As this Fall season is wrapping up, and Winter starts for many across the country, the threat for avalanches in states like Colorado increases. For those that experience them yearly, avalanches are scary, but an average part of life in the Winter months within this region and are to be expected. When planning a ski trip, having a game plan on what to do in an avalanche, especially for those not acclimated to the area or with skiing, is a necessity. In fact, having an avalanche game plan for Colorado is just as important as having a tornado-safety game plan for the Midwesterners and Southerners. So, what is an avalanche and what does one do when it happens?
An avalanche occurs most commonly in the Winter and is when a mass of snow, ice, and rock fall down a mountainside. Because they are unpredictable in occurring and how intense they can get, they are rather dangerous. Many variables can be the culprit of causing these nasty events, such as snowpack, weather conditions, or even the terrain. The three ingredients to avalanches are a surface bed of snow, an unstable layer of snow in the middle, and a snow slab overlaying the top. They can travel as fast as 100 miles per hour, so if a person tries to outrun one, they will not be successful. The most dangerous type of avalanche is when a large chunk of snow and ice becomes disheveled and tumbles down the mountain side; this type is typically the fastest and deadliest to be caught in.
There are three key zones in an avalanche, the starting zone, the avalanche track, and the runout zone. The starting zone is the area where the avalanche begins, typically higher on the slope. As it continues to flow down the mountain side from this point, it becomes the avalanche track and as it stops near the bottom of the slope, the pile of debris left behind is the runout zone.
The way to survive an avalanche if skiing or snowboarding is to ski/snowboard down at a 45° angle to avoid getting caught in it. If not skiing or snowboarding, or if one can’t get out of the way in time, reach and grab for trees and hold on tight. If there are no trees in sight, swim through the snow and stick one arm directly up because as the avalanche intensifies and gets to a settling point at the end of the mountain, it will condense like concrete and there will be no way to make any sort of movement. There are gadgets now that can send one’s coordinates constantly to other members of their group if they happen to be stuck in an avalanche so being located is much more probable. There are also dogs that rescue teams will use that are trained to sniff out anyone in avalanches if there is believed to have been someone that was caught up in it.
Avalanches are scary and can be very dangerous, but with knowledge and a game plan, they can be conquerable. They are similar to mudslides, but more deadly due to the amount of ice and snowpack that can occur in them. Whenever planning a trip to Colorado, make sure to stay on the slopes and avoid back country skiing unless one is a professional or an expert as to avoid any possibility of creating a man-made avalanche and never being found.
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©2019 Meteorologist Ashley Lennard