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Mountain Safety Series - Part 3 - What Happens If You Get Caught Out?

Posted by Jennifer Ashton on
Mountain Safety Series - Part 3 - What Happens If You Get Caught Out?

In our last two blogs, we’ve looked at how resorts track avalanche dangers and the different types of avalanches and their fatality rates. So, it’s right that we look at ways in which we can keep safe on the mountain and avoid being caught out wherever possible.

The biggest thing to remember (and we said it in our first blog) is to make sure you know your limits, wherever you are on the mountain! And never forget that it is ALWAYS ok to turn back again. A good day on the mountain is also a safe day on the mountain, when you get back to the hotel exhausted, but safe.

Resort safety staff in a lot of places will blast cannons to trigger avalanches to help protect you and the mountain. If this is the case, mountains will remain closed until operates believe the risk has been minimised. Follow guidelines here and don’t start hiking up (or skiing down) before the resorts have been given the all clear.

There is a bit of a myth around that more avalanches tend to happen in the afternoon when the sun comes out and the weather is warmer (potentially altering snowpack), but this is hard to confirm. Chutes that have been skied several times already that day may pop at any time, alternatively, it may be the first run of the day. An avalanche may be days or weeks in the waiting and one wrong change in conditions or weight will trigger it.

There’s plenty of places now that offer education and courses on avalanches and mountain safety. Some online and some in person (when Covid permits). When heading out on the mountain, be constantly vigilant about where you are and the conditions around you- be aware of the weather and the terrain.

If you are unlucky enough to be caught up in an avalanche, it goes without saying to try to get out of it. But this is generally much easier said than done. If you can, ski or board at a 45 degree angle downhill from the avalanche to gather speed and veer out of the path of the avalanche. However, this isn’t a very easy feat to achieve. If you can’t get out and find yourself dragged into the snow, the best advice you can be given is ‘swim’!! Like your life really does depend on it, swim like you’re trying to reach the surface. Being denser than the snow, a human when caught in an avalanche will travel towards the bottom and sink. If you can feel the snow around you has slowed try to clear some air space around your mouth and face, punching forwards to create space. Once the snow stops, it’ll settle dead and heavy.

Research by the Utah Avalanche Centre shows that 93% of buried individuals will survive if they are found in the first 15 minutes after the avalanche. After 45 minutes, the survival rates drop below 30%. Between 15 and 45 minutes, if the victim initially survives the avalanche, it is likely that asphyxiation will kill them, quite simply running out of enough oxygen to breathe.

Being unfortunately caught out in an avalanche introduces our last key piece of equipment for heading back country in the mountains.

Avalanche Airbags

For many of us, these will be getting into wish list items as there’s generally a hefty price tag to them. If you’re buying any equipment to head off piste, the transceiver (followed by the shovel and probe) should always be your starting point (a bit like you would invest in your own boots before skis).

When deployed, the airbag increases an individual’s surface area. During the power of an avalanche, smaller debris sink to the bottom of the avalanche, while bigger debris float towards the surface. The bigger you can make yourself, the more likely you are to end up closer to the surface of an avalanche.

Collecting data on just how effective avalanche bags are is a little bit tricky. In 2014, the journal of the European Resuscitation Council collected datasets from 7 countries (The USA, France, Canada, Norway, Slovakia, Austria and Switzerland). In its findings it published ‘The adjusted risk of critical burial is 47% with non-inflated airbags and 20% with inflated avalanche airbags. In comparison, the adjusted mortality is 44% for critically buried victims and 3% for non-critically buried victims.’ (it did go on to say that 20% of all air-bags were not inflated for various reasons- 60% of those being the trigger was never activated).

In conclusion, they stated ‘that airbags were effective, so long as they were activated in the first place’

Wherever you go skiing, you should make sure you are wearing a helmet. For more information on what you should be looking for (and why you should be on the mountain with one), head over to our blog: The Low Down on Wearing a Helmet

And just don’t forget- don’t be too proud to turn back again! It might be the one time your pride saves your life so you can enjoy the mountains another day! 

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