Saturday, February 27, 2010

Avalanche – Beginner’s Guide Simplified

I have seen perhaps thousands of avalanches, big and small, of all sorts all over the world in the span of my life so far. I have rescued buried people, or dug out dead bodies, while being buried myself on dozens of occasions. I teach people wilderness survival and a substantial part of my mountain travel workshop is dedicated to avalanches. I have written scores of articles on the phenomenon and must have contributed to at least fifty research projects on the issue. There’s little or nothing at all to add to what I have already said on the topic or to the vast data and information available in today’s public domain at your literal fingertip. Yet, the point is that avalanches are the biggest killers on the mountains and they kill not only novices but also seasoned hikers, climbers and skiers with a shocking regularity every year, every season. The reasons can be two: either we are not heeding to the information or warnings or we don’t think that it is a real danger, until it hits us or someone we know, and by that time it is perhaps too late to do anything about it. There can be a third possibility; what if the information and the warnings and the classes that are being conducted in the name of avalanches are too technical and jargon-filled or statistical for a normal person to understand or find it interesting! I Googled and discovered this to be the real case. This post is not meant for avalanche scientists, experienced climbers or skiers. For people like me it is often a matter of choice when we intentionally, despite knowing the odds and dangers choose to go into an avalanche danger zone. Thereafter it is a matter of luck or destiny. This post is for those who are not able to digest the data and information in a more lucid manner. This is for everyone who has ever felt that wish there was a simplified version of avalanche for me to follow blindly, cutting all the jargons out of the picture. If you are one such person then you have reached the right place.

Let me begin with a simple statistics; nearly over 70% of the mountain deaths are caused by avalanches. The majority of the victims are skiers, snowboarders, climbers and hikers, avalanche researchers, mountain road builders, soldiers in Himalaya, etc. Not necessarily only novices get caught, as the experienced of these categories go to places where the dangers are higher than normal in search of more degrees of difficulty and exploring new terrains and eventually pay the price with their lives. There are few instances too when absolute non-participants and innocent bystanders also get killed or seriously injured in an avalanche; in such cases it is mostly the local administration that is to be held responsible for not evacuating the normal people out of an avalanche danger zone in time. Two major examples of such instances are: Galtür village, Austria that was hit by a massive avalanche killing 31 people and in Montroc, France that killed 12 people.

The point I want to highlight is that though avalanches kill, they need not if we follow few basic precautions and rules. I know that all you experienced climbers and back-country off-piste skiers and daredevil snowboarders will smirk at this point telling me to get lost, but I am addressing only those who are new to this and wish to stay alive to see another beautiful sun rise above alpine meadows. Needless to say, I would smirk too. Well, enough of preamble now let’s hit the slopes and get buried true and proper.

A question: if you are dying of thirst would you want a scientist by your side who will first explain to you that two parts of Hydrogen and one part of Oxygen composes the fluid that you desperately need or you would prefer someone equally ignorant but with a full bottle of clean water to pour it down your throat. The answer is obvious and no, you don’t get a prize for getting it right.

An avalanche is a fast moving body of snow and ice that could contain other debris of rock, uprooted trees, flying cars and houses, human bodies, as well. As they move downhill they can accelerate up to 300 kmph and can gain volumes of over one hundred thousand cubic meters of snow weighing thousands of tons in mass. The fatal force of an avalanche lies in two things: its speed and its mass. The former can blow you away or apart and the latter can bury you and suffocate you to death. If you get buried in anything deeper than a meter of snow, your chances of survival drops exponentially after the first 15 minutes. After two hours you will be dead for sure. What saves most people buried in an avalanche is a quick SAR by others in the vicinity. It’s to such people that I owe my life.

For general purpose there are only two kinds of avalanches: powder and slab. The former is characterized by a bellow of powder, almost like a front of smoke screen, preceding the main avalanche mass that hits you well before the main body filling up your entire body, nose and any apertures with fine snow dust. While the latter has huge and heavy mass as it keeps gathering momentum and mass from the underlying and neighboring snow masses along the avalanche chute. This one is preceded by thunderous noise, usually a thunder crack from where it breaks off from the mountain. You cannot generally see this kind of avalanche right from where it begins since it takes few moments to gain momentum and mass for one to see from afar. Both such avalanches are fatal and dangerous. A powder avalanche is likely to uplift you while slab is likely to bury you under its brutal force. Both will eventually throw you on ground and suffocate you to death.

