Top 15 tips for surviving an avalanche disaster

Avalanche danger sign

The number one thing you can do is stay clear of avalanche areas. The second best thing you can do is do some research before you go. One of the things you probably shouldn’t try and do is google ‘Top 15 tips for surviving an avalanche disaster’ milliseconds before you get hit by one.

People die in avalanches. They are powerful reminders of just how awesome the natural forces of earth can be. But having some knowledge of what you should do, and a bit of luck means that hopefully, you’ll be able to walk away should you ever be unlucky enough to get caught up in one. If you’re really lucky, and know what to do, you may may manage to walk away with little more than a bruise and an elevated heart rate.

Avalanche in the mountains

So what causes avalanches?

How long have you got? because there is an entire school and science on the subject. As this article is about surviving an avalanche, and not what causes avalanches, this will be a really brief explanation.

There are literally a million different factors that can contribute to avalanche conditions. Some of the most common factors attributable to causing avalanches, however, is the loss of snow’s ability to hold onto a slope, high winds, temperature increases and decreases, and vibrations.

In the case of avalanches, vibrations in this instance are most likely to include events such as thunder, gun shots, explosions, rockfalls, and even shouting. Vibrations can cause avalanches on mountain slopes in areas where they might otherwise not occur.

Perhaps the primary factor in causing an avalanche, however, is the the overloading of a slope. Snow is after all just frozen water. As snow falls, it adds weight to snow already present on the mountain.

When the ability of the mountain slope to hold the weight of the snow fails and loses cohesion. Of course, this isn’t a problem normally on shallow slopes. But when a large amount of snow falls falls on a slope that has an angle of between 35 and 40 degrees, then it much more likely to experience an avalanche. At those angles, snow can accumulate in the significant quantities needed to create avalanche conditions. When you then add in the effect of things such as noise, winds, and temperature variations, then you create the conditions required for an avalanche.

How to Survive an Avalanche

15 tips that can help you survive an avalanche disaster

The best way to survive an avalanche disaster is to not be near one when it happens.

Whether you are skiing, hiking, or whatever, in the mountains in winter, being able to identify a possible avalanche area and subsequently avoid it, is a really smart move. Be aware of the following:

North-facing slopes for instance, are the most likely to avalanche in the winter. But south-facing slopes can become dangerous in the spring and during sunny days.

Also, slopes that garner snow during windy conditions are dangerous because wind blown snow adds to their rapid accumulation of snow, and are therefore more likely to avalanche than slopes protected from the wind. Areas with large rocks, trees and heavy vegetation are less ilkely to experience a slope failure as they help to anchor the snow on the mountain. Smooth, grassy slopes wit wide open surfaces are much more dangerous for exactly the opposite reasons above.

Look out for areas that have avalanched before. If you hear or see one avalanche in an area, then its reasonable to assume, you are in an avalanche area, and should take extra precautions.

But all that said, no matter what you do, you still can caught in one. If you do happen to get by an avalanche or suddenly find yourself in one, here are some key survival skills you can use to try and keep yourself alive.

Before you get hit! Don’t panic, and take positive action.

1. Make like a crab and go sideways

Snow moves downhill the fastest in the center of an avalanche. Being in the middle of an avalanche is literally the most dangerous place to be. So don’t try to outrun or out-ski an avalanche by going directly down the way. This is good advice whether the avalanche starts beneath or above you. Whether the avalanche begins directly beneath your feet or above you. The further away from the center you are, the more likely you are to survive. Mere inches and seconds could make the difference between surviving and dying.

2. Jump up

If you are the cause of the avalanche, (especially likely if you are skiing, or you inadvertently make a loud noise) then the snow is going to start falling away from below where you are when it starts. Jump or scramble above the line of slope failure as fast as you can. If you can quickly get yourself above the fracture line, then you may have just tricked fate into giving you a second chance. If you know you are in an avalanche area you may be able to react quick enough to save yourself. You may only have a few seconds to act when this happens, so think quick, and react.

3. Cling on for dear life

It could save your life, especially if the avalanche isn’t huge. Some avalanches have the mass and physical energy to pluck trees and boulders from the very ground they may have been sitting on for several hundred years. But what else are you going to do?

Grabbing onto trees and rocks or hiding behind them could shelter you from the main force of the cascading snow. It also means you are far more likely to know which way is up, and have looser less compacted snow on top of you when the avalanche is over. If you do shelter behind a rock or tree, but there is nothing to grab onto, crouch down put an arm in front of your face, and turn away from the avalanche so you are facing downhill. And if you have the presence of mind and time to do that, then I take my hat off to you, because I don’t know if I would.

4. Look around

If you none of the above is an option, then use your last second(s) to try and be aware of what you are about to swept away into. Look for things like cliffs, boulders, trees or anything else that you could be hammered into. You never know what use it might be.

