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Safety precautions increase chances of survivng an avalanche
Experts are calling this winter the worst avalanche danger that Colorado has seen in the past thirty years. Already the United States has had 18 avalanche related fatalities. Six of these have occurred in the mountains of Colorado.
Colorado is filled with skiers and snowboarders who take their recreations seriously. Many even like to leave ski boundaries and head into the backcountry where the chance of finding fresh snow may be great, but so are the risks.
Backcountry, or out-of-bounds skiing, is legal but dangerous. It refers to skiing down extremely expert terrain that is un-marked by signs, un-groomed, and un-patrolled.
Very few people accidentally find themselves in these areas. Most are inaccessible by ski lift. Backcountry areas that can be reached from ski lifts are roped off or marked with signs.
“That’s kind of where a lot, or most of the deaths are happening. And it has even gotten people that know about these dangers,” Ryan Thompson of the Steamboat Springs Ski Patrol’s avalanche safety team told us.
Everybody is at risk from these powerful forces of nature, even the most experienced outdoor skiers and snowboarders. Just last week professional freestyle skier Willis Brown had his very own encounter with an avalanche.
“I was just filming out in the Irwin back country near Crested Butte. They had a snow, like a two foot snow a couple of days before, but you know, we just decided to give it a go.” Brown and his group were shooting for an upcoming film.
“I just hit this cliff and just, first hit of the day and everything slid right under me down to the ground. Right when I hit I just felt all this snow pushing against my back.”
Brown was lucky to be at the top of where the slide broke off. As an avalanche travels down the ski slope it will gain momentum fast.
“It cracked from me about 100 feet to the left and just all slid down in the trees. I got taken about 20 feet or so and then was able to get an edge.” Brown was lucky his situation wasn’t more severe.
According to the avalanche center, around 90 percent of avalanche accidents involving people occur when the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggers the slide. It’s best to always use caution.
An avalanche can take one man’s powdery ski haven and transform it into a frozen cement coffin in mere seconds. When venturing out of bounds into an unmonitored, uncontrolled environment your best tool is knowledge.
It’s vital to be aware of the local avalanche conditions and weather forecasts before heading out. It is always best to prepare for the worst.
In case of an emergency, certain things should always accompany the backcountry adventurer. An avalanche beacon, a probe, and a shovel are the three items that Pete Lewis of the Steamboat Springs Ski Patrol’s avalanche safety team calls must-haves for traveling into avalanche-prone areas.
In the event that you or someone you are with is covered by a snow slide, wearing beacons will be your best chance for survival. A beacon is an electronic transmitter that has two settings. If someone falls victim to an avalanche, the others in their party can switch their beacons into receive mode and locate the body beneath the snow.
The most important thing is to act fast. According to the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, avalanche victims buried for 30 minutes are given only a 50-percent chance of surviving. Suffocation is the leading cause of avalanche fatalities; only 25 percent of people die from trauma.
“Once the signal has been located and pin pointed you use an avalanche probe, which is a collapsible, extendable, metal wand similar to a tent pole that you use to poke down into the snow to actually find the person who is buried,” says Lewis. You must then work as quickly as possible to resume oxygen flow to the victim.
Much newer to the list of avalanche safety technologies is the backpack air bag. If caught in an avalanche this device could make your chances of survival greater. When deployed, an air bag inflates around the victim’s neck and can help to keep the head above snow.
Letting an outside party know what you’re doing is always important to remember before skiing in unpatrolled areas.
“Let somebody else know your plans. Where you’re planning to be and when you plan to be back. In case there are any problems, somebody will know to look for you,” says Lewis.
We can use technology to help reduce the risk of avalanche fatalities, but we can’t eliminate them. If you’re heading into mountains where there could be snow slides, take the time to learn about avalanche safety.
Take all of the necessary precautions possible. Above all, knowledge is your best defense.