Story by Andy Bourelle Tribune File Photos by Dan Thrift
Imagine cross country skiing far from the city, traversing the somewhat steep slope of a snow-covered mountain. Suddenly the snow begins to break away, and you realize that not just the snow under your feet but all the snow — practically the whole mountainside — is moving. You try to ski through it but the snow rushes around you like water, like an ocean wave crashing onto you, pulling you down.
Before you know it, your body is encased in snow. You can’t move. You’re running out of air.
For people caught in an avalanche, the chances of survival are not good. And the best chances of survival are being prepared.
“It’s like being in cement,” said Terry Fleck, El Dorado County deputy sheriff and Search and Rescue coordinator. “You can’t move, even if there’s only a little bit of snow on top of you.”
Statistically, Fleck said, there is a 50-percent chance of dying for avalanche victims who have been under the snow for more than 15 minutes. Many victims are killed on impact.
“The best, safest thing to do is to stay out of avalanche-prone areas,” Fleck said. “If you get caught in an avalanche, you’re done. The odds are highly against you. You will not survive.”
Fortunately, people being caught in avalanches is extremely rare in the South Shore area.
“The bulk of avalanches occur in the back-country setting. We’ve been extremely fortunate in El Dorado County in that the people who go into the back country are pretty heads-up about avoiding the problem. We do get a lot of avalanches in the back country, but we don’t get too many people caught in them.”
An avalanche is a large mass of snow moving down a mountainside. They occur naturally from time to time on mountain locations.
“Avalanches happen all the time in the back country and there’s no danger,” said Dave McConnell, director of Ski Patrol at Heavenly Ski Resort. “As soon as you introduce people into the equation, then you have problems.”
The threat of avalanche is usually the greatest on a mountainside with a slope of about 30 to 45 percent. On more shallow grades, the threat of the snow sliding isn’t too great; on steeper slopes, the snow tends to “sluff” off naturally and not build up.
Fresh snow is more likely to go. Layering of snow on a slope is a key factor in avalanche formation. Layers can have different characteristics, and a weak bond between layers can cause the top layer to slide off. Wind can be a major factor, scouring one side of a slope and depositing most of its snow on the other face, creating more instability.
At ski resorts, slopes with the potential for avalanches become safer when skiers compact the run. However, making sure it is safe to ski on in the first place is the important part.
At Heavenly and other resorts, professionals from the ski patrols check out avalanche-prone slopes before they are opened, McConnell said. In groups of two or three, ski patrol members move horizontally across a dangerous slope, trying to set it off but moving fast enough to get out of the way if the snow breaks loose. A partner watches from a safe spot in case there are problems.
The other way to test the slopes is with explosives. The bombs will release unstable slopes. If the snow remains, it is safe enough to ski on.
And from years of experience, the patrols know how to judge the potential danger of the snow.
“These are professional ski patrols. Every route leader has to be a licensed blaster with the state,” McConnell said. “And they have to have three years experience with another blaster before they can even take the test.”
Heavenly, and many other resorts, also keep avalanche rescue dogs on hand, but rarely are they needed.
“We try to stay on top of it. We’ve got a really good crew of guys,” McConnell said. “We don’t have any problems because we do stay on top of it. If there’s ever any doubts, we keep it closed.”
However, skiers should not “duck ropes” at resorts, McConnell said, and ski on closed runs.
“Don’t go out of bounds,” he said. “The closures are up there for a reason. We’re not saving that snow for ourselves. You’re playing Russian roulette. You’re taking your life into your own hands. It’s the dumbest thing you can do. Be patient; it can save your life.”
What if people are cross country skiing or snowshoe hiking in the back country? Be prepared, officials agree.
People should learn to identify potentially dangerous slopes and avoid them. If people must cross one, there are safety precautions that can be taken.
It is extremely important to travel in groups of at least two and for everyone to have electronic rescue transceivers.
“If you do a lot of back-country skiing and snowshoeing, it’s just good policy to have one with you at all times,” said Dave Allessio, trail coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit and member of the ski patrol at Kirkwood Ski Resort. “If you take your ski boots, you should take your transceiver.”
