It's Avalanche Season...Again.

How do skiers, snowboarders, climbers and snowshoers get in avalanches? And more importantly, what are your chances if you do?
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How do skiers, snowboarders, climbers and snowshoers get in avalanches? And more importantly, what are your chances if you do?

According to avalanche.org, a confederation of regional forecast centers, so far this year in North America, 45 people have been killed in avalanches.

Nineteen of those were snowmobilers. One was just shoveling beneath a steep roof and died in a freak slide from the steep gable above. The other 25 deaths were backcountry recreationists.

Yet even a detailed examination of those 25 fatalities tells a mere fraction of the story. The actual number of avalanche accidents where people are seriously injured is probably 5 times higher – at least. And for every serious accident, there may be 10 or 20 close calls and long rides where the test hamster got lucky and walked away clean.

In the wake of tragic avalanche deaths media analysis often concentrates on snow conditions, weather forecasts, beacons and shovels. But the major contributing factor isn’t snowpack conditions, it’s the people involved. Let’s face it campers, the biggest danger in the woods is the one you see in your mirror every morning. Take it from a long-time ski town resident, on every sunny powder weekend, throughout the mountain sports meccas of East and West, it’s a full-on lemming festival.

On February 26th the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center reported four separate human triggered avalanches - that they’d heard about – on one day when good skiing and warm afternoon temperatures whipped up a perfect storm of subtle danger and balmy, confidence-inducing weather. And that was a Tuesday. Mix together a bluebird weekend, and a frantic adventure sports scene where everyone’s trying to be radical, and its mayhem chowder.

On that eventful Tuesday, avalanche forecasters on patrol in the steep but small Wasatch Range could look across the high ridgetops and see parties doing what they called “really stupid things in the heat of the afternoon.” In Toledo Bowl, just across from Alta, one such group traversed en masse across an open slope and triggered a 100-foot-wide slab avalanche. Three of the five people were Maytagged 400 vertical feet, losing much of their equipment. There’s never, ever, an excuse for multiple people being caught, but local deities apparently cut this crew some slack, and they all limped away to pass on their genes. In neighboring Big Cottonwood Canyon, another skier triggered a slab jumping off appropriately named Cardiac Ridge, but he was skiing for a filming project, so that might not qualify as an actual accident. SAR authorities don’t yet have a category for celluloid-induced, Jackass-style suicide attempts.

In the wake of ever more radical adventure culture, increasingly sophisticated avalanche beacons, and stranger safety gear like the Avalung  - all of which can generate the illusion that expertise improves your survival chances once the slope cracks - it’s worth revisiting a few statistics here. The stats below vary slightly from area to area, and year to year, but for the most part these numbers are timeless. Keep in mind these are survival stats only. No one tallies how many people end up with injuries that end their athletic career, or how long ‘lucky’ victims spend in physical therapy. It’s not a pretty picture.

-- According to a 1992 Swiss study of 332 complete burials, uninjured avalanche victims had a 93 percent chance of survival up to 15 minutes. After 45 minutes their chances were less than 30 percent.

--According to a 1989 Norwegian study “…the immediate cause of death in most cases was general body compression with acute respiratory and circulatory failure.”

--According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center  89 percent of victims are men, most between the ages of 20 and 29. Three-quarters were experienced backcountry skiers, boarders and climbers. Most have beacons and shovels and an avalanche class under their belt.

--The prime range for avalanche dangers is on slopes between 30 and 60 degrees in angle; 30 to 40 degrees is a prime deep powder skiing and boarding angle.

-- Overall, only about half of all avalanche victims survive the avalanche and are not buried to the point they can’t breath. Roughly 5 percent of avalanche victims who are not buried die from trauma injuries.

--The other half of avalanche victims get buried, and can’t breathe. One in five of these buried victims die from trauma, not suffocation. Out of the 80 percent who don’t die from trauma, 75 percent have blocked airways due to snow being packed tightly into their throat, or are buried so tight they can’t breathe well. These victims can only survive a few minutes, and the 40-minute curve means nothing. (Translation: If you get buried, forget about breathing or moving, and your throat will probably be packed.)

-- Only one quarter of completely buried victims (roughly 12 percent of the total) have clear airways, or can breathe through an opening to the outside. Only these victims have a good chance to survive more than a few minutes.

--Short version: Avoidance is your best policy, and definitely your first line of defense. In fact, if you’re an avalanche ‘expert’, that might be a predisposing factor, because it tends to give one the idea that you can accurately gauge slope-by-slope stability, or control your fate once the slide goes off. Fat chance.

The most important avalanche safety tools you can carry are: a smart touring policy, and a conservative approach to skiing, crossing, or getting underneath steep slopes when conditions are iffy. If you wouldn’t ski it solo, don’t ski it at all. Come back when conditions are better. Anything else is just a false sense of security. A conservative approach to avalanche danger may not be glamorous, and skiing, climbing or boarding conservatively won’t get your video a high rating on Youtube. But it’s the smart way to go, because without life, there is no adrenalin.

Stay safe,

Steve Howe