Prevention is the only full-proof method to stay safe from avalanches. The best is not to step out into a zone that is likely to get avalanche. Avalanche threats are often predicted and displayed by local administrative bodies, ski or local operators, weather broadcasts, or by local people en route. Read up carefully before proceeding. But if you are in Himalaya or Andes or many of the remote mountain areas then such information may not be available most of the times. To use your own judgment you need to be able to predict avalanches yourself, which is true even when reliable data is available, like in Europe or US.

All avalanches are caused by wind or snow accumulation or a combination of both and few other factors. Heavy precipitation on a steep slope would surely lead to avalanches. Killer avalanches can form on gradients as low as twenty degrees. Any ridge above you that has cornices have the potential of releasing avalanches, especially if there has been recent accumulations, strong winds and the slopes are steep underneath the cornices. If the possible avalanche slopes are full of jungles, trees, forests, big boulders, etc then the avalanche’s lethal force would be broken down and will not hit so hard as on an uninterrupted slope. Some avalanches are also caused due to sudden changes in temperature or heat accumulation within the ice that fills up the snow mass with slush and water deep within thereby setting it off. The underlying surface may be too unstable or hard for the top snow to coagulate and stick that may also lead to avalanches. Though on such surfaces the avalanches are more frequent and smaller in magnitude and do not really pose any threat. In general more avalanches occur during the autumn and winter seasons and during bad weathers when heavy snow fall and winds occur. Winter is also the time when more number of skiers and snow sports lovers are frolicking on the slopes and this often causes man made avalanches.

There are many preventive measures that administrative authorities can and must undertake to keep the slopes safe, like artificial triggering of avalanches, erecting avalanche guardrails and barriers, putting up nets, closing down ski slopes or for any other activities, keeping a good SAR team in place, adequate warnings to people through all channels of communication, etc. But here we would talk about what individuals can and must do.

Historical data is the best warning so look around your camp site or your intended track or the mountain you are going to scale or walk up to, see if you find debris of earlier avalanches, try to judge how old these avalanches are, what was its volume, see the chute, see how far and from what height did it come down from, see how far it traveled, try to gauge its potency from the damage it cause on the way (carrying of any rock or trees, the size of the ice blocks, etc), a good thing to notice would be the mass of additional ice or snow it has deposited over the normal ground level as compared to the areas that were not hit by the avalanche. All these will give you a general idea of how big the avalanche was, and which all part of the mountain is most susceptible to avalanche trigger. The easiest way to gauge the avalanche vintage is to simply dig about three inches into the debris, if you find fresh and white snow deeper in, then the avalanche is less than 48 hrs old and hence you are still in a potential avalanche danger zone and path. If the top surface of the avalanche debris still retains unevenness and is not smoothened out, then it is less than 24 hrs old. But if there has been continuous snow then you must be careful not to confuse this with the superficial snow. If all snow has already been brought down by the earlier avalanches then of course you can go up this slope as there is nothing left to drop any more. But still such a slope is best avoided.

In any potential avalanche zone it is far better to walk on the ridge keeping slightly into the windward side and away from the cornices on the ridge top. Do not cross the slope down below on the lee side at any cost. In a big team do space out the members and rope up. I would recommend a gap of 30 meters between two people when crossing a danger zone. And go slow but steady, no need to run across a slope or a face. Cross such places only in the early hours before sun hits the surface and definitely not after noon. If you must, then go further down hill rather than up hill and cut across at right angles to the slope to minimize exposure. Please carry individual probes and telescopic snow shovels, and some basic first aid kit. Communicate to another group or people from SAR teams about your intended route and action. Carry some kind of communication set and ensure that it works and you know all the communication drill by heart. Please remember when avalanche hits you; it will be mostly up to you to rescue your team members. Dependence on an outside help is best not catered for. It will never come in time when you are on any big mountain range like the Himalaya, Karakoram, Andes, Pamir, etc.

