What to do when you’re in an avalanche?
There are many urban myths out there about what to do when you are caught in an avalanche. For example ‘you need to pee so the avalanche rescue dogs can find you easier’ or ‘you need to spit so you know what is up and down’. Funny, but not very useful in practice. When the avalanche comes to a stop it can feel like concrete. Spitting (let alone digging yourself out once you know up from down) is no longer an option. And if you do not pee in your pants anyway, that is not very useful because it will take a while for the avalanche rescue dog to get to you—if they are even in the area in the first place.
Research by ICAR (International Commission of Alpine Rescue) shows that people who are completely buried by an avalanche (head is under the snow) have a survival rate of 50 percent. It is vital not to get buried completely—obviously easier said than done. But here are some tips, depending on where in the avalanche you are located. It will not be easy and there is no guarantee for success. But anything is better than nothing.
1) The avalanche starts right beneath you
Try to keep from sliding with it (taking a step uphill in you're on skis, or trying to dig into the bed surface with your edges are techniques that have worked for others). If that does not work, try to angle toward one of the sides and ride out of the avalanche. Also get the attention of the rest of the group by yelling loudly, so they can keep watching you.
2) You fell and are sliding along
Try to get up on your board or skis and try your best to move toward the side and out of the avalanche. Again, try to get the attention of your group by yelling loudly, so they can keep observing you. Pull your avalanche airbag.
3) You find yourself in the midst of the first large gliding blocks
Try to push yourself away from the blocks and steer toward the flanks of the avalanche. If you can't manage to ski or snowboard out of the avalanche, throw your poles away and try to get your skis off. Your skis and snowboard function like an anchor in an avalanche and will pull you down. As a snowboarder or telemarker you are in a real disadvantage here. This is the moment to pull your airbag.
4) You are in the middle of it
Legs down, arms up and roll sideways to the flanks of the avalanche. Keep an angle of 40 degrees towards the fall line and try with your arms to literally swim upwards. Grab as much of the snowpack that is not sliding and move like that to the flanks.
5) The avalanche is at full force
Try, just like in a river, to swim against the current. With even more force and arm movements than in step four. You want to be as close to the surface as possible when the avalanche stops.
6) The speed of the avalanche is reducing
This is identical to step four and five. Make sure you get on top of the gliding snow mass and try to stay there. Never ever swim downwards and keep paddling against the current.
7) The avalanche comes to a stop
Be prepared that the avalanche can come to a sudden stop and so will you. With some luck you managed to stay high in the avalanche an by swimming/struggling against the current, so much snow is already below you. The same rule still applies: feet downhill. Once you feel the avalanche has come to stop, you must try to get something sticking out of the avalanche. An arm or a leg—anything that can make you visible from the surface so your friends can find you sooner. Push one arm actively outwards and eventually upwards. Move your other arm across your face to the opposite shoulder to create an air bubble around your head and mouth. Once you come to a stop you must calm yourself and wait. Your friends are already in action to get you out.
Only 50 percent of victims who get completely buried beneath an avalanche survive. Try your very best to get out of the avalanche, and if you can not, to stay above the snow. Success is not a guarantee but it is better to fight than to do nothing.