Parker, CO (PressExposure) August 23, 2010 -- With avalanche season coming DolomiteMountains.com offers advice to winter sports lovers on staying safe.
Anybody who participates in outdoor activities in mountainous regions, such as hiking, climbing snowshoeing or skiing, understands the inherent risks that come with partaking in such activities.
Experienced skiers are typically at the greatest risk for the possibility of an avalanche because of their propensity to participate in off-piste skiing, which is skiing in areas that are not well groomed or travelled. The risk in this comes mainly from the quality of the snow in these areas, which tends to be softer and more powdery, and therefore much more volatile.
There are a few important things to note about avalanches:
* The two elements that play the greatest role in causing an avalanche are wind and temperature * Studies have shown that most avalanches are started by skiers * Any time a skier goes off-piste there is a risk of an avalanche
In general, there are two types of avalanches: surface and base. Surface avalanches involve only the top layer of snow that has not yet stuck to the layer underneath. The thickness of this layer can vary from just a few centimeters to over half a meter. Base avalanches are caused by extreme instability in the snow cover and all the snow slides, revealing the ground.
Base avalanches can take on three different forms:
Powder-snow When a large amount of snow has fallen, and the temperature is extremely cold, the snow crystals can have a difficult time sticking together causing the snow cover to be very unstable. These avalanches are particularly dangerous because of the speed with which they take place, sometimes as quick as 200 kilometers an hour. Additionally, powder-snow avalanches involve a dangerous mixture of snow and air which can quickly asphyxiate anyone who happens to be in its path.
Wet-snow These base-level avalanches typically occur in the spring, when there is a significant increase in temperature from the sun and the wind warms up. The entire mass of snow ceases to stick, becoming wet and slippery and descending slowly down in the form of balls of snow. Although these types of slides are slow, the snow is extremely dense and hardens quickly once it stops, making rescue of trapped skiers very difficult.
Slab These avalanches are formed by the wind, and involve snow crystals that turn into fine granules which accumulate, forming instable slabs that dont stick well to the layer beneath. When the snow slab breaks and crashes, it affects the entire slope. Slab avalanches vary in speed, depending on the gradient and thickness, and are particularly dangerous to skiers because they are the hardest to predict. In fact, three-quarters of all avalanche-related accidents are a result of slab avalanches.
Its important to note that some avalanches are a mixture of some or all of these, depending on the altitude. For instance, a powder-snow avalanche may occur at a high altitude which sets off a wet-snow avalanche further down the mountain. Likewise, a slab avalanche might cause a dangerous powder-snow avalanche.
Once you understand what avalanches are, and what causes them, you must consider what to do to avoid causing or being trapped by one. There are various scales used to measure risk of avalanche, and there are generally bulletins issued with advisories and warnings. Skiers and mountaineers should be well aware of these available precautions in order to avoid dangerous situations and prepare accordingly prior to heading out to hit the slopes. Those who do take the chance should take heed to the following tips:
* Never ski alone and always let someone know where you plan on skiing * Avoid groups that are too large * Carry an ARVA (search equipment for avalanche victims) and understand how to use it * Be careful where you stop and avoid lingering under large outcrops or crests * Always be aware of the changing weather and fluctuations in temperature * Choose tracks with care: preferably convex areas, slopes broken up by steep inclines and flatter or undulating sections * Dont attempt off-piste skiing immediately after a heavy snowfall (80 cm, or less if the snow has drifted) * If you do choose to ski off-piste, choose areas that are tree-lined or contain a lot of undergrowth * In the spring east-facing slopes are safer and skiing on the south and west-facing slopes should be avoided late in the day * Avoid crossing a slope in the middle
After taking all of the above precautions, should you still find yourself facing an avalanche its important to remember the following:
* Assess the situation as quickly as possible * It is better to escape to one side while descending * If you are caught in the avalanche, do not panic * If you are at the higher part of the mountain you should attempt to cling onto something, such as a tree or bush * If you cannot grab onto anything, try to ride atop the avalanche
Should you become buried it is essential that you do the following immediately:
* Keep your mouth shut and do not breathe if the snow is powdery use a scarf * Curl up with your arms and legs folded against your body * As soon as the avalanche stops, use your knees and fists to push away the snow as far as possible to create a small cave * Remain calm and dont waste energy and oxygen shouting
Its important to remember that even well-travelled areas are not completely safe from an avalanche, and anyone participating in activities on the mountain can be at risk. Skiers should also be warned that just because theyve skied a particular area before without incident doesnt mean it will be as safe every time they return, as each winter is different and conditions may have changed greatly since the last run.
Its also important to note that not all avalanches lead to fatalities. But if there is to be any chance of surviving one, the above suggestions and tips should be taken into account by anyone planning to spend time on the mountain.
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