Avalanches: The Snow Skier’s Greatest Fear

January 1, 2007 by  
Filed under features

An avalanche is a slide of snow, mud, rock or occasionally a combination of all three that proceeds down the slope of a mountain under the force of gravity. Avalanches can flow at speeds of up to 60 mph and can carry immense volumes of material, in some cases weighing over 100,000 tons. Being caught in an avalanche is truly a skier’s worst nightmare, and unfortunately it is one that too often comes true. Most large ski resorts conduct aggressive avalanche prevention programs and procedures, and the alert is usually at its highest after large snowfalls and/or when weather conditions conspire to make the likelihood of avalanches more likely.

Snow may seem to be fluffy and powdery, but snow deposited by an avalanche compacts very easily as the delicate snow crystals have had their structure pulverized by the force of the avalanche. Someone buried in snow by an avalanche will find to their horror that every movement seems to tighten the grip of the surrounding snow. Even worse, the simple act of breathing can melt the snow in front of the victim’s face, which then re-freezes to form a suffocating mask of ice. The sad statistics show that about 85% of those rescued from burial by an avalanche within 15 minutes survive, but the percentage drops to only 20% after 1 hour, mainly due to the above-mentioned effects.

A widely recognized color-coded system has been devised that gives skiers notice of the local avalanche risk. While a certain level of caution is advised when skiing in snowy mountainous areas, the color system is useful in determining whether an area presents greater risk. The scale ranges from Green at the low end, rising through Yellow (moderate), Orange (considerable), Red (High) and Black-bordered Red for extreme risk. Any type of travel – on skis or otherwise – in an area where extreme avalanche risk is indicated should be avoided. With luck and common sense, the closest any skier will get to an Avalanche is that big Chevy truck in the resort’s parking lot!