TAHOE/TRUCKEE - You're suffocating in the dark and you can't move. The snow that had seemed so fluffy moments before as you carved wide S turns down the slope is cemented in your nose, your eyes and your mouth. Your life depends on a small avalanche transceiver - if you decided to bring it - and your companions - if you decided to ski with friends.
If you ask Randall Osterhuber, by this point the key mistakes have already been made and much of what he would recommend when it comes to avalanche safety is moot. For Osterhuber, director and treasurer of the Sierra Avalanche Center, the key to surviving an avalanche is to never get caught up in one.
"My first answer would be to get an education and a formal outdoor backcountry class. Since the weather and snowpack change constantly, you have to check the advisory daily," Osterhuber said.
SAC publishes a daily avalanche advisory on its website, www.sierraavalanchecenter.org, that covers the Central Sierra Nevada between Yuba Pass on the north and Ebbetts Pass on the south. The forecast applies only to backcountry areas outside established ski boundaries and describes general avalanche conditions.
It's important to monitor the advisory even when the snowpack is light. In fact, dry winters can sometimes make for the worst avalanche seasons. Last year, there were two avalanche fatalities in the Tahoe basin both caused by an early, weak snowpack that gave way in March as snow accumulated on top.
"The old, weak snow that had been reburied was the fault line. Dry winters can breed especially weak grains within the snowpack," Osterhuber said.
To assess specific conditions for where you're skiing, you need to know what to look for. Donner Summit Avalanche Seminars and Expedition: Kirkwood Avalanche Education both offer backcountry classes in the Tahoe area.
The avalanche safety sessions can help you recognize dangerous conditions like wet snow instabilities and storm and wind slabs, as well as which routes are more avalanche-prone. They can also teach you basic backcountry protocol, like skiing with a buddy and exposing only one skier at a time to avalanche danger.
Though Osterhuber said you can't rely on gear, there are three pieces no skier should leave home without, according to the SAC website: an avalanche transceiver, also known as an avalanche beacon, which emits a signal that can guide rescuers to your body; a collapsible probe; and a shovel. There are no guarantees when it comes to avalanches though, and skiers must know how the gadgets work before heading into the backcountry.
"You can't have gear trump your knowledge of how to use it. You can't look at this gear as protecting you from an avalanche. It won't keep you from being killed," Osterhuber said. "What it does is help with body retrieval. You can't be fooled that just because you're wearing a transceiver that you have immunity."
Avalanche backpacks such as the ABS TwinBag that deploys two airbags when you pull a cord can save your life - according to the ABS website, 97 percent of the 262 who have activated the air bag survived - but are geared more toward advanced skiers and can't replace a transceiver, probe or shovel, Osterhuber said.
"The equipment takes a fair bit of knowledge. People are severely traumatized even if they survive. They get really worked. They're done," Osterhuber said.
If worst comes to worst and you do get caught in an avalanche, Osterhuber had one word of advice: fight. If you can get your head above the snow, it increases your chance of survival exponentially.
Securing at least some breathing space around your nose and mouth can also help, even if your head is buried. By grabbing trees and working your way to the top of the snow could mean the difference between life and death.
"The bottom line is that you have to fight for your life. At that point, the mistakes have already been made," Osterhuber said.