The Realities of Escaping an Avalanche for Snowboarders and Skiers (Surviving Concrete Snow)

by Simon Knott | Published: January 16th, 2023 |  Skiing Articles

Avalanches are powerful forces of nature that can catch out the unwary. But where does the danger lie?

The greatest danger with avalanches is underestimating them and not having prepared accordingly. Avalanches are unpredictable and provide a little warning at the outset. It is very difficult to outrun an avalanche and when caught in one you are helpless. When the avalanche stops the snow sets solid around you, making escape almost impossible.

Avalanche danger sign

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What Is An Avalanche & How Are They Created?

An avalanche is a free-flowing mass of snow and ice that travels down a mountain, sometimes at more than 200 mph (320 kph). They are dangerous and unpredictable and, on average, kill 24 skiers each year in the US.

The physics and mechanics of avalanches are very complex, as numerous factors affect their formation and initiation. The climate, prevailing weather, snowfall, and mountain topography are just a few of the features that influence their formation.

Often precipitating factors include a large difference between the air temperature and the ground temperature. This differential can be enough to melt a layer of snow crystals, which lose their structure and become unstable, eventually collapsing into an avalanche.

Avalanches can travel at incredible speeds, and they can also involve enormous quantities of moving snow. In a large avalanche, it’s not unusual for more than 1 million tonnes of snow to hurtle down the mountainside. As the snow gathers momentum, it has to push the air, at the front, out of the way, often with explosive force.

According To The Conditions, There Are Different Types of Avalanche

There are numerous types of avalanches, all created and set off by different circumstances. For skiers and snowboarders, the most dangerous type is the slab avalanche. Here, successive snowfalls land on the surface of the previous one.

This may have undergone freezing and refreezing over a series of days to create an icy surface. Consequently, the new layer won’t have secure foundations to keep it in place.

Eventually, with temperature changes, an entire slab will break away and start sliding down the mountain. As the slab picks up momentum, it breaks up and starts rolling in larger pieces, collecting new snow from the slope as it travels.

Risks Are Different Throughout The Year

Mountain Avalance

Avalanches are most frequent during spring and on south-facing slopes, where the heat of the sun is enough to release the snow. In contrast, most skiers get hurt in avalanches during the cold months of December, January, and February on a North-facing incline.

There are many precautions you can take to safeguard yourself from avalanches but even so, seasoned back-country skiers can sometimes get caught out.

Advice: It’s been shown that in 90% of avalanche incidents, the victim or someone from their group sets off the avalanche and that 90% of these incidents are caused by a slab avalanche.

What Happens To A Skier In An Avalanche?

snow avalanche

If you are caught at the start of an avalanche but you might be able to ski to one side to escape it. However, if you find yourself being carried along by the snow, you will have little control over your destiny. Luckily, there are a few actions you can take to improve your chances of survival:

By making breaststroke swimming movements, you should be able to get closer to the surface of the avalanche rather than completely caught in it. The snow in an avalanche acts as a fluid, and so, in just the same way as swimming in the water, you can improve your buoyancy.

The avalanche snow is three times lighter than the human body, so it’s necessary to swim to keep nearer the top of the avalanche actively.

Someone with experience of having been caught in an avalanche described it as being caught in a train crash, where he was somersaulting down the mountain surrounded by swirling snow. He felt under pressure, as if underneath a huge wave, and he couldn’t catch his breath.

What Is The Main Reason Why Avalanches Are So Dangerous for Snowboarders or Skiers?

Good to Know: The greatest danger with avalanches is that skiers and snowboarders underestimate them, and consequently, they don’t take adequate precautions.

Most avalanche victims die from suffocation. As the avalanche stops moving, the snow locks together, creating a rigid structure that is almost impossible to escape from. Some air is trapped between the crystals, but as it is not replaced, it soon gets used up.

The same air is breathed again and again, but each time it contains more CO2 as the lungs remove the oxygen. Eventually, the CO2 becomes toxic, which is called hypercapnia. Unless you can find your way to fresh air, you are unlikely to survive.

The power of an avalanche isn’t always evident, and it’s easy to sustain broken limbs or an internal injury as you tumble down the mountainside inside it.

Once the avalanche stops, you are quickly surrounded by tight-packed, freezing snow. Your body temperature will rapidly fall, and hypothermia will take over.

avalanche beacon

Can’t You Just Climb Out?

When you are caught in an avalanche, the snow in the base acts almost like a liquid, surging its way down the mountainside. On top of this, there is a thick layer of lighter snow that floats like a thick mist on top of the snow underneath.

Advice: As the base snow comes to a halt, all the individual snow crystals lock together, and it suddenly changes from a liquid to a compacted, dense solid. Trying to make any movements is almost impossible as the snow surrounds the body.

If you have been lucky, possibly making breaststroke motions, you might be closer to the surface of the snow. You might be able to get yourself free or at least be able to attract attention.

What Can You Do To Help Yourself In An Avalanche?

If you are caught in an avalanche, there are several actions you can take to improve your chances of survival:

  • It’s very difficult to have the presence of mind, but if you can lose your skis, poles, and your backpack. This makes you lighter and more buoyant, so you will ‘float’ higher in the avalanche snow.
  • If you pass any trees, try to grab one. It might give you some shelter, and you might be able to create an air pocket to breathe from.
  • Make a breaststroke swimming action. The avalanche snow acts like a liquid when moving, so you can improve your buoyancy by ‘swimming’ toward the surface.
  • Ensure you keep your mouth clear of snow - so your airways are clear.
  • As the avalanche comes to a halt, try to make a pocket in front of your face to breathe and punch with your fist in the direction of the surface. You might create a hole for air or even attract attention.

What’s The Best Way To Avoid An Avalanche?

Get yourself educated. If you intend to ski in avalanche risk areas, take an avalanche course, where you will learn about the risks, equipment, and best practice. This will help you to stay away from avalanches, as well as what to do in the unlikely event you get caught in one.