In The Event of An Avalanche

Post by blogger | March 3, 2014      

Skiing with Black Diamond Jetforce airbag pack.

His Blogness skiing with Black Diamond Jetforce airbag pack. It's not going to help if he hits that tree, but then anything that prevents avalanche burial is a plus.

Chances of surviving an avalanche are grim so above all else we work on avoidance. We are super careful about route finding and terrain selection, and we’ve always got the basics (rescue gear, route planning, etc.).

A while back I attended an avalanche safety seminar that drilled some key points into my cranium, and helped reinforce our take. They also went into how to survive if you do get buried. Following from my notes — mid-winter safety check!

While skiing up or down, it is fundamentally important to expose as few people as possible to hazard at any given time. Preferably ONE person. Thus, smaller groups, traveling one-at-a-time when exposed to any avalanche hazard. Group size? Consensus seems to be that a trio might be the most effective number. Larger groups can function, but at some point they may need one clear leader such as a guide. Consider two-way radio communication no matter what your group size.

If you’re searching for avalanche victims:

– Make sure all rescuers’ beacons are on receive.
– Shut off beacons on victims as you find them.
– Stop and look around, up the slope and down as you follow your beacon signal.
– Scan the area, look for visual clues.
– Don’t forget the importance of probe searches – don’t dig twice.
– Practice shoveling technique. It’s just as important as using your beacon correctly.

Critical Points to Survival

If you’re caught in an avalanche, think SURFACE and AIR POCKET. Strive for the surface. Fight. But if possible when you sense the avalanche stopping and you’re buried, concentrate on getting your hands in front of your face and forcing an air pocket as you come to rest.

If you’re buried you must have an unblocked airway, or you’d better be rescued in the first few minutes and have your airway cleared. Know how this works so you know just how critical it is to somehow prevent inhaling snow or otherwise incurring a blocked airway. What happens is if you can’t breath, your heart stops soon after (acute asphyxia) — and you probably won’t make it. It’s like having a plastic bag tied over your head.

If your mouth or throat is not blocked, you might survive for up to 15 minutes and sometimes a bit more even without a large airpocket provided you can do at least a small amount of breathing — and depending on how quickly the ice mask forms around your face, which essentially smothers you. But you need a substantial airpocket or functioning Avalung to survive longer than 15-30 minutes. Food for thought: Beacon search, how many minutes? Then how long for shoveling?

For those of us who need a review: your exhalations contain a lot of CO2 carbon dioxide gas. It is poisonous. When you’re buried in an avalanche you may end up re-breathing the CO2 and it stops your breathing, then your heart. Quickly. Oxygen (normal air) is available in the snow around you when you’re buried in an avalanche. The crux is to dissipate or otherwise not re-breath the CO2.

Provided it’s not ripped out of your mouth during the avalanche, a Black Diamond Avalung may help. It allows you to inhale fresh air directly from the snowpack. Exhaled air is diverted away from your face which prevents ice mask formation and re-breathing of CO2. Fully buried test subjects maintained normal respiration for up to 90 minutes when using Avalung. That said, a common mistake in avalanche safety is to depend on equipment to save you. Read on.

Avalanche morbidity: 25% of survivors have traumatic injury. Most common injury is major orthopedic, soft tissue, craniofacial. Utah study of 28 avalanche death, 22 victims who died of asphyxiation, half had mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; 6 who died of trauma had severe traumatic brain injury.

Again, the idea is to not get caught.

With that in mind, we’re thinking Project Zero might be something we should be emphasizing in our space. An industry-wide project with the goal of ZERO avalanche fatalities, Project Zero is said to be modeled after a Swedish automobile safety initiative that reduced traffic deaths by half.

Commmenters, your take?


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


30 Responses to “In The Event of An Avalanche”

  1. Charlie Hagedorn March 3rd, 2014 11:47 am

    I’m curious about Project Zero’s goal. Does “Zero” mean zero avalanche deaths or does it mean zero deaths among backcountry travellers?

    Zero is a daunting number if the goal includes the general public’s very occasional interactions with snow (inbounds slides, highway accidents, 100-year residential slides, etc.).