Avoid slopes where people are skiing or doing back country stunts. Don’t walk below people who might trigger avalanches. While walking, stay silent and vigilant to detect the earliest signs of an impending avalanche. It could be a cracking noise, a sudden stillness in the air, a sudden rise in heat, a sudden cloud formation on ground or a sudden scream from someone unseen. The moment you sense an avalanche you must look uphill and scan the slopes to see any kind of formation that wasn’t there before. A binocular can give you early warning. If you hear a huge crack, remember that by then the avalanche could be well on its way. You can’t outrun an avalanche and the best prevention could be to get out of its way if you can. This may not be possible in a widening valley or if the snow is too soft for you to move quickly. The ideal would be to split up and keep a sharp eye on one another. On no account must more than one or a pair of your team be caught in the same avalanche. So scatter around as fast and far as you can. Take shelter behind a tree or big boulder if there’s one. In a forest, climbing a tree is a good option. In an avalanche prone zone it is best to keep your emergency gear, comm. Set, food, tools etc on your person so that you can ditch your heavy backpacks when it hits you without losing your essentials. Put on helmets to prevent any head injury due to the flying ice blocks or debris.

While camping if you have even a bit of doubt then change your camping area. If unavoidable then spread out the tents, keeping the strongest members and the SAR gear furthest away from the threat side. If you have four tents then spreading out in a diamond shape is ideal keeping the line of the avalanche away from your primary axis. If you have only one tent, just get the hell out of there. If camping in a danger zone is unavoidable then you must find a location that will break and minimize the avalanche mass and volume by the time it reaches you. Like in and around crevasses or on a ridge between two avalanche faces. In matters of avalanches you can never be too cautious. So when in doubt err to the side of over caution.

Avalanches are a breathtaking and mind numbing sight as much as they are frightening, so while some of us (self included) may be tempted to take out our cameras to shoot the scene when it is roaring at us at hundreds of kmph, let’s see what we should ideally do when we absolutely can’t avoid it and must allow it to take us into its fold and do whatever it has to thereafter. I remember once after I had given a slide talk show at a place a young lad and a prospective climber stood up to ask me what should one do if caught in an avalanche. Without batting an eye I told him that in that case there was nothing that you can do, whatever has to be done will be done by the avalanche, at the best you may pray to all the gods you could remember at that time. The hall had erupted in laughter and the lad had slinked away silently. Probably on that day I ended up discouraging a young boy from going up in the hills but any of my climbing colleagues would know that I was simply being truthful.

Prevention is the only method known to man to escape an avalanche. Honestly how many of us really carry a personal locator beacon or transponder or aqualungs. I doubt if majority of the people regularly going to the mountains have ever used one in their life. On a serious climb we are so hard pressed for space and weight that we tend to sacrifice most of the stuff that is not absolutely essential to keep us alive, and even though I posses a PLB and an aqualung, I have carried them only once and that too for a trial run. These are more used by the SAR teams and schools or by the Indian, Chinese and Pakistani military people.

An avalanche will either carry you on the surface or bury you underneath. Even if you are lucky to experience the former case levitation for a while, eventually the gathering mass will overcome you and thrust you deep inside, from where escape all by yourself is highly unlikely. So what do you do when you know that it is going to hit you and there’s absolutely no way you can get out of its way?

If you are inside the tent and have been caught unawares, stay inside and pray that the tent poles and fabric will keep you safe. On four occasions this is what kept me alive. If you are on the move and the avalanche is rushing towards you then first and foremost, don’t panic (this is the most ludicrous thing one can say under any situation). Drop your backpack to make yourself lighter, scream at the top of your voice to let your team mates know what’s happening, tie a thin cloth or scarf around your nose and mouth and ears so that it prevents any ingress of powder snow into any of the orifices, turn your back towards the avalanche and raise your arms wide skyward as if seeking providential intervention, and wait. The moment the avalanche front hits you let yourself go and rise with the occasion as if on a wave like a surfer. Don’t panic, even if you are shitting bricks. Keep your head high and breathe normally, no opening of mouth or sudden huge intake of air. Don’t resist the down-flow of the avalanche, go with it, supporting yourself with your arms and back and try to gain as horizontal position as possible and stay atop the moving mass of ice. By now your head must be getting morbidly bashed up by ice and other unknown objects. Hope like hell you are still conscious. Soon enough you will either lose your sense or orientation or both and will sink in as the ice will pull you down within. As soon as you feel being pulled in, get your arms close to your body and palms around your face. Start throwing the snow from around your face to make some room around your nose and ears and eyes. Keep your body as horizontal as possible, this will increase your surface area and prevent deeper sinking, it’s like being afloat on water.