While one person is trying to cross a slope, the others should be in a safe location. If an avalanche occurs, the other people could attempt to locate him or her using the transceivers.
Another important piece of equipment, Allessio said, is an avalanche shovel. There have been numerous cases nationwide, he said, where people have located their lost ski partners but have been unable to dig them out in time to save them.
What is a good way to know an avalanche might occur?
Answer: Other avalanches are happening.
“The biggest (indication of) avalanche instability is if you see slides going on,” McConnell said. “Out in the back country, on your own, avalanches are the No. 1 indicator avalanches are happening and they’re happening naturally. If you see avalanches going on, get out of the area and stay out.”
When traveling in avalanche terrain:
* Never travel alone.
* Always move in such a fashion that only one person at a time is exposed to avalanche danger.
* Stay off avalanche paths. The safest route around an avalanche path is over the top, along the ridge. The next safest path is along the valley floor. The most dangerous route is on the avalanche path, where the skier may trigger the release of an avalanche that otherwise would not have occurred.
* On winter tours in the back country, carry electronic rescue transceivers and emergency rescue equipment.
* Don’t assume the slope is safe just because the first person crossed it.
If you must cross an avalanche slope:
* Remove the wrist loops of your ski poles.
* Unhitch the safety straps from your skis so they won’t be tied to you if you are carried down in a slide.
* Close up your clothing, wear a hat and gloves and raise your hood. If buried, your chances of survival will be better if snow doesn’t get inside your clothes.
* Loosen your backpack straps so it can be dumped quickly if necessary.
* Wear an avalanche cord if one is available. If a slide comes down, the cord has a good — though not guaranteed — chance of floating to the surface to help others find you.
* Take advantage of the natural protection offered by the terrain. Rock outcrops, clumps of trees or ridges may offer islands of safety in an avalanche.
If you are caught in an avalanche:
* Call out so other members of your party can observe your course in case you are buried.
* Discard your poles, skis and backpack.
* Try to swim in the snow in order to stay on the surface. Try also to work your way to one side of the moving snow. If those efforts don’t work, cover your face with your hands. This will help keep snow out of your nose and mouth and allow you to clear a breathing space if you’re buried. As the avalanche slows down, try to maintain some space around your chest to allow for respiration.
* If you are buried, try to avoid panic.
* Many avalanche survivors are rescued immediately by their companions because he or she has a hand, foot or piece of equipment protruding from the snow. If you think you are coming to rest near the surface, try to reach out a hand or thrust up a foot. But keep one hand free to clear space around your nose and mouth.
If you are a member of the party not buried:
* Don’t panic, and check for further slide danger.
* Mark the point on the avalanche path where the victim was last seen with a firmly planted ski pole or large branch. This will narrow the area of search.
* If there are more than one survivor, all of them should complete a quick but careful search before going for help. If possible, one person should be left at the accident site to continue to search. If you are the sole survivor, you still must make a search of the avalanche before going for help. You must decide when to break off the search and seek help depending on how far away help might be.
* Search the surface below the last seen point. Mark every location of any pieces of his or her equipment you may find. Search carefully and kick up the snow to uncover anything which may lie beneath the surface.
* If the initial search fails, begin probing with the heel of your ski pole. Trees, ledges, benches or other terrain features good places to search.
* If there are several survivors, send only two. The remaining survivors must search for the victim. When going for help, travel carefully, avoiding avalanche dangers and injuries from trying to ski too fast.
* If the party is using electronic rescue transceivers, switch the survivor’s unit to receive and commence searching.
* When the victim is found, immediately give first aid for suffocation and hypothermia. Administer mouth-to-mouth and cardiopulmonary resuscitation if necessary.
Source: The ABC of Avalanche Safety by E.R. LaChapelle.
Learn about avalanches
What: Avalanche clinic
When: Saturday, 10 a.m.
Where: Sugar Pine Point State Park
Information: (530) 525-7232
Tips: Bring a lunch and cross country skis
What: U.S. Forest Service avalanche workshop
When: Jan. 28, 6:30 p.m.
Where: North Tahoe Conference Center, Kings Beach
Information: (530) 573-2672
What: U.S. Forest Service avalanche workshop
When: Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: South Tahoe High School
Information: (530) 573-2672
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