Mountain trekking group

Before you try to surviving an avalanche disaster: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

5. Equip yourself for any eventuality

Seriously. Even if you are skiing or hiking in a well populated area, with ski-lifts and restaurants and shops halfway up the mountain at a world famous resort, you should be prepared for any eventuality that could arise. This includes having emergency rations, a first aid kit, spare clothes, torches, clothing and footwear for the worst weather conditions for that area, and a fully charged smartphone; because hey, it may be you who has to make the phone call if others get caught in an avalanche and you survive because you got out of the way.

6. Buy and wear an avalanche beacon

An avalanche beacon is a small radio that will transmit your location if you are lucky enough to have been caught in an area that has rescue crews. The rescue crews will probably concentrate on finding trapped survivor they can pinpoint before searching for anyone else.

Avalanche rescue with dog

How to survive an avalanche disaster if you get caught in one.

7. Lose it all

Abandon your equipment: Everything. Lose the Skis, the rucksack, the snowmobile, the poles, snowboards, and the snowshoes. A big avalanche will spin you around like you’re in a washing machine. I was hit in the face by the flat of a snowboard once by someone carrying one who turned round unexpectedly. It hurt. A lot. The force of an avalanche will hit you a lot harder. Attached equipment can mangle your body and bones. Equipment can also act like the steel in reinforced concrete or like an anchor when the avalanche starts to slow down.

8. Go surfing

Do your best to stay on top of the flow of the avalanche as it careers down the hill.

9. Go swimming

Swimming to the top of an avalanche is one of the most well known tips for people caught in avalanches, and for a reason. Not being buried is probably the number one way to survive an avalanche after not getting caught in one in the first place. That said, do be aware, that ‘swimming’ in an avalanche is probably akin to trying to swim down a waterfall. But essentially, do whatever it takes to stay on top of the sliding snow. There are no style prizes. Perhaps a better terminology would be to ‘fight your way up.’

10. Reach for the Sky

If it helps imagine Woody from Toy Story stuck on an endless loop. But do try and reach for the sky with one arm up above your head as you get thrown around by the avalanche. There are two main advantages to doing this that could help keep you alive. One, rescuers will find it easier to find you if your hand is sticking above the snow, and you’ll also be much more aware of what direction is up, and this will be a huge bonus for helping you dig yourself out.

11. In space no one can hear you scream

The same is true in an avalanche. Keep you mouth shut if you get caught in an avalanche. The snow could quite easily force itself into your mouth and stop you from being able to breathe.

12. And cover your face with the other hand

While snow moves fast and is fluid when it avalanches, when the snow slows down, it will start to compress. Perhaps the best way to think about it as really fast drying concrete. As the flow comes to halt, do your damnedest to quickly create an open a space in front of your face. So, reach for the sky with one arm, other arm in front of your face. This will also stop your exhaling breath from melting and then refreezing the snow directly in front of you. You can’t breath through ice.

13. Big breaths

When buried in the compressed snow in the aftermath of an avalanche asphyxiation, and not the cold, is your biggest worry. Cupping your mouth when you are being thrown around by the snow will create a small pocket of air for you to survive on for up to 30 minutes. Once you’ve come to a stop, take several big breaths if you can so you give your lungs enough room to inflate and deflate.

14. Make some space, and spit

If the avalanche stops and you have been buried, forget your manners and your inhibitions and spit. The simple act of pitting can save your life. So, spit and then take notice of which way it falls. Hint: it falls in the direction of gravity. Not only will this help re-orientate you, but you’ll also know which to dig. Hint: Dig in the opposite direction to the way it falls.

15. Finally, remain calm

If you manage to do this, then tell me how. Unlike the first tip about ‘losing it’ above. Do your absolute best not to lose it, when it comes to your mental state. Keeping your wits about you, and not panicking is one of the keys to survival in pretty much any survival situation. It is the same in avalanches.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s poem, ‘if,’ you can keep your head, while everyone around you is losing theirs, you can increase your odds of staying alive.

In most cases, victims have a 15-minute window in which they can carve out areas to breathe under the snow. Panicking will speed your breath and shorten your window, so calm work on digging your way out. If you’ve worn your beacon, rescue workers will hopefully be on the way, and you’ll get pulled out of the mess.

Good luck.

Avalanche rescue team

As I said back at the start, the best way to survive an avalanche is to not get caught in one. But even the most prepared and experienced individuals will sometimes be caught out and find themselves in a survival situation. No amount of preparation and planning can account for everything and anything that could go wrong, but the more ready and prepared you are will raise your chances of survival.

Remember, you may only have seconds to react and take life saving action in the event of a sudden avalanche. Make those seconds count.


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