Hikers, skiers and snowboarders, do you know how to avoid being caught in an avalanche? What would you do if you were?
Adrian Ballinger is an expedition guide certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, and the founder of Alpenglow Expeditions. He survived an avalanche in Alaska in 2016 and escaped one on Pakistan’s mighty K2 in 2019. Here are seven lessons he’s learnt…
The first step to avoid getting into an avalanche is to seek education from a respected course. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) offers AIARE 1, AIARE Avalanche Rescue and AIARE 2 courses which teach skills such as risk mitigation, terrain assessment, rescue skills and route planning. In the UK, Glenmore Lodge offers a range of one- and two-day avalanche courses, while Chamonix Experience offers AIARE 1 in France. Alpenglow Expeditions in the USA offers all three AIARE courses throughout winter.
If you do not have formal avalanche education, the first step to safely travelling in rural areas is to have the proper equipment. Everyone in your party should have with them an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe (metal rod) to help rescue a member of the group in the event of an avalanche. Everyone must be familiar with the equipment, too as it is truly life saving.
Carefully plan the tour that you would like to do. I recommend apps such as Gaia, CalTopo and FatMap to plan uphill and downhill travel. While avalanches may still occur on non-avalanche terrain, you are less likely to get caught in one if you are able to avoid known avalanche terrain. Avalanches can occur in a variety of terrain, but they are most likely on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees. If you do not have access to these apps, getting a topographic map of the area is extremely helpful.
Avalanche conditions are extremely variable and conditions can change on a daily basis, so extensively research local avalanche conditions by looking at avalanche centre reports, such as the Sierra Avalanche Center in California in the US or SLF, part of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in the Swiss Alpes. If you are unfamiliar with a particular area’s snowpack, going into a local ski shop or talking to a patroller at a local ski resort is a great idea.
Alleviate risk by avoiding obvious avalanche terrain, evaluating the snowpack and looking for signs of instability before skiing or hiking. You can also mitigate exposure to a slide by skiing one at a time and seeking out protected areas periodically during your descent. If you feel uncertain about terrain, air on the side of caution.
If a slide does occur, having proficient rescue skills is imperative – so practicing avalanche rescue is extremely important. Your rescue skills can mean the difference between life and death.
If a member of your party is buried in an avalanche, before jumping in to save them the first step is to make sure that you will not cause a secondary slide and put anyone else's lives at risk.
Get everyone who was not buried in the slide to switch their transceivers to search and begin searching for a signal in a grid pattern. Once a signal is picked up, conduct a fine search and get a probe strike. After getting a probe strike, take a step down hill and begin shovelling. If a few people are able to shovel, switch shovelers rapidly to ensure you’re digging at full strength.
Once you’ve found your buried partner, clear their airway before uncovering the rest of their body. Call for emergency services (999 in the UK, 911 in the USA) or send a search and rescue SOS on a satellite communication device such as an InReach, which works in areas where mobile phones don’t.
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