We are lucky to live in a world with so many beautiful mountain ranges to explore. Whether your preference is for walking, climbing, or snow sports, mountains offer wonderful opportunities to enjoy their slopes. Going up into them, though, at any time of year and in any weather conditions, always calls for a great deal of preparedness and sensible caution. Mountains, like the sea, must always be treated with great respect. We never know when a sudden change can occur, and we should never venture forth without being appropriately dressed and equipped. To do so is just to court disaster.
Types of Avalanche
This is especially true in the winter (which is not to disregard the other seasons), when avalanche risk in snowy mountains is at its most prevalent. There are two main types of avalanche risk: slab avalanche and loose snow collapse. A slab avalanche is by far the most dangerous but can be preceded by the fall of a wet avalanche, where wet, loose snow which is beginning to melt makes its way down from a trigger point. Excessive wind and rain contribute to the risks, but there are many variables, such as terrain, steepness and sunshine, which alter the weight and shift of the snowpack. It is almost never possible to be certain that an avalanche will not be set off.
Essentials to Take
It is essential to pack a backpack with the necessary equipment in the event of getting caught up in an avalanche scenario. Warning signs will indicate high-risk areas, and these are usually in the form of a yellow triangle. Of course, you will stay away from any such parts, but this does not ensure safety. Some mountain lovers will make the mistake of going up into the peaks on a fine day without wearing lightweight base layer clothing. This is always, to put it bluntly, stupid. It may be hot at the bottom, but this is no indicator of conditions at the top, and the temperature can plummet at any moment. Hypothermia is a terrible consequence of being under-dressed. High-calorie snacks and water should also be carried.
The other items in the pack should include a beacon, a shovel and an avalanche transceiver. Every member of a group should carry these items — not just one of them. In the event of being caught in an avalanche, the main risks are being crushed by the weight of the snow and being buried alive. If you see one starting to come your way, you should shout immediately to alert others. If caught, fight hard to stay on top of it. An avalanche airbag can be an asset here as it assists buoyancy. Try to grab hold of a tree or rock.
If the snow does cover you, punch to make an air hole if possible and try to raise a ski pole or arm as an indicator for the rescue teams. Try to remain calm to conserve oxygen — this may include not shouting out if you hear rescuers on the surface, although this urge may be impossible to suppress. The Avalanche Transceiver (aka beacon) will alert the rescue team as to your whereabouts and could save your life.
The moral of the story is to always be prepared for the worst case scenario. Ever heard of The Seven P’s? This adage, often used in life or death situations, came about by the British army and stands for: ‘Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance.’ Often used in project planning for near death situations, this is something we should all take into account when thinking about our activities.
Sally Bunce is a snowboarding enthusiast and writes for The Board Basement, an online store stocking snowboarding equipment and apparel. She offers advice about essential checklists for winter sports and how to get the most out of your experience.