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Avalanche - What To Do

One beast every skier hopes to never meet on the mountain is the avalanche. Pure, destructive, raging nature at her best, an avalanche is a phenomena you never want to encounter, but one you must understand in order to safely navigate the snow. It is estimated that 200 people die globally from a snow slide each year – 90 percent of these deaths are from avalanches triggered by people. Find out the science behind avalanches, how to avoid danger zones, and what to do if one should occur near you.


What Causes An Avalanche?

An avalanche is simply falling snow. Gravity, that same force that lets you ride down the slope and experience the pure bliss and freedom of the mountain, is essentially what creates this natural disaster. Snow slides down the slope of a mountainside. As it moves, an avalanche can gain enormous speed and power. Even a small snow slide at the top of a mountain can become catastrophic by the time it reaches the bottom.

What triggers an avalanche? It can be caused naturally – when too much weight builds up, often right after a storm, the snow can begin to slide. Most avalanches occur during or right after a storm when quickly falling snow increases the weight on the snow. Temperature and wind also play a role. When the temperature rises above freezing and some snow melts, water seeping into the snow crystals acts as a lubricant, weakening layers of snow. Winds can move snow around, producing heavy packs of dense snow that put pressure on the snowpack. A weak layer underneath a strong layer of snow is a recipe for snow fall disaster.

Many avalanches are caused artificially by the extra weight of a skier or a snowmobile. The added pressure can cause a crack in vulnerable areas. Within the crack spreads, the different layers of snow become loose, and the avalanche is on.


Where Do Avalanches Occur

Is it possible to avoid danger zones altogether? Here are some of the characteristics of avalanche vulnerable terrain:

  • A moderate slope, about a 30 to 45 degree angle is the most prone – a slope that is shallow enough to allow snow to accumulate and steep enough to slide.
  • Depending on the time of year, the orientation of the slope matters - north-facing slopes in the middle of winter and a south-facing slope during the spring thaw.
  • Areas above the timberline are more dangerous. With less trees, rocks, and other vegetation to obstruct the snow, it is easier for avalanches to form.
  • Unstable or cracked snow. You can examine the snow to see if it may be dangerous. If snow seems weak, if you notice any fractures or signs of recent avalanche activity, or if you hear a ‘drum-like’ sound under your feet when you walk on the snow, you may be treading on vulnerable terrain.


What You Should Do

What should you do if one does happen to occur near you?

  • Yell, AVALANCHE! Then close your mouth to avoid swallowing snow. You want to alert other people immediately. Avalanches can run their course in a matter of seconds.
  • Get rid of all your excess weight such as a backpack.
  • If you are on your skis, you may be able to stay to the side of the slide. There is more force in the centre. You are better off getting to the side then trying to outrun nature at her most powerful.
  • Do everything you can to stay on the surface of the snow. If you can, grab onto a tree, rock, or anything to stabilise yourself, even for a few seconds.
  • In the scenario of being buried by the close of an avalanche, put yourself in a fetal position and move your head back and forth to create a pocket of air. Try and put at least a hand above the surface so others can see you.
  • If you cannot break the surface, then try and remain calm to conserve your energy and wait for the mountain rescue team to arrive.


Hopefully you will never face an avalanche. Do everything you can to avoid these dangerous natural disasters – stay away from risky terrain and be extremely careful during or directly after a storm. Make sure you have insurance coverage for medical evacuation in case an emergency does occur if you plan on spending time on the slopes. Ski Insurance provides affordable cover for mountain emergency and rescue situations, including avalanche accidents.


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