    Furthermore, in a sport where risk is intrinsic, to advocate for perfect risk-management is to create unreachable expectation, though the goal is noble. The only way to guarantee an avalanche-free life is to remain outside avalanche terrain.

    We can get better, but getting all humans to be a factor of 30-50 better is a challenge.

  2. Lou Dawson March 3rd, 2014 12:00 pm

    Charlie, I read up on Project Zero and it seems what they’re doing is indeed setting the high bar, with the idea that everything they do goes to achieve the “record.” I’d agree that getting there is impossible. But along the way, in my opinion they could prevent a lot of deaths. It sounds like they are truly running ahead of the old “beacon-shovel-probe” mantra and planning on some big education pushes.

    I’d especially agree with your “sport where risk is intrinsic” take. That’s where this truly differs from something like cutting traffic deaths.


  3. Lee March 3rd, 2014 12:38 pm

    I’m cautious, never ski back country if avalanche risk is above 3…but it’s tough sometimes when the powder beckons and I watch people from the porch through my telescope having fun in the high mountains despite the risk. I don’t have avalung or anything else other than beacon, shovel, probe (and brain!). I try to pick my routes based on the weather and snow pack avoiding slopes on which the recent weather might have created windslab, but I’m still aware of the risks I take – I certainly don’t feel I’m taking zero risk. There’s always a balance, zero risk often means zero fun. I head off into the remote mountains in some part for solitude…if there was zero risk I wouldn’t be alone e.g ski resorts!

  4. slcpunk March 3rd, 2014 1:10 pm

    I like everything you said, but then I wonder if posting the video “deep powder day at baker”
    sends a wrong/confusing message? Maybe the conditions were bomber/green light/safe, but that sure wasn’t one-at-a-time skiing of avalanche terrain.

  5. Kristian March 3rd, 2014 1:36 pm

    Great post.

    Most websites are very heavy on gear – geardo’s – and not so much on actual technique, skills, mentoring, and knowledge transfer.

    I am amazed to regularly see poorly equipped out in the very worst avalanche danger conditions here in Colorado. Seems to have something to do with bravado, energy drink media culture, and selfish reliance on others to risk their lives to come and rescue them.

  6. Phil M. March 3rd, 2014 1:55 pm

    SLCpunk – Louie was in the woods. If the anchors are closely spaced enough, avalanches are nearly impossible. You’ve still got to watch out, as fairly small areas can slide if the conditions are bad enough, and any slide into trees is bad news. But if it’s truly dense glade skiing like most of what I remember from that video – it’s Green Light terrain.

  7. Coop March 3rd, 2014 2:35 pm

    Slcpunk, in regards to your comment about the “not one at a time skiing”. Sometimes in those cases of deep storm skiing, especially at Baker, the highest risk is getting trapped in a tree well. The best way to mitigate that is to ski close to your partner to keep eyes on eachother. Tree wells aren’t a problem everywhere, but they are in the Pacific Northwest and can have similar results to being caught in an avalanche in regards to asphyxiation.

  8. Jane March 3rd, 2014 4:00 pm

    Good point about the tree wells. Each zone has its idiosyncrasies and unique hazards. Another good thing to keep in mind!

  9. David B March 3rd, 2014 4:02 pm

    Lisa, a handy hint passed on to me by a very experienced avalanche instructor with regard to CO2 dissipation is to grab your opposite shoulder strap on your back pack & bury your face into your arm.
    Studies have shown that the CO2 will track along your arm and away from your face. It might just buy you enough time.

  10. Lou Dawson March 3rd, 2014 4:25 pm

    As many mentors have said, “Rules are for Fools.” If you know what you’re doing in a given environment, you can figure out things on a case-by-case basis. The rules are a fail-safe double-check. A better term would be “Rules are for when you don’t know any better.”

    For example, in certain situations I’d comfortably and happily ski without a beacon and shovel. Rare, but I can think of several situations when I’d do it. Frozen corn? Perhaps. Thus, the rule doesn’t apply.

    While anyone can make mistakes, I’d trust that the situation those guys were in when Louie made that video was bomber. Of course, I’ll have to ask (grin).


