Don't Get Caught In One: Advice For Avalanche Preparedness

Dec 3, 2019

Recent storms have brought a lot of snow to Colorado. And with snow, comes the danger of avalanches. Since the recent winter storm, over 80 avalanches have been observed in our state. 

Ethan Greene, the Director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, joined KUNC's Colorado Edition to give some tips for avoiding an avalanche. 

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Erin O'Toole: We've gotten some early snowstorms. What does this mean for the avalanche season ahead?

Ethan Greene: The avalanche season is really a summary of all the weather events that we have preceding whatever today is. So what we've seen so far in Colorado is we had early snow in October, and then a pretty dry November. Generally that is a recipe for an active avalanche season because that snow that falls in October turns into a very weak base of our snow pack in that dry portion of November. And then when we start seeing more snowstorms and building snow on top of that weak layer, we see avalanches. And that's exactly what we've seen over the past ten days in Colorado.

An explosive triggered persistent slab avalanche from the southern end of the Vail-Summit zone in 2014.
Credit Colorado Avalanche Information Center

What advice do you have for people who are venturing out, in terms of being prepared for avalanches? 

The first thing you want to do is know what type of avalanche hazard you're going to face. Check the avalanche forecast before you go out. The best way to do that is to go to Colorado.gov/avalanche. And just like you're going to climb a 14-er in Colorado in the summertime, you want to check the weather forecast before you go out so you know when the thunderstorms are going to roll in. In the wintertime you want to check the avalanche forecast so you know what sort of conditions you might face and what are the areas that are especially dangerous on that day. 

The second thing you want to do is get a little bit of training. A little bit of education could save your life. If you're going to spend a lot of time in avalanche terrain, I would suggest a multi-day class that has some field time. But even just going on the internet and watching a video or reading an article, might be enough to clue you in to some dangerous situations that you're approaching.

Lastly, make sure that you have proper rescue equipment. Everybody in your group should have an avalanche transceiver, a probe pole and a shovel and know how to use all three of those pieces of equipment. 

"Avalanches are running bigger than many have us have seen in our careers," read a Facebook post from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center accompanying this photo on March 8, 2019.
Credit Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Do you have any tips for surviving if you get caught in an avalanche? 

My tip for surviving an avalanche is to not get caught in one. You have a lot of choices, you can do a lot of things to avoid getting caught in an avalanche, and it's really pretty easy to navigate the mountains of Colorado and stay out of avalanches, if staying out of avalanches is your main goal. 

The things that kill you in avalanches are primarily trauma. So getting injured when you're riding in the avalanche. The next thing that could kill you is you asphyxiate when you're buried in the snow. And then there's a very small chance that you might survive long enough to die of hypothermia.

So the things that you want to do are to address the threats. So if you get caught in an avalanche, the first thing to do is to try to get out of the avalanche. If you can get out of it quickly, you're not going to die from trauma, you're not going to get buried in the debris pile and asphyxiate . If you can't get out, you want to try to stay on top of the debris flow so you don't get buried. And if you can't do that, you want to protect your airway. And that's going to be trying to cover up your mouth, maybe try to get your arm around your head, so that when you get buried,  you've got a little bit of an air pocket. 

One of the big misconceptions about avalanches, is because they're made of snow, and because we're used to the light and fluffy snow that falls out of the sky, that the snow will be light and fluffy at the end of the avalanche. And that is not the case. The snow gets really compacted in an avalanche, so when you come to rest, it's more like being encased in cement than the snow we're used to playing in. A lot of times people can't expand their chests to breathe, you can't move you can't dig yourself out, you need other people to come and rescue you. 

Once you get caught in an avalanche you don't have that many options. So the best thing to do is to put your effort into understanding what the conditions are like today, and choosing a good recreational goal to fit what those conditions are. 

You can find more resources for avalanche preparedness here

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Dec. 3. Listen to the full episode here.