Gentleman’s Handbook, Vol. 9.6: Avalanche Survival

Spoiler alert: first rule is “avoid them”

By The Editors

The Five Simple Rules of Avalanche Safety
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26 January 2016

This is the Gentleman’s Handbook, a recurring series on all the lemons life’s fixing to hand you and how to prepare accordingly. This month: Winter Survival.

First rule of avalanche safety: don’t get caught in an avalanche.

“Once you’re in an avalanche, there’s nothing you can do,” says Don Triplat, executive director of the Sierra Avalanche Center. “You’re in a washing machine.”

That said, there are ways to improve your odds of surviving a slide. Chief among them: a backcountry partner with three essential tools and a good, strong back — for digging you out from under 2,000 pounds of snow.

Below: Triplat’s five tips for staying safe.

Get the Forecast
Google “avalanche forecast” and you’ll get a report rating risk from “low to “extreme,” courtesy of local avalanche centers and published every morning at 7 a.m. Note that most fatalities occur when the risk level is “moderate” or “considerable.” Says Triplat: “You think, ‘I can get out there, it still looks good.’” Then you don’t.

Know Your Conditions
“Avalanches need unstable snow, terrain and a trigger. There are five red flags for avalanche hazards [i.e., conditions that lead to unstable snow], and most are usually present when an avalanche occurs: recent avalanche activity, new snow, high winds, snow pack collapse and rapid warming.”

Understand Your Terrain
Avalanches require steep terrain: they mostly happen on slopes between 30 and 35 degrees. “If the forecast is bad, stay on 10- or 15-degree slopes,” advises Triplat. Even if it’s boring.

Don’t Be a Trigger
“Nine out of 10 avalanche victims triggered their own avalanches. I understand the elusive draw of powder; one of the best experiences we have is skiing fresh powder. But you have to be smart.”

Go With a Partner, and Be Prepared
Both of you should carry three essentials: a beacon, a shovel and a probe. Or “Oh, shit tools,” as Triplat refers to them. “Once you’ve made a series of mistakes that resulted in your partner getting buried in an avalanche, you’ll pull out your beacon and set it to search mode. Your beacon leads you to where your partner is buried — mine gets as close as .2 meters. Then you take out the probe: you’re shoving a three-meter-long aluminum shaft in the snow until you hit them. And then you start digging.”

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