The Big List Of Nasty Disasters: Part Three – How to Survive an Avalanche

In the movie “Avalanche” — starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow — a snow-skiing vacation quickly becomes a nightmarish struggle to survive, after an avalanche smashes into the ski resort, trapping the occupants inside.

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t great, but the concept is.

So, what would you do, if an avalanche came crashing your way? Do you know how to survive?

According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, “Over the last 10 winters, an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter in the United States.”

US Fatalities Graph

Fatalities by Avalanche Year

And the Most Dangerous States are?

Colorado, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Alaska, and Idaho — all my favorite states!

Avalanche Fatalities By State

Avalanche Types

The graphic below is from Allen & Mikes book. (See bottom of article for this and other recommended books.)

There are two main types, slab (on the left), and sluff release (on the right).

Types of Avalanche Obannon and Clelland

Slab Avalanche 

A slab avalanche occurs when a large sheet of snow begins to slide over a wide area. Watch the video below to see an example.

Sluff Avalanche

A sluff avalanche occurs when loose surface snow releases at a point and begins to fan out as it descends.

What Causes An Avalanche, And How To Assess Potential Danger

Three things cause an avalanche: slope, snowpack, and a trigger.


Avalanches usually occur on slopes greater than 35 degrees.


Recent avalanches, heavy snowfall or rain in the past 24 hours, windblown snow, significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures, and persistent weak layers are all red flags that a dangerous snowpack condition may exist. Learn to recognize these red flags.

Additional warning signs of a dangerous snowpack: cracking or collapsing snowpack, whumping sounds, and hollow drum-like sounds on hard snow.

A Trigger

It doesn’t take much to trigger an avalanche; people, new snowfall, and the wind are all common triggers.

Measuring Slope

There are three easy ways to measure slope.

ONE: Smartphone apps

TWO: Folding compass with sighting mirror 

THREE: Ski poles or other straight poles.

See all three methods demonstrated in this excellent video.


How to Survive an Avalanche

First, always check the US Avalanche Advisory at Click on the avalanche centers tab to access more detailed information for your area.

Use this guide: By Grant Statham et al. (CAC – Parks Canada) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Avalanche Danger Scale EnglishTwenty-five to thirty percent of fatalities are due to trauma during the slide, and the survival rate when completely buried is only thirty percent.

That’s why the best way to survive an avalanche is to watch it from far, far away.

However, if you decide to disregard this advice, and ride one anyway, here are some tips that might help you stay alive.

Get off the slab, hang on to the downhill side of anything you can grab, and angle to get to the edge of the slide.

Discard skis, poles, or board, if applicable.

Roll on your back with feet pointing downhill.

Thrust some part of your body above the surface as the avalanche slows and try to make airspace around your mouth.

Remain calm if buried and pray that your friends rescue you.

Carry a beacon (also called a transceiver.) Make sure that each person in your party has a beacon such as the Backcountry Access Tracker DTS Avalanche Beacon.

Performing a Rescue


You don’t have time. You only have fifteen minutes to perform a successful rescue.

Carefully watch the victim for a last seen point.

Yell for help to alert others in your party or anyone else in the area.

Be cautious. Maintain situational awareness and observe the area to make sure it is safe for you to perform a rescue.

Look for surface clues such as shoes, poles, skis or anything else that might help you locate a buried person.


Conduct a beacon search, if equipped with a beacon, as you should be!

Probe around surface clues. 

Be prepared to administer first-aid and possibly spend the night out.

Practice rescue before you need it.

Equipment to Carry in Avalanche Country

Essential items

Beacon/Transceiver – If you plan on engaging in activities that could put you in danger, just get a beacon, and hope you never have to use it.

Probe – You can use a probe to measure snowpack depth, as well as to find a buried person.

Sturdy Aluminum Sports Shovel – You’re going to need a shovel to dig your friend out.

Compass – Fury makes an excellent compass.

Ortovox has an excellent package that includes a beacon, probe, and shovel.

Optional items

BCA Float 22 Airbag Pack

The latest research shows that your chances of surviving an avalanche are twice as good if you’re wearing an airbag than if you’re not. The Float 22 features enough volume to stash your climbing skins, a hydration pack, snacks, an extra layer, and, of course, all the avalanche safety essentials. In fact, it has dedicated shovel and probe sleeves so you can quickly access your avalanche rescue tools when the worst happens.

BLACK DIAMOND Alias AvaLung Backpack

The Black Diamond AvaLung is one of the most significant developments in avalanche safety since the avalanche beacon. It should be a part of every backcountry traveler’s tools.

Recco Unisex Rescue Reflector

Many ski resorts are now using the Recco system for added safety. Often the reflector is attached to your ski vest so that search and rescue can find you when you unintentionally go off the cliff. Also, there are a number of ski clothing companies that are embedding reflectors in jackets, pants, boots, and helmets.

However, it must be understood that the reflector is not a beacon or transceiver. It does not send or receive signals, it is a passive device that enhances the radio signals sent by the RECCO detector units used by many search-and-rescue organizations.

Additional Resources



Allen & Mike’s Avalanche Book: A Guide To Staying Safe In Avalanche Terrain (Allen & Mike’s Series).

Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard

Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain

Press on my friends!

BACK TO INDEX: The Big List of Nasty Disasters and How to Prepare: Part One

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *