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Know the Snow: Improving your odds

Posted: November 30, 2012 - 1:00am
Avoidance in obvious avalanche terrain and avalanche snow conditions is the best escape plan, and the best defensive strategy.   Graphic courtesy of the Miners Family, Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guids and Karl Birkland
Graphic courtesy of the Miners Family, Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guids and Karl Birkland
Avoidance in obvious avalanche terrain and avalanche snow conditions is the best escape plan, and the best defensive strategy.

Every winter I find myself wondering if my forecast is wrong. I also wonder if a slope I’m about to ski will avalanche as I ski it.

If that were to happen, should I try to outrun the avalanche to the bottom of the slope? Should I try to ski to the side? Perhaps I should dive in and let the avalanche go over my head. Or, maybe it depends on where I am in relation to the avalanche.

Of course, I am not the only one asking these questions. Many other people have been wondering the same thing.

One of those people was Theo Miners. Miners, an Alaskan heli-skiing pioneer, has guided in the extreme terrain of the Chugach Mountain Range since the early 90s. Miners and many of his colleagues have experienced avalanches through stories or first-hand. Instead of giving up his passion and dreams, Miners decided to harvest his experience and develop a set of “Avalanche survival strategies for different parts of a flowing avalanche.” Miners contacted Dr. Karl Birkeland, from the National Avalanche Center, and Dr. Perry Bartelt, an avalanche dynamic researcher from the Swiss Snow and Avalanche Research Institute. Together they merged the theory of avalanche flow with Miners practical experience to compile a set of survival strategies for several types of avalanches.

Miners, Birkeland and Bartlet concluded that the best strategy for surviving an avalanche is to not get caught in the first place.

The question still remains, if you are caught, what is the best survival strategy?

Many avalanches have a similar flow pattern. A slab release is followed by laminar flow, then a stauchwall appears at the bottom of the release area and a violently turbulent zone appears as sliding snow and blocks roll over the stauchwall. After the snow exits the turbulent zone, it flows as a mostly laminar flow and begins its deposition phase. The head of the slide continues to subduct as it compacts and entrains the snow on slope, while rolling forward. Based on the flow of most avalanches and depending on where you are within the slide, there are different possibilities for escape. These strategies are:

1. Try to ski or ride away to the side and away from the avalanche as fast as you can.

2. Self-arrest on bed surface.

3. If you are knocked downhill with skis or snowboard still on, use your skis as a brace and spin on your hip to get skis downhill, stand and ski away (even if you are in a lot of snow this method works in initial phase).

4. If ejected from skis, use back stroke/log roll combination to fight for flank and self-arrest on to flank or bed surface. The main thing to do in this situation is to fight. Any resistance at all will slow your progress as the slide accelerates away from you.

5. If you are in an area of turbulence, do your best to go with the flow. Maintain white water position with feet downhill. After going through the turbulent area you may emerge before the deposition area. Assist the currents of the avalanche with back stroke action once you are through the turbulent area. Continue to try to back stroke and log roll to get to the flanks and self-arrest.

6. Do whatever you can to avoid the head of slide as it is subducting and will pull you down and under the slide. Absolutely do not swim forward of the head of the slide, if you can help it.

7. Use essential equipment for surviving/escaping capture. This includes a helmet to help prevent a head shot and the resulting confusion, an Avalung to maintain breathing and to keep you from gagging (thereby helping to prevent panic), flotation balloon, the usual transceiver/probe/shovel combination, and of course trusted partners.

8. Never give up. It may seem like forever when you are in the avalanche but you only have a few seconds to make a difference and save yourself.

Clearly, when we travel in avalanche terrain, our focus should be on how to not get caught in an avalanche. Also, each avalanche is different and may require different strategy. Still, having a solid plan in case someone unintentionally gets caught in an avalanche might save lives.

Theo Miners died in a tragic accident on Sept. 20, during the International Snow Science Workshop in Anchorage this year. Miners was a father, a friend and colleague. He was a huge supporter of snow science and a great ambassador for avalanche safety. I had the privilege to work with him on several projects in the last few years. He will be missed forever.

• Ron Simenhois is an avalanche forecaster who lives in North Douglas. You may contact him at simenhois.ron@gmail.com.

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