How to Survive an Avalanche

Survival Skills and Techniques

If you’re the victim of an avalanche such as this one, follow these key avalanche survival tips. Photo © Kurt Kincel.

Avalanches are among the most feared outdoor hazards, and even though avalanche education and training is on the rise, avalanches still remain a deadly threat to those who venture out into risky terrain.

Let’s say you’ve put forth your best effort in preparing for avalanche survival by traveling in a group and carrying essential avalanche gear, including a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. Your group is aware of the Avalanche Triangle--the components that contribute to avalanches--and you’re experienced using your gear. Even so--it’s possible to underestimate avalanche potential or to overestimate your ability.

If you become the victim of an avalanche, despite your experience and best efforts at preparation, here’s what to do:

Shout. Alert the others in your group by shouting out to them. Raise your arms and signal while yelling so that they can spot you and mark your location before the avalanche sweeps you away.

Gear up. If you’re equipped with avalanche survival gear such as an AvaLung™ or an avalanche airbag, put the AvaLung™ mouthpiece in your mouth, and activate your avalanche airbag.

Fight to stay on top. If you’re swept off your feet in an avalanche, do whatever you can to keep yourself as close to the surface of the slide as possible. People debate whether or not a swimming motion is the most effective, but if you can increase your surface area using your arms and legs to help you remain on the surface, you will increase your chance of either ending up on the surface of the avalanche when it slides out or being closer to the surface, which will increase your chance of survival. Try to breathe through your nose to prevent snow from gathering in your mouth.

Create an air pocket. As the avalanche slows to a stop, you will be buried alive if you have not managed to remain on the surface. Use one arm in front of your face to create an air pocket around your nose and mouth by pushing snow away from your face so that you can extract air from the snowpack once you’ve stopped moving. Once an avalanche stops, the weight of the snow will prevent you from moving, and you will essentially be frozen in place. For this reason, it’s important to make an air pocket for yourself so that an ice mask does not form around your nose and mouth. An ice mask will block your source of oxygen and contribute to death by asphyxiation.

Raise a hand or pole. If you’ve managed to make an air pocket with one arm and you’re still able to move your other arm as an avalanche slows to a stop, then thrust it upwards towards the avalanche surface. Raised hands, gloves, and poles have helped alert rescuers to victims’ locations. Again, you must use your arm in this way before the avalanche comes to a complete stop when you’re still in a position to move.

Remain calm. Once you’re buried in an avalanche, you won’t be able to move, and snow will be packed around you. If you try to struggle, you will waste valuable oxygen and energy resources. So do your best to remain calm. If you hear rescuers, shout out to them, but otherwise, conserve your energy and wait for rescue.