Science | April 13, 2021 7:30 am

The Best Way to Survive an Avalanche? Don’t Get Caught.

It's all about being proactive

an overhead shot of a snowy scene with trees surrounding a path
How would you deal with an avalanche?
Riccardo Lapi/Unsplash

Across the world, the allure of snowy mountains is universal. For some, the appeal is in climbing to the top and achieving a feat few others have attained; for others, there’s a joy in skiing downhill and experiencing the environment in a new way. But whether your path takes you up or down a mountain, there’s an overwhelming threat that looms overhead: avalanches.

Learning more about avalanches and determining why they occur is a science in and of itself. But there’s also a branch of knowledge dedicated to responding to avalanches that have already taken place — and rescuing people trapped as a result of them.

Jill Fredston is an expert on the subject of avalanches. She’s the co-director of the Alaska Mountain Safety Center, and the author of a number of books, including Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches. In a new interview with David Epstein at Slate, Fredston shared her expertise on the subject.

One thing that Fredston emphasized is an especially harrowing element of avalanches. “It’s not so much about saving people, because if a call is going out for help, it’s pretty much a body recovery,” she said. “I think I’ve dug more than 40 people dead out of avalanches and I have done one life recovery of someone completely buried in an avalanche.” The one life recovery, Freston says, can be attributed to “pure luck.”

Her advice involves taking a proactive approach. “The whole key to surviving an avalanche is not to get caught,” she told Slate. “Every accident I’ve seen has had a number of clues pointing to the instability.” Learning to recognize those clues — and erring on the side of caution — sounds vital to making it through dangerous conditions.