No avalanche lasts for more than few minutes. By that time either it has lost its momentum and mass or slope and has spread out harmlessly. If you get caught up in anything bigger and longer then this post will be of no help to you. Now once you stop moving, you must keep shifting and patting the quickly accumulating ice from around your face and jerk your body with short jerks as if in a fever. No sudden or big movements or desperate twists to free your legs or torso, which will only pin it down further. Only tiny jerks allowed to keep the immediate snow from becoming packed solid. I know by now you will be scared to death but if you are not dead then there’s no point in giving up. Keep patting the snow around your face and keep widening the area around your nose. At the same time feel the weight of the snow above. You have no idea which way surface lies and how far above since you could be lying face down or up. The only way is to feel the weight build up. It will always happen towards the direction of the surface. So judge this even as you are getting crushed. Don’t panic. Breathe really shallow and slow to make the air pocket in front of your face last the longest. Count something; think of your loved ones or your obituary anything that will keep you away from panic or giving up. I always think of my old friend ‘death’ and hold a convivial conversation with him.

The moment everything becomes silent, you know that the avalanche has stopped. Move after thirty counts. If you were with other people in the team then hope like hell at least some of them escaped and would come looking. If you were alone, this is the time to recall all your sins and repent. But don’t panic. If you have been able to keep your hands free and know which side is surface then you can slowly start digging upwards, but this is very difficult and nigh impossible. Even then do it slowly and gently as if wiping dew from a leave. If you rush or dig too fast the snow will solidify faster and you would exhaust the limited air earlier. Unless you are not buried too deep and someone was close at hand to dig you out, then you really don’t have a chance of survival from an avalanche burial. There’s actually little that can practically be done by the victim. In my own life, during all my deep burials I couldn’t do nearly 30% of the steps I have recommended here and mind you for me such things are more of an instinct, so I really don’t expect that you will be able to do any more so it actually boils down to your destiny. On one occasion while I lay in my dark dungeon breathing my last few mortal breaths and sharing a joke with death, the poke of a probe hit my nose and I grabbed it with all might. When I was extracted out, we found that all my other four rope mates were dead barely within a radius of few meters from me.

If not the victim what can you do? These are not meant for the professional SAR teams but for the team members those who are present on the spot, whose team members are the victims.

If you are not going to be hit by the avalanche then simply don’t panic and from the best vantage point keep a sharp lookout for your friend who is going under. This is one reason why wearing bright colored clothes is recommended. Don’t lose sight of your friend, specially the last spot where you saw him. Mark it mentally with a non-moving reference point and wait for the avalanche to stop. Remember once it stops you must move with maximum speed you can since every minute can make the difference between life and death. From the last point where you saw him draw an imaginary line leading towards the avalanche flow and start your probe around 10 m from the spot down slope. Keep a sharp look for any of his clothing, rucksack, etc sticking out of the snow and walk slowly to prevent a secondary slide happening. Use your probe judiciously and in a widening rectangle, from the start point. If you have PLBs then of course you must know how to use it, so there. If there is more than one in the rescue team then it is best to divide the area for searching. A probe can hit your friend and stop or it can be grabbed by him. In either case it is rather difficult to make out what’s happening below. So be slow and steady with each probe. If you suspect anything then do dig to some depth with your shovel. The digging must be done obliquely and slowly to avoid hitting the victim below. Most often in a real burial the rescuer ends up with a huge feeling of guilt as mostly the victim dies since he could not be reached in time but try to keep such thoughts out of your mind. Here time and methodology is of utmost importance and you are indeed doing a job that very few on earth has ever been called upon to perform.

With this I would conclude this post. I would request all of you to give the widest publicity possible of this through your network, even if you would never go to such places, someone else may. If there’s any clarification or doubts you have please send me a mail (through my profile) or leave a comment and I will certainly get back to you. Please remember that nearly all avalanche deaths are avoidable and let not ignorance be the cause for death. If one chooses to risk life after knowledge then so be it – and I of all the people around is one of them.


  1. Hey Satya. Bang on as always. Would be very helpful even if few of the above steps are carried out before, during & after the Avalanche.
    Is it alright if I post it on HC's yahoo group?

  2. Speechless! i wonder why u do what u do, S. Don't tell me, i already know, but still i wonder
    If ever life permits me to climb your precious mountains the way u do, i will only do it with u, for with u i will be safe of all misfortunes, for sure! so, no worries for me, all for u, to keep me safe :-)

  3. Nothing Interesting