  11. Lisa March 3rd, 2014 4:59 pm

    David B, grabbing the opposite shoulder strap in the violence of an avalanche would help create an air pocket too. Great tip, thanks.

  12. Charlie March 3rd, 2014 7:19 pm

    Ask Louie about tree wells too ;).

  13. Lou Dawson March 3rd, 2014 7:27 pm

    Indeed, tree wells, good reason to ski with a partner close by, and an Avalung…

  14. Matt Kinney March 3rd, 2014 7:45 pm

    Good on you lou for getting “ongoing” education even with your wealth of experience. Taking a refresher Level 2 every few years is good idea or going to a seminar or awareness class. You never what you might learn. Humbling to do this when you have the experience, which is good check on the psyche and keeps the halo at bay as we age and crave for more powder. Avy prevention is pretty basic, but every once in awhile you need to be open for some new concept.

    I once had the mythical idea and advocated for the ZERO-thing . An avalanche instructor told me to forget about it to my dismay. That was 20 years ago and nothing has really changed. Noble goal and perhaps may work better as a local goal in different regions of the country. I now agree with the guy that it just ain’t gonna happen in the US.

  15. Jim D. March 3rd, 2014 9:18 pm

    Good cause, limited as there will be solo adventures and peer pressure groups that will make mistakes. IE, loveland just this last spring. How did that happen? What was the conversation before the mountain let go. Lou, said 20 ft to the left 5 people might have survived. What happened in the wawalla mts , a guide and a client died. So what happens? Luck or knowledge? Jim

  16. Tom Murphy March 3rd, 2014 10:21 pm

    As a spokesperson for Project Zero, thanks for the mention Lisa.

    PZ is a vision to reduce avalanche fatalities. A vision implies something that cannot be accomplished with existing resource.

    We recognize there is a new generation of back country riders and what may have worked in the past for some seems to missing the mark for many today.

    We’re looking to establish a baseline for what it means to “do everything right” beyond carrying rescue gear, armed with good intentions. PZ is working toward developing a public safety campaign, supported by a vast group of motivated stakeholders – including those reading this blog – along with equipment manufacturers, entertainment media, government agencies, ski areas, forecast centers, avalanche educators and respected community members and athletes to help deliver the message.

    The trick is identifying what that message might be. In an effort to begin to determine what the message might look and sound like, and how it might best be delivered, PZ conducted 4 focus groups around North America this winter season. We’ve begun by targeting lift accessed back country riders. We’ll be compiling results this spring and we will be making the results known through outlets like Wildsnow. Our plan is to eventually focus group with all back country users.

    One thing we did ID is this group likes to learn from their peers. In an effort to accommodate that and learn more, we’ve initiated a campaign entitled “Know the Snow” – a video contest where back country riders can show what they do prior to and during their back country trips. You can check out the contest and spread the word for us here Some pretty amazing prizes are being offered.

    Currently we have funding for Phase 1 of the PZ – however there has been wide spread “vocal” support. We think “financial” support will follow.

    Should you have any questions or are interested in helping PZ along, feel free to get in touch.

    Tom Murphy

  17. Jack March 4th, 2014 9:36 am

    Tom, your lift-serviced backcountry target seems smart. I’m a newbie, based in the East, and the most dangerous skiing I have done was lift-serviced, off-piste in Verbier. My buddy and I were ignorant, powder hungry, and exposed ourselves to an unknown level of danger with neither gear nor training. So, the lift-serviced segment resonates with me. The most frequent hazard I face is alpine gear, side country,
    rocks, stumps, trees and just mistakes that could lead to a short fast slide with a nasty stop. A good friend was knocked unconscious in a hard icy fall this season, out for minutes. I guess that I’m advocating general safety-consciousness.

  18. Lou Dawson March 4th, 2014 9:47 am

    Jack, yeah, sometimes we talk too much about avalanche safety at the expense of other stuff. Falling down steep hard snow is especially heinous and all too common. I could make a list of the tragedies. It is very deceptive. You can feel pretty secure on a 35 degree slope, but if you fall and the snow is icy, you can easily get into a fatal situation. Steeper, and your’e sure to get hurt or worse. Helmets are somewhat of a joke when it comes to helping in those situations, as you’re moving too fast for a thin little layer of foam to do much good. Ditto for Whippets, which can be effective if deployed immediately and aggressively. But if you’re skiing at speed, you’re already going too fast for a self arrest of any sort to be reliable. It’s called “no fall” terrain for a reason, that’s for sure.

