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Tips for avalanche survival

Before crossing a slope where there is any possibility of an avalanche, fasten all your clothing securely to keep out snow. Loosen your pack so that you can slip out of it with ease and remove your ski pole straps. Make sure that your avalanche beacon is on and switched to "transmit" rather than "receive." Cross the slope one at a time to minimize danger.

If you are caught in an avalanche
  • Yell and let go of ski poles and get out of your pack to make yourself lighter. Use "swimming" motions, thrusting upward to try to stay near the surface of the snow. When avalanches come to a stop and debris begins to pile up, the snow can set as hard as cement. Unless you are on the surface and your hands are free, it is almost impossible to dig yourself out. If you are fortunate enough to end up near the surface (or at least know which direction it is), try to stick out an arm or a leg so that rescuers can find you quickly.
  • If you are in over your head (not near the surface), try to maintain an air pocket in front of your face using your hands and arms, punching into the snow. When an avalanche finally stops, you may have only a few seconds before the snow sets up and hardens. Many avalanche deaths are caused by suffocation, so creating an air space is one of the most critical things you can do. Also, take a deep breath to expand your chest and hold it; otherwise, you may not be able to breathe after the snow sets. To preserve air space, yell or make noise only when rescuers are near you. Snow is such a good insulator they probably will not hear you until they are practically on top of you.
  • Above all, do not panic. Keeping your breathing steady will help preserve your air space and extend your survival chances. If you remain calm, your body will be better able to conserve energy.
Rescuing a victim
  • Try to watch the victim as they are carried down the slope, paying particular attention to the point you last saw them. After the avalanche appears to have finished and settled, wait a minute or two and observe the slope carefully to make sure there is no further avalanche danger. If some danger does still exist, post one member of your party in a safe location away from the avalanche path to alert you if another avalanche falls.
  • When traveling with a large party, you may want to send someone for help immediately while the rest of you search. If you are the only survivor, do a quick visual search. If you don't see any visual clues, and you don't have transceivers, then go for help
  • Begin looking for clues on the surface (a hand or foot, piece of clothing, ski pole, etc.), beginning with the point where they were last seen. As you move down the slope, kick over any large chunks of snow that may reveal clues. Since equipment and items of clothing may be pulled away from a victim during an avalanche, they may not indicate their exact location, but can help determine the direction the avalanche carried them. Mark these spots as you come across them. Be sure that all rescuers leave their packs, extra clothing, etc., away from the search area so as not to clutter or confuse search efforts.
  • Once the victim is found, it is critical to unbury them as quickly as possible. Survival chances decrease rapidly depending on how long a victim remains buried. Treat them for any injuries, shock, or hypothermia if necessary.
  • If you lost sight of the victim early during the avalanche, or if there are no visible clues on the surface, mark where the victim was last seen. Look at the path of the snow and try to imagine where they might have ended up. For those wearing avalanche transceivers, switch them to "receive" and try to locate a signal.
  • For those using probes, begin at the point the victim was last seen at. Or if you have a good idea of where they were buried, begin in that area. Stand in a straight line across the slope, standing shoulder to shoulder. Repeatedly insert the probes as you move down slope in a line. Pay particular attention to shallow depressions in the slope and the uphill sides of rocks and trees, since these are terrain traps where they may have been buried.
  • It may be necessary to probe certain areas more than once if you don't locate the victim the first time around, but this takes more time and decreases the victim's chances for survival. Similar to using transceivers, this method of rescue is much more effective if those involved have experience or have practiced finding buried victims using probes.
  • After searching for clues, or using transceivers and/or probes, still does not reveal the location of the victim, it may be time to rely on outside help. Nearby ski resorts will be staffed with personnel experienced to handle these situations. They will have equipment to locate the victims and dig them out (if your party did not bring shovels or probes), and they may also have avalanche dogs that can help find victims. Ski area patrollers will also have first aid equipment, but unfortunately, by the time they can usually reach out-of-bounds avalanche accidents, too much time has elapsed to save the victim.
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