Swept Away

If youÂ’ve considered every alternative and can find no way to detour around a potentially hazardous snowfield, follow these avalanche-safety practices

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Safety Rules

  • Don't travel alone. If there is trouble, the more people on hand, the better.
  • When traversing a potential avalanche path, cross one person at a time as the rest of the party watches from a safe location. Remember, just because one or more persons made it across does not mean the slope is safe for everyone who follows.
  • If the crossing is wide and interrupted by islands of safety (clusters of mature trees, a ridge, high ground), move from one to the other until you are all the way across.
  • When traveling up or down a slope that presents a potential avalanche hazard, stay to the side of the snowfield as much as possible. If the snow breaks loose and begins to slide, the snow along the flanks may move more slowly and allow you to escape.
Avalanche Gear There are three essential pieces of equipment you should have with you whenever you are in avalanche country: a lightweight shovel, a pole that can be used as a probe and an avalanche transceiver that allows you to locate persons buried under the snow. Of the three, the transceiver is the most expensive, costing from $250 to $500. There are analog and digital transceivers, and each has pros and cons. All of this equipment can be purchased at a mountaineering store, via mail order or online. A good transceiver is the Mammut Pulse Barryvox Avalanche Transceiver, available from REI (rei.com) for $450. The Black Diamond Transfer 3 shovel, also from REI, weighs about 1 1/2 pounds, collapses to a packed length of 26 inches and costs about $45. A good choice for a probe is the Ortovox 240 PFA Avalanche Probe, available from the Outdoor Gear Exchange (gearx.com) for about $60. Each person in the party should wear a transceiver with the power turned on and the unit set to "transmit" or "send." The transceiver is worn under the outer layer of clothing and is strapped around the waist and over the shoulder, so it won't be ripped off if you are caught in a snowslide. If anyone is swept away by an avalanche, the other members in the party should immediately switch their transceivers to "receive" mode to pick up the signal being sent by the transceiver on the person buried under the snow. The signal allows you to zero in on the victim's location, thus speeding the search-and-rescue effort. After following the transceiver signal to the approximate location of the victim, use the probe to punch down through the snow until you feel a solid object. Then use the shovel to dig out the victim. You must act swiftly. Time is of the essence, because many avalanche victims die of asphyxiation. A fourth piece gear that I consider to be essential for all backcountry outings is the ACR Terrafix 406 I/O Personal Locator Beacon. It costs about $550 from Tiger GPS (tigergps.com) and is used to summon help to your exact GPS coordinates via a satellite distress signal. Being able to summon search-and-rescue teams to assist with the situation can mean the difference between life and death.