Avalanche dangers.  

They’re one of the greatest risks a winter sports adventurer can face on a mountain. The National Avalanche Center (NAC) reports that while mountain avalanches kill or injure a relatively small number of people in the U.S. each year – about 30 – they still pose a significant threat to anyone skiing, snowboarding, climbing, snowmobiling or hiking in the mountains.  But with the right knowledge and the proper gear, adventurers can usually avoid them—or increase their chances of survival if they get caught.  

U.S. Ski & Snowboard, a Global Rescue Safe Travel Partner since 2006, created five principles for mountain avalanche awareness in partnership with the Utah Avalanche Center and the Bryce and Ronnie Athlete Snow Safety Foundation (BRASS):  

  1. Get the gear.
  2. Get the training.
  3. Get the forecast.
  4. Get the picture.
  5. Get out of harm’s way. 

Get the Gear 

The basic avalanche survival kit – Every adventurer should carry, at a minimum, an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel when they go into the mountains.  

“You won’t have cell service on the mountain, and so you need a transceiver to communicate with people who can rescue you or just find you if something goes wrong,” said Reed Zuehlke, two-time ski-jumping Olympian, current FIS technical delegate and a U.S. Ski & Snowboard and Global Rescue member. 

Avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide each year. Most are snowmobilers, skiers, and snowboarders.

If you get caught in an avalanche, the first person able to help you is your ski partner. That’s why it’s important to bring a probe to help identify the victim’s exact location, and a shovel so you or your partner can start searching right away.  

Lifesaving add-ons – Also consider an inflatable avalanche airbag pack, which the NAC says can increase your chances of staying near the surface of an avalanche.  

Last Frontier Heliskiing also recommends carrying an Avalung, an oxygen pack with a mouthpiece that rests close to your mouth so you can breathe even after being buried.  

Zuehlke agrees. “And if you or a partner get buried by a mountain avalanche, you’ll have only about 15 minutes of air so consider bringing an air system with you.” 

The Avalung will give you 58 minutes of oxygen, dramatically increasing your chance of survival. 

Preparing for avalanche survival if you get stuck Avalanches can make the terrain around you less accessible to rescuers. You and your team need to be prepared not just to rescue each other but to provide medical assistance, protection and sustenance for what could be a long, even overnight, period of waiting.  

Read Global Rescue’s tips for surviving in the cold. 

Get the Training 

Chances are, you will adventure with a guide who knows the ins and outs of avalanche survival. But leaving the knowledge up to them will lead to serious trouble for you if an avalanche occurs. Every person participating needs to be trained in avalanche awareness for the safety of the whole group.  

You can find free training online through the NAC. 

Get the Forecast 

“Most regions that we go into have a local avalanche forecast, providing up-to-date avalanche conditions. Begin every day with getting that forecast,” recommends U.S. Ski & Snowboard.  

But it’s not the same as checking the weather. REI provides a detailed breakdown of how to read and understand an avalanche forecast here. 

Get the Picture 

“Snow stability can change rapidly,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “When we go into the snow, we’re surrounded by clues to the current avalanche hazard and changing conditions. When we learn to watch for, interpret and respond to those clues, we become more aware of the risk and make better decisions.” 

NAC said signs of unstable snow include “cracking or collapsing whumpfing sounds, or ‘drum-like’ sounds.” Melting or windblown snow can also be signals of increased avalanche risk.  

Get Out of Harm’s Way 

If the forecast doesn’t predict stable snow, do not go. Wait for the ideal time.  

If you’re in the mountains and you recognize unstable snow, then notify your group and alter your plans.  

“We get out of harm’s way by understanding what terrain is safe and what isn’t,” said U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “We also remain aware of others nearby and how we expose others and how they expose us to avalanche danger. We become safer partners when we develop and use habits that reduce our exposure.” 

When an Avalanche Happens 

The NAC recommends these steps when an avalanche occurs: 

  • If you get caught: 
    • Deploy your airbag. 
    • Get off the slab and/or out of the slide. 
    • Fight to keep your head above the surface. 
    • Hands to your face when it slows down. 
    • Remain calm; your partners know how to find you.
    • If your partner is caught: 
      • Watch the victim and establish a last seen point. 
      • Call emergency services:  
        • 911 (USA, Canada, Argentina) 
        • 112 (Italy, Switzerland, France) 
        • 102 (Nepal)  
        • Global Rescue 
      • Scene safety is a priority – determine if you can conduct a search without another avalanche event or other terrain-related injury. 
        • Establish a leader and make a plan. 
        • Conduct your search. 
        • Treat the victim for trauma and hypothermia. 
        • Be prepared to spend the night out. 

        Global Rescue: the Ultimate Safety Partner 

        Global Rescue has decades of experience rescuing its members from snowy emergencies all over the world. If you get stuck in an avalanche or lost on a mountain, you can reach us with your avalanche transceiver, and we will deploy immediately to rescue you as quickly as we can: 24/7/365.   

        Don’t plan your mountain adventures without us. Learn more.