If you're ever skiing in the mountains, you'll want to be aware of the possibility of avalanches. An avalanche is a sudden flow of snow down a slope, such as a mountainside. The amount of snow in an avalanche will vary based upon many factors, but it can be such a huge amount as to bury the terrain at the bottom of the slope in dozens of feet of snow.
Avalanches can be caused by many different things. Some of them are natural. For example, new snow or rain can cause accumulated snow suddenly to dislodge and cascade down the side of a mountain. Earthquakes and the natural movements of animals have also been known to cause avalanches.
Artificial triggers can also cause avalanches. For example, snowmobiles, skiers, gunshots and explosives have all been known to cause avalanches.
Avalanches usually occur during the winter and spring, when snowfall is greatest. In addition to being dangerous to any living beings in their path, avalanches have destroyed forests, roads, railroads and even entire towns.
Although avalanches occur suddenly, warning signs exist that allow experts to predict — and often prevent — them from occurring. When over a foot of fresh snow falls, experts know to be on the lookout for avalanches. Explosives can be used in places with massive snow buildups to trigger smaller avalanches that don't pose a danger to persons or property.
When deadly avalanches do occur, the moving snow can quickly reach in excess of 80 miles per hour. Skiers caught in such avalanches can be buried under dozens of feet of snow. While it's possible to dig out of such avalanches, not everyone is able to escape.
If you get tossed about by an avalanche and find yourself buried under many feet of snow, you might not have a true sense of which way is up and which way is down. Some avalanche victims have unknowingly tried to dig their way out, only to find that they were upside down and digging themselves farther under the snow rather than to the top!
Experts suggest that people caught in an avalanche try to “swim" to the top of the moving snow to stay as close as possible to the surface. Once the avalanche stops, do your best to dig around you to create a space for air, so you can breathe more easily. Then do your best to figure out which way is up and dig in that direction to reach the surface and signal rescuers.