Avalanche Safety

During the winter months, mountainous areas provide breathtaking scenery and an excellent opportunity to enjoy recreational activities.  Although wintertime in the mountains can be beautiful and exhilarating, it can also be extremely dangerous.  Those who live and travel through mountainous regions have always reckoned with the deadly force of avalanches.  Each year, there are over 150 fatalities directly attributed to avalanches; this number has drastically increased since the 1950s due to the growing popularity of recreational activities.  Thousands more are caught unprepared causing injuries or people to find themselves partly buried beneath the snow.  If you plan to visit or live in an area that is prone to avalanches, it is vital to stay informed on weather conditions and prepare for such an event.

SafetyWhat areas in the U.S. are most prone to avalanches?

Avalanches can occur anywhere given the right conditions, but nearly 90% of all avalanches occur on slopes with an angle between 30 and 45 degrees.  Of all the countries around the globe, the United States ranks fifth for the greatest number of avalanches and resulting fatalities.  Areas most prone to avalanches include mountain passes in Colorado, Utah, and Alaska, and in areas of Montana, California, Wyoming, and Hawaii.

When are you at most risk?

Avalanches occur during every month of the year, but most “run” between December and April.  The greatest loss of life occurs from January to March since this is when most of the snowfall occurs.  There are also a significant number of occurrences in May in June due to spring snows and melting with the increased temperatures.  Many recreationists are caught off guard during the melting season, which is even more reason to take precautions.

What safety gear should you take in the event of an avalanche?

Ideally, it is better to avoid avalanches by tracking weather and terrain conditions where you are. However, there are a few tips and avalanche safety supplies that just might save your life in case of an emergency.

Portable shovels are compact and lightweight so they are easy to store in your pack or vehicle.  They drastically reduce the time it takes to dig a victim out of the snow and improves their chances of survival.  On average, it would take about 45 minutes to remove one square meter of snow by hand to and only 10 minutes with a shovel.  Every minute counts, especially when facing suffocation or hypothermia.  Avalanche probes are also easy to carry and very effective when searching for people if there are no visible clues to their location.

Beacons or transceivers are the most effective piece of equipment that provides the fastest way of locating victims.  The transceiver emits a frequency that allows rescuers to home in on their signal when used properly.  Simple mistakes, such as not switching the transceiver to “transmit” or not understanding how to use it, can have deadly consequences.  If you purchase one, make sure you know how to operate it before hitting the backcountry.

When rescuers are sent to find survivors after an avalanche, every second counts.  Being prepared and carrying the proper equipment could mean the difference between life and death, so make sure to plan ahead.  Don’t let fear prevent you from enjoying your favorite recreational activities, but make sure you are well informed and have all the necessary gear to ensure everyone’s safety.

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