“The snow breaks all around you like a pane of glass,” says Karl Birkeland, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center in Bozeman, Mont. And when it does, listen for what Birkeland calls “a whumpf sound,” as the slab of snow fractures. Don’t wait to see what happens. Try to find solid ground by moving to the edge of the flow or digging into the stable base layer using your hands, ski edges or poles. If you are swept away, do everything possible to maneuver yourself toward the top of the debris. “If you get buried, you want to be shallow so your friends can dig you out,” Birkeland says.
In the United States, 37 people died in avalanches last winter, most of them backcountry skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers. If you plan to explore ungroomed snowy areas on or below slopes steeper than 30 degrees, go to Avalanche.org and check the conditions (wind and new snow tend to exacerbate risk). Don’t go alone. Equip yourself with an avalanche beacon, a probe and a shovel. Consider buying a pricey avalanche airbag, which inflates and helps buoy you up to the surface of the tumbling snow. Take a safety course.
Inside the whirling whiteness, you might lose your sense of direction. If the snow doesn’t strip off your gear, it will drag you down; wear releasable bindings and keep your wrists out of your pole straps in avalanche terrain. Try to get your feet pointed downhill, belly up, flailing your arms in a backstroking motion. “It’s more like active struggling than swimming,” says Birkeland, who was caught in his first avalanche as a 21-year-old ski patroller in Utah.
If you don’t die from the blunt force of hitting a tree or a rock, and your fellow skiers can dig you out in under 10 minutes, you have about a 90 percent chance of surviving an avalanche. As the avalanche begins to slow, vigorously move one hand in front of your face to create an air pocket (once stopped, you will feel as if you’re encased in concrete). At the same time, punch skyward with your other hand. “There are a lot of people who get found in avalanches with just a hand sticking up out of the snow,” Birkeland says.