(Reno, Nev.) – Mountains attract climbers, skiers, snowmobilers and outdoor enthusiasts hoping to conquer the slopes. Yet, this kind of recreation brings its own set of risks. Each year, avalanches claim more than 150 lives worldwide, a number that has been increasing over the past few decades. Thousands more are caught in avalanches, partly buried or injured. REMSA would like to remind individuals to be safe around snowy areas.
· Avoiding avalanches in the first place is much easier than trying to survive one. Avalanche safety starts even before you begin your travel. In addition to keeping an eye out for weather and terrain conditions, there are steps you can take ahead of time to help you or other members of your party if you are caught in an avalanche.
· Proper equipment can be a critical factor in rescue efforts. Avalanches kill in two ways. A victim will either endure fatal trauma (collisions with rocks or trees) during an avalanche or will suffocate after they are buried by snow. Suffocation is more common, and avoidable with the correct equipment.
· Portable, lightweight shovels made of plastic and aluminum are compact and can be carried in a pack.
· Collapsible probes or ski-pole probes are also easy to carry along. The two poles can then be joined together to form a probe. Probing is essential to finding a buried victim if there are no visible clues on the surface.
Avalanche beacons (transceivers) are the most commonly used rescue device and are standard equipment for ski-area patrollers and heli-ski operators. When properly used, they provide the fastest way of locating a victim. It is critical to have the transceiver set to “transmit” during your outing.
· Remember that more than one transceiver unit is required.
· Using beacons requires practice. When purchasing a unit, learn how to use it properly, and practice using it frequently.
Carrying this equipment may mean the difference between life and death for someone buried in an avalanche. Statistics show that most survivors are dug out within 15 to 30 minutes. For victims buried longer than 30 minutes, survival chances decrease drastically. In fact, U.S. statistics show that victims buried longer than 45 minutes rarely survive.
If you are caught in an avalanche
Yell and let go of ski poles and get out of your pack to make yourself lighter. Use “swimming” motions, thrusting upward to try to stay near the surface of the snow. When avalanches come to a stop and debris begins to pile up, the snow can set as hard as cement.
If you are in over your head (not near the surface), try to maintain an air pocket in front of your face using your hands and arms, punching into the snow. When an avalanche finally stops, you will have from one to three seconds before the snow sets.
· Also, take a deep breath to expand your chest and hold it; otherwise, you may not be able to breathe after the snow sets. To preserve air space, yell or make noise only when rescuers are near you.
Above all, do not panic. Keeping your breathing steady will help preserve your air space and extend your survival chances.
Rescuing a victim
Try to watch the victim as they are carried down the slope, paying particular attention to the point you last saw them.
When traveling with a large party, you may want to send someone for help immediately while the rest of you search. If you are the only survivor, do a quick visual search. If you don’t see any visual clues, and you don’t have transceivers, then go for help.
Begin looking for clues on the surface (a hand or foot, piece of clothing, ski pole, etc.), beginning with the point where they were last seen. As you move down the slope, kick over any large chunks of snow that may reveal clues.
Once the victim is found, it is critical to unbury them as quickly as possible.
If you lost sight of the victim early during the avalanche, or if there are no visible clues on the surface, mark where the victim was last seen.
For those using probes, begin at the point the victim was last seen at. Or if you have a good idea of where they were buried, begin in that area.
After searching for clues, or using transceivers and/or probes, still does not reveal the location of the victim, it may be time to rely on outside help. Nearby ski resorts will be staffed with personnel experienced to handle these situations.
Avalanche quick checks
Following is a list of quick checks you can make throughout the day:
· What have the weather conditions been over the past few days? Recent heavy snows?
· Can you observe any wind loading on the slopes?
· Do you have a good sense of the snowpack? Have you performed any snow pit or shear tests?
· Have you noticed many fracture lines, heard “whumping” or cracking sounds, or hollow noises in the snowpack?
· Are you keeping an eye on the orientation and steepness of the slopes as you cross them?
· Are you lingering in gullies, bowls, or valleys?
· Noticed any recent avalanche activity on other slopes similar to the one you are on?
· If a slope looks suspect, are there alternative routes?
Extra precautions to take
· If there is no alternative to crossing a suspect slope, do so one person at a time to minimize risk.
· When descending or ascending a slope, try to stay as far to the sides of a potential avalanche chute as possible to decrease your chances of being caught if an avalanche runs.
· Be aware of the condition of those in your party. If someone is tired, hungry, or cold they may not be using their best judgement.
· Remain constantly aware of changing weather or temperature conditions, particularly if your outing will last more than a few hours.
· Consider avalanche rescue equipment, such as beacons, ski-pole probes, and collapsible shovels, as a necessary part of your backcountry gear.
Avalanche factors: what conditions cause an avalanche?
Several factors may affect the likelihood of an avalanche, including weather, temperature, slope steepness, slope orientation (whether the slope is facing north or south), wind direction, terrain, vegetation, and general snowpack conditions.
Keep in mind that some of these conditions, such as temperature and snowpack, can change on a daily or even hourly basis.
Simply ask yourself, when are conditions sufficient to cause a mass of snow to slide down a slope?
REMSA is a high-performance, private, locally-governed, non-profit healthcare organization and emergency medical services agency serving northern Nevada since 1986. Through an exclusive franchise agreement, REMSA provides Washoe County’s 420,000 residents with 24/7 ALS and ILS ground ambulance services. REMSA also encompasses Care Flight, a regional helicopter, airplane and ground critical care transport service; Care Flight also operates Care Flight Ground in Plumas County. REMSA offers a Nevada-licensed, post-secondary educational institution, a state-of-the-art, fully accredited 9-1-1 dispatch communications center, a Tactical Emergency Medical Support team and special events EMS teams. REMSA and Care Flight are Always Ready.