Avalanche survival: Carrying the right gear and beacon may save your life

Avalanche in progress

You don't want to be in the way of this
You don't want to be in the way of this

A modern rescue transceiver

This is a typical modern avalanche beacon that can be used in transmit or search mode
This is a typical modern avalanche beacon that can be used in transmit or search mode

Improve your chances of surviving an avalanche

Nothing can compare with the freedom and beauty of heading off piste on your skis or snowboard. It can feel like the mountains below to you. But this feeling comes at a price - head away from the regular slopes and you greatly increase the risk of running into an avalanche, or slide.

Your first line of defence is knowledge. Read up what you can on understanding the snow conditions that lead to avalanches. Better yet, go on a course. There is nothing like learning by doing. But sometimes even being careful is not enough to keep you safe. if you are hit by an avalanche slide, then you need to hope that your equipment is good enough to help you survive or to help you rescue your companions.

The three minimum bits of avalanche safety gear that you need if you are going off piste are:

  1. An avalanche transceiver (sometimes called an avalanche beacon)
  2. An avalanche probe
  3. A snow shovel

These are not only the bare minimum of safety equipment, but are now also compulsory in some places such as Piedmont in Italy, where you can get a fine if you don't have these handy.

An Avalung

A device for breathing while buried under snow. This one is built into a backpack
A device for breathing while buried under snow. This one is built into a backpack

Avalanche shovel

A modern collapsable avalanche shovel that will stow neatly in your backpack
A modern collapsable avalanche shovel that will stow neatly in your backpack

Choosing a transceiver (or avalanche beacon)

Backcountry beacons have come a long way in recent years and have become a lot more reliable and easier to use. Most have two modes, a basic transmit and receive. When you are out on the slopes your beacon should be strapped tightly to you and set to transmit. This produces the signal that will help rescuers get to you within the crucial 15 minutes or so that you have to maximize your chances of surviving an avalanche. If you are trying to rescue someone else who has been caught in a slide and buried under the snow, you need to set your transceiver to receive - this will allow it to search for signals and give you an direction in which to start searching. The very best of the new digital snow beacons provide not only direction but also estimated distance. Some, such as the Mammut pulse even go a step further and allow you to track multiple other beacons and to tell which are still moving (in other words alive) and may need help first.

An avalanche probe

This is nothing fancier than an overpriced stick that fold up. Nonetheless it can be a real life saver as you need one to narrow down the final few meters of searching for someone buried under the snow.

A sturdy avalanche shovel

Paying upwards of $50 for a rescue shovel may seem a lot of money for such a simple tool. But these are real lifesavers. If you need to move snow quickly, this is just the thing.Just make sure it is sturdy. Aluminium rescue shovels are far more likely to chop through tough ice and compacted snow than the plastic avalanche shovels that most stores sell. There is no point carrying emergency gear that will break just when you need it most.

One you have the basics (to which I would add a helmet) you can think about spending more serious money on survival gear that is aimed at helping you survive an avalanche. The first is a breather such as the Avalung, which helps you survive under the snow for longer periods of time by keeping your stale breath away from your inhalations. That way you can use the tiny bubbles of air trapped in loosely-packed snow and survive for up to an hour. An Avalung will also help keep snow out of your mouth and nose during an avalanche.

How does an Avalung work?

An Avalung is a simple piece of equipment that works on its own or is integrated into a backpack. The principle is that it helps you to carry on breathing while buried in snow by directing your stale air out of one side while feeding fresh air from a different point. It can extend your survival time under snow from about 15 minutes to as long as an hour.

How do avalanche airbags work?

The second sort of equipment, much favoured in Europe, consists of various sorts of inflatable airbags such as the Avalanche Airbag System (ABS), or the Snowpulse. These are meant to help you "float" to the surface of a snow slide and either keep you from being buried completely or at least leave you much more shallowly buried. The Swiss authorities have a long list of people saved by these.

Whatever you choose, make sure you know how it works. Enjoy and be safe out there.

Helmet-cam footage of a snow burial and rescue

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    Another life saved

    Beautiful but dangerous

    Photo by Kevin Bernier
    Photo by Kevin Bernier

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