Avalanche Safety

By Don Graydon.

Climbers have many ways to minimize the risk of avalanches and to increase their chances of survival if one hits.
Safe Route Selection.

Seek routes that limit exposure to danger.

  • Favor windward slopes, which tend to be more stable.
  • Avoid leeward slopes where winds have deposited snow slabs.
  • Choose the least-steep slopes that will get you where you want to go.
  • Favor the edges of slopes; avalanches are less likely, and safety is closer in case one occurs.
  • Be suspicious of the convex rollover at the top of a slope -- a point of stress that can trigger an avalanche.
  • Be careful of shaded slopes in winter and the very warm sunny slopes of spring.
  • Be particularly cautious of slopes of 35 to 45 degrees; use an inclinometer to identify them.
  • Avoid gullies, which can be chutes for large quantities of snow that can deeply bury you or sweep you away.
  • Keep aware of the run-out below snow slopes and gullies, especially avoiding areas with cliffs below.
  • Avoid camp locations in valleys that can be exposed to avalanche danger from above.
  • Develop "avalanche eyeballs" by continually evaluating avalanche danger and its potential consequences.
How to Survive an Avalanche.

If you're caught in an avalanche, don't give up; fight to survive. Yell to your partners. Jettison any gear you want to get rid of.

  1. At the start, grab a rock or tree, or dig your ax or ski pole into the snow, to stop yourself before you're swept away. If that doesn't work, swim.
  2. Close your mouth if your head goes below the surface. As the snow slows, thrust upward.
  3. If you are buried, try to make a breathing space by putting your elbow or hand in front of your face. Inhale deeply before the snow stops, in order to expand your ribs.
  4. As the snow closes around you, it will become impossible to move. Don't shout or struggle. Conserve oxygen and energy.
  5. Your partners should know what to do, and they will begin immediate rescue efforts.
How to Cross a Questionable Slope.
  1. Before heading out onto the slope, put on hat, mittens, and warm clothing, and zip up.
  2. Decide whether you will abandon your pack if an avalanche hits. A light pack may protect your back and offer some buoyancy, but a heavy pack could drag you down.
  3. Undo ski-pole straps. Use releasable bindings; remove the straps that connect the boots to the bindings.
  4. When the route lies up a slope (and you're walking, not skiing), head straight up the fall line instead of switchbacking, which can undercut the snow.
  5. On a traverse, only one person moves at a time, crossing with long, smooth strides, being careful not to cut a trench across the slope.
  6. Each climber follows in turn, stepping in the leader's footprints.
  7. Don't fall. On an avalanche-ready slope, the impact of your body falling is like a little bomb going off.

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