  19. chase harrison March 4th, 2014 2:13 pm

    If the goal is to have 0 avalanches and deaths then that means never ski anything
    over 25 degrees. I know to some of that just sounds boring, but I have been having a lot of fun this winter skiing low angle aspen groves in deep pow and it’s
    save and really fun.
    There needs to be more community discussion on group dynamics like the
    one at Cripple Creek. These kind of things are what really save lives. It makes
    you think.

  20. Mark Worley March 4th, 2014 3:54 pm

    Avoidance really has to move to the fore. I have seen intro classes spend around half their time discussing and tinkering with beacons. The sad reality that is often not spoken is that beacons end up being recovery tools, and I think experienced individuals and avalanche burial stats bear this out. It may be hard to steer away from our gadget-centric thinking, but increasing avalanche survival may require it.

  21. Tom Murphy March 4th, 2014 5:23 pm

    Chase – to be clear, Project Zero is not advocating only riding slopes of 25 degrees or less. What it is advocating is having a decision making process to ascertain what terrain choice is appropriate for given conditions.

    Some days that’s sticking to lower angle, less consequential terrain and other days not.

  22. mason March 4th, 2014 6:14 pm

    I’d like to see an avalanche field course at the trailhead do their beacon check, then, surprise! We’re gonna leave our beacons in the car and travel on safe terrain! Imagine how your perspective would change with regards to terrain evaluation. This year in SW Montana there have been several occasions where I couldn’t really go anywhere, considering I was by myself. This was essentially the same as traveling with a group that had no beacons.

  23. Matt March 5th, 2014 7:46 pm

    If I could add anything it would be the small things like not wearing pole straps and using a leg anchor on your pack or not using a chest strap at all. I went years using a chest strap unachored until I heard some horror stories about people getting choked by them in avalanche situations. Also, travelers should be mindful about transceiver signal interference from electronic devices like phones and GPS. In a multiple burial situation, that’s the last thing you need. Turn them off or at least keep them in your pack away from your transceiver. Little things like this should not be overlooked and often are.

  24. Lou Dawson March 5th, 2014 8:02 pm

    I’d agree, ideally if you are skiing avalanche terrain, all packs should have leg anchors, all ski bindings should have brakes and no straps, and no use of pole straps… helmet all the time is probably a good idea as well (though as always I’d like the helmets to do a better job of protection). Not sure if RFI is such a big deal. Have not been able to replicate much of a problem with it. Lou

  25. chrish May 6th, 2014 3:50 pm

    Hi all. I keep seeing stats quoted for avys. I would have to say that they are not accurate simply because I would guess that most non-injury accidents go unreported. It seems that your chances of being in an avy are greater then one would expect, but injury and death rates are lower. Am I missing something?

  26. Lou Dawson May 6th, 2014 4:06 pm

    Chrish, a good economist or statistician can correct for non-reporting. Not sure which studies do that and which do not, but you do bring up a good point. In any case, avalanches are a major danger to backcountry skiers, and in some areas (Colorado for example) are the main cause of backcountry skier death far above and beyond anything else. That alone should cause one to take pause, whatever nuances the statistics are subject to. Lou

  27. chrish May 6th, 2014 11:15 pm

    Thanks for the responce Lou. If my point is correct, doesn’t it mean that a whole lot of avys are being triggered and a whole lot of people are making poor choices and just getting lucky? That includes me and many,many BC skiers I have spoken to, with unreported avy incidents. I was lucky 15 years ago because I was able to ski off of the slab I triggered before it broke up. We mostly hear about the unlucky ones, but I certainly could have been a statistic.

