How to survive an avalanche

or at least: How to slightly improve your knowledge about avalanches, so you increase your chance of surviving it

If you spend a lot of time in snow and mountains, and then especially if you like off-piste skiing, you are in a sort of a danger zone of experiencing an avalanche once.

How I got in that mess

The first time I experienced an avalanche in real life, I was skiing on bigfoot skis (very short carving skis). I was riding on powdered snow, and suddenly a patch of snow about 20 m2 in size started sliding beneath me.

How I got out

When I noticed that the snow started to slide beneath me, time slowed significantly. Or my thoughts went faster. No matter - at least, I had plenty of time to think about what to do. I decided I had three possibilities:

  1. Try to outski the avalanche - Considering that I didn't know how fast the avalanche was going to go, and considering that bigfoot skis aren't exactly the most stable skis in the world, I decided this would be a bad idea. If the avalanche had caught up with me, I would have gotten it from behind, meaning that I would definitely be on the bottom of the avalanche
  2. Try to avoid the avalanche - This was the most tempting choice - ski like hell towards the side of the avalanche, into a forest, hoping that the avalanche would slide past me, and/or that the forest would at least break down the speed of the avalanche long enough to give me a bit of a head start. However, since I started the avalanche myself, I was already on top of the avalanche, and skiing to the side seemed like a hopeless task
  3. Try to get on the avalanche - This is what I did. I have later been told that I probably did the only right thing, although it is a bit of a gamble, because this is the only way you know that you definitely will end up in the avalanche. - In any case: I decided to turn around and started climbing against the avalanche, to at least get out on top of it.


If your avalanche is coming from above
Don't try 1. Do not try 3. If you hear it coming, just try to get as far as possible to the side of it. When the avalanche does hit you, chances are that you will not be too deep, and that the dogs will find you quickly.

If you are alone
When you are alone, chances are that people don't know where you are, and if you were caught in the avalanche or not. If you ever end up in an avalanche while being alone, just try everything you can to get away from it. (i.e do NOT do what I did) And drop your stuff. Get rid of a ski. Then a skiing pole etc. Just leave a trail, to increase the chances of them finding at least part of your kit, so they know in what area to search. Never drop clothing if you can help it - you are gonna need it!

Why skiing / running against the avalanche worked
Think about it. When you run away from something, and it comes from behind, it will work like a ball - you will be crushed under the ball. Running against it allows you -in theory- to end up on top of the ball. I was fortunate that the avalanche was rather small - but also in large avalanches, where you know you will get caught in it, struggling against the avalanche is the best thing to do, unlogical as it might feel.

How my experience ended

needless to say, I was scared as hell. I was alone. I hadn't told anyone what routes I was skiing. I was taking pictures. I didn't have any emergency food or clothing with me. All in all, I think I broke every one of the rules of the mountain. Which I will never do again.

In any case - my climbing against the avalanche probably saved my life. I managed to struggle against the avalanche through all of its duration. I did end up under snow, but, miraculously, not too deep. I managed to dig my way to the surface, and even though I had lost one ski and both my skiing poles, I hadn't lost my camera or any of my clothing. And I hadn't broken anything.

I started skiing down the hill on one ski, cold and fairly badly bruised. After about twenty minutes a snowscooter from the mountain patrol showed up. They took care of me and took me home.

Great story - very very bad experience. But if this helps anyone who ever gets in an avalanche - it was worth it.