You’re enjoying a snowshoeing trek in Utah’s majestic Wasatch Mountains. A recent 12-inch snowfall has made the trek extra laborious, but the stunning scenery makes up for it.
It would be just about the perfect day … if only this weren’t a “Survive This!” column. Suddenly, you hear muffled whumps in the near distance, and you’re confronted with one of two not-so-appealing scenarios: an uncontrolled avalanche or a controlled slide instigated by the ski patrol.
What are your options?
Putting aside the fact that backing up while wearing snowshoes is nearly impossible, let’s back up a bit.
Avalanches are caused by … you. Research by the Utah Avalanche Center found that in the vast majority of fatal avalanches, the slide is triggered by the weight of the victim or someone in the victim’s group.
First, check with the local park service or online forecasts (such as noaa.gov) to see if you might encounter any avalanche risk on your intended route.
If you’re even considering traveling in an avalanche-prone region — by snowshoe, ski or snowmobile — you absolutely must carry (and know how to use) an avalanche beacon. This radio transmitter will help rescuers find you should you be caught in a snowslide.
You’ll also need a host of other safety equipment that I won’t delve into here, but suffice it to say that the No. 1 safety tip is never go alone. Travel in a group, obey all signs and warnings, and make sure the ski patrol has your hiking plan.
The Whole Story
You might have heard a general rule that any snow-covered slope greater than 30 degrees presents an avalanche danger. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story.
According to the Forest Service National Avalanche Center, any slope that even connects to one of the aforementioned inclines is also a potential hazard, because snowslides can travel for long distances across varying terrain. These so-called “run-out zones” are a significant danger and historically have been responsible for many avalanche deaths.
Always be aware of the slopes above you, not simply the ones on which you’re hiking. And don’t assume that a hike below tree line rather than in open, snow-covered terrain is safe. Large avalanches can uproot trees and snap them like toothpicks — and can also damage or destroy structures.
A few other points to consider: Avalanche danger is generally highest during or in the day following heavy snowfalls … precisely the times that snow hounds want to get first tracks. However, melting (and, in some cases, subsequent refreezing) of the snowpack can also increase risk — as can rainfall — so be aware of recent temperature swings.
In addition to the aforementioned slopes, areas with rocky outcroppings also pose danger. Cornices, or exposed ledges of windblown snow, might indicate sections of unstable, wind-deposited snow below.
Don’t Get Buried
You won’t be able to outrun a snowslide, which can reach downhill speeds of 80 miles per hour. Instead, if you hear or see an avalanche, move quickly in a direction perpendicular to the slide; snow moves fastest at the center of the slide.
If you spot an avalanche above you, there are a few steps to take to minimize exposure. First, move away from gulches and gullies to the higher terrain surrounding them. Snow that is funneled into these areas will move more quickly and with greater force, resulting in increased danger. Second, maintain broad spacing among those in your party to minimize the danger of being swept down the mountain en masse.
If you’re actually caught in a slide, “fight, fight, fight to not get buried,” says Sarah Carpenter of the American Avalanche Institute in Victor, Idaho. “Swim, dig into the bed surface (the part of the snow that isn’t moving); do anything to avoid getting buried.”
If burial is inevitable, protect your airway, then try to get a limb above the surface of the snow. This makes it more likely that a partner can see you and dig you out, and you won’t have to rely on the technology of your beacon.