  28. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2014 6:17 am

    Chrish, yes, one of the things I’ve been writing about for years is that some (if not many) backcountry skiers may be putting themselves at far more risk than they perceive, when it comes to avalanche terrain. This is a “human factor” issue, in that “perceived risk” can be very different from reality. I’d agree that if all incidents were reported and used for study, the picture could be a lot more scary than it already is. But, seriously, as the winter goes by each year and we hear of so many skiers dying in avalanches, with nearly nothing else causing death, is it not obvious what’s going on? This winter alone, just examine the accidents we’ve had, especially the ones involving groups who seem somewhat oblivious to the danger they were in (evidenced by several people being caught at once, as well as terrain choices vs hazard levels).

    I guess one could argue that compared to the number of skiers and skier-days, the number of avalanche deaths is miniscule. But even that is perhaps a false read. For example, a while back a county coroner here in our area of Colorado said residents of said county (Pitkin/Aspen) had a greater statistical chance of dying in an avalanche than in a car wreck. I’m not sure that’s still true, but it was an eye opener for sure.

  29. Mike June 19th, 2014 10:43 pm

    Triggering a slide and getting caught is not a good scene. I completely agree that avoidance needs to be the primary goal.

    In addition to the points mentioned in Lisa’s post, one other thing to think is self arrest – I was caught in a 2.5 this past winter (in retrospect there were some clear errors that we made, getting caught was very avoidable!), and I was fortunate to be near the uphill edge of the slab when it broke. After careening off a tree part way down the slide path I was able to dig into the bed surface and stop myself before the main deposition zone. I was pretty smashed up (~8wks recovery), but I’m quite sure that had I gone further the result would have been much much worse.

    For Chrish – check the video I’ve linked below for some thoughts by Bruce Jamieson (University of Calgary – Applied Snow and Avalanche Research) on assessing vulnerability to avalanches. The whole video is great (the others he posts are equally valuable), but the portion that addresses his thoughts on people in the backcountry, their reporting bias and it’s impact on the stats published (by the CAA at least) is at approx the 8m mark.


  30. Lou Dawson June 20th, 2014 8:03 am

    Mike, thanks for that, indeed, I’ve always felt the stats for backcountry skiers are whacked out by various factors. For example, the reporting rate for events where a person takes a ride but survives with no injury are really low. This skews all sorts of attempts to analyse overall risk, but more, skews any study of what the most effective avoidance strategies are.

    My understanding is that a good economist or statistician can work around reporting bias, but they have to go with care then interpret the results in a way that’s practical and understandable if we’re to gain any use out of their work. Also, just looking at the public data on the avalanche websites in many case gives a skewed picture. For example, what if there have been numerous multiple burial accidents in which everyone was quickly dug up, survived, skied happily away and didn’t report? My gut tells me that’s not the case, but hey, could be. I do know that quite a few single person survival/ski-away accidents do NOT get reported, with some being full burials.

    I thought it was especially smart of Jamieson to break things down according to the sizes of the avalanches. My feeling is that a lot of backcountry skiers just make a day/night decision on if they’re at risk or not, and fail to factor in the fact that beyond a certain size an avalanche is pretty much unsurvivable. I’ve certainly made this mistake myself.

    In other words, before skiing a slope, we need to constantly be aware of what our real chances of survival are if it goes.

    Where do beacons fit into all this? I’m sure someone is working on the definitive study of how effective they are at saving lives, as well as how important MB features are. Can’t wait to see it. Meanwhile, I stand by my bias of wanting range/durability/battery/ease-of-use/size. No beacon company, (including BCA, regarding accusations that I’m biased to them), gives what I feel is a fantastic combo of all these things, they all can improve their products. And YES, if the MB features don’t complicate and don’t suck up battery life and make the beacon larger, then sure, include them.

    I think what’s going to happen eventually is that everyone will be using an airbag. While airbag balloons are of course not 100% effective at saving your life if you’re caught, they most certainly make a huge difference on burial rates. Thus, the number of multiple burial situations is going to drastically decrease as airbag use increases. This alone will make MB beacon features seem kind of excessive if not vestigial, sort of like putting a competition body harness in a Prius.

    My prediction is that as airbag/baloon use nears 100% for the same people who use avalanche beacons, we’ll see the beacon companies go back to a price/size/durability competition. How about a multi-antenna $50 beacon the size of an iPhone? Nice.


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