How to survive an avalanche

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Just outside Snowbird’s Superior parking lot human body parts are buried eight feet under the snow, and barking, medium-sized dogs can be seen with their noses pressed to the snow, their bodies and tails shaking as they find cadaver parts. There has been no murder and no crime.

Dean Cardinale, an avalanche instructor with the American Avalanche Association, stated that “27 teams outside of the state of Utah are at Snowbird today to train their avalanche rescue dogs.”

[/media-credit] Avalanche instructors at Snowbird Ski Resort work with their dogs, like Ayup, to train in search and rescue
At the cadaver station avalanche dogs are being trained to recognize the scent of victims. According to Peter Francis a ski patroller, “By the time search and rescue gets to the avalanche victim it’s usually too late. Although they haven’t had to dig anyone out this year, avalanches happen in the mountains all the time, sometimes up to 14 avalanches a week.”

Because avalanches happen so often in Utah’s mountains it’s important that students learn what they need to do to avoid being caught in an avalanche and how to survive one if they do.

“The best way to survive an avalanche is to be prepared. Be aware of what’s going on in the mountains. Before you go into the back country make sure to go online and check out the avalanche advisory at www.utahavalanchecenter.org,” said Cardinale.

According to Cardinale, avalanches often occur right after a snowstorm, when the sun is out and the sky is blue, so it’s important to look for signs of instability like falling snow or suddenly warm temperatures. If a slope has had an avalanche, it’s very likely that the slope next door is unstable as well.

“When you do go into the back country use a buddy and have all the proper rescue equipment — a transceiver, probe and shovel. You and your buddy need to both have taken an avalanche training course. If you do have an accident where somebody is buried in the slide, partner rescue is the best source of survival. We watch our partner to see where they go and then turn our transceiver to search, find them and then dig them out.”

Creighton Hart, who has worked at Snowbird for years as a ski patroller, was helping out at the helicopter and buried car station and answered some questions about how to survive an avalanche.

“You have about 15 to 20 minutes to get dug out. After that its usually too late. If you find yourself in an avalanche try to ski out of the avalanche’s path and off to the side. If you still end up getting caught in the slide then fight, swim towards the surface. If you are getting buried before the snow stops moving and hardens, put one arm straight up in the air, hopefully towards the surface, and use the other hand in a cupping shape a little in front of your face to hopefully create an air pocket.”

At another learning station, rescue dogs could be