and lack of respect. I am sure Blake’s family and friends would agree.

    Mike Casagrande
    Pemberton, B.C.

  28. brian harder February 7th, 2008 3:41 pm

    Wow, Lou, there was a personal attack from that chode, Corby? Unbelievable! It was nice to read all the positive feedback from these posts. I was enjoying the lack of negative feedback until I got to the end. I’m sure it’s bad juju to wish the obvious for this lost soul so I will speak of it no further but the rest out there in cyberspace know of which I speak. I would be embarrassed to call him my ski partner. Perhaps he travels alone.

    Keep it up Lou.

  29. Powderdave February 7th, 2008 8:03 pm

    Lou, I think we probably agree on these issues. However, we must focus on teaching rescues. It takes hours to teach rescue techniques, but it takes years to acquire good judgment. I tell my student that if you have to rescue a companion, you have already failed once, don’t fail twice! Of course, there are risks associated with promoting devices such as the AvaLung and ABS packs, just as there were when beacons were becoming popular. It all helps. You’re right about something, we need to maintain a balance in the curriculum and tell the whole story.

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