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Avalanche Awareness Guide

We all hope that the reality of being in an avalanche never comes into fruition but if it does you need to know exactly what to do: it could mean the difference between life and death. This guide aims to give you an outline of how to plan and prepare for an avalanche and what to do in the event that you are caught in an avalanche. Educating yourself on this topic is vital if you plan to go backcountry skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling this winter.

Planning and Preparation

Plan your route:
You shouldn’t just set off into the backcountry without a route planned out. You need to take into consideration your ideal and safe trip options and choose appropriately.

 Time Plan:
You should have an outline of your route and the estimated times you think it will take to get to each safety point along your trip. Hazards may increase with time so adjust your start time to fit in with these hazards.

Rescue Plan:
It is a good idea to appoint a leader and deputy leader in your group in order of people with appropriate training in avalanches. This will ensure that everyone knows who to report to in the occurrence of an avalanche. 

Emergency Gear:
Make sure you have the correct equipment with you, and if you are in a group, ensure that each person is carrying the correct equipment. In the case of an avalanche, the more people who can use their equipment in the search for a victim, the better.

  • Beacon (checked at trailhead)
  • Extra batteries
  • Shovel
  • Probe
  • Avalanche airbag
  • Mobile phone
  • Map and compass
  • Headlamp
  • Basic winter gear

Know the Hazard:
Before you leave for your backcountry adventure check the avalanche forecast and educate yourself on the avalanche scale. Always put safety first no matter how long you have been planning your day out. If the conditions are extreme, reschedule for another time.

Terrain Selection:
Look at the group you are with and the level of ability when you choose your terrain. Avoid gullies and steep cliffs and remember that avalanches mainly happen on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees.

Travelling techniques:
If you do come across a particularly dangerous terrain, then cross one at a time. Identify safe zones to stop and use them. Always have an escape route in mind in case the slope does decide to avalanche. Stay in constant communication with your party, especially when you decide to cross the slope. 

Avoid the obvious mistakes:
As a group, you can often be so excited with your day that you presume things that are not fact and forget basic safety precautions. Don’t forget:

  • Just because an area hasn’t had an avalanche before doesn’t make it stable. Always be checking for signs.
  • If you see something you think looks suspicious, speak up. It is better to be the more concerned person than lose a friend in an avalanche.
  • Don’t presume everyone has the same ability. Air on the side of caution and stick to routes for all levels.
  • Don’t try and go too fast. You should be re-evaluating terrain as you go.

You need to be aware of the red flags of instability:

  1. Recent avalanches
  2. Whoopfing noises or shooting cracks while travelling across the slope.
  3. Recent or current heavy snowfall.
  4. High winds depositing wind slabs on lee slopes.
  5. Rapid warming temperatures or rainfall.

What if I’m Caught in an Avalanche?
The first reaction will probably be panic but you need to keep it together to increase your chance of survival. Follow these tips:

  1. Shout to your companions and keep shouting so they can see you.
  2. Try to get to the side of the moving snow.
  3. Fight as best you can to stay on the surface of the snow.
  4. When the snow slows, thrust your hand about the surface.
  5. With your other hand, clear space in front of your mouth.
  6. Do not panic. Take cleansing breaths and stay calm.

Transceiver Searching

1)   Signal Search If there is no signal detected, start at the last-seen-area. If there was no last-seen-area, search the entire debris pile. If there are multiple people in your party spread out but no more that 40 metres apart. If alone, make switchbacks no more than 40 metres apart, 20 metres from each side. Move fast and look for clues.

2)   Coarse Search Once the signal is detected, use your directional lights and distance display to follow the signal. This is usually curved. Move quickly until you are three metres from the victim.

3)   Fine Search Slow down now and pay attention to your distance readings. The directional arrows are less important now. Get your beacon as close to the surface as possible. Once the lowest reading is found you need to search along the perpendicular axis for an even lower reading. As soon as you get the lowest reading spring into action and get probing. 

Multiple Burial Search It is very unusual for there to be a multiple burial situation. If you want to learn about multiple burial searches go to

From your lowest distance reading, you need to start probing to find your victim.. Probe at least 10 inches (25 cm) apart in concentric circles. Your probe should be perpendicular to the snow and after you strike the victim, leave the probe in place and begin shovelling.

Shovelling is the most exhausting stage of and avalanche rescue and takes the most time. To get to the victim as soon as possible, make a hole about one wingspan wide and start digging. If the victim is buried more than a metre, begin digging 1.5 times the burial depth. Burials more than 2 metres require extra shovelers. 

Kate Thomas November 04, 2013 11 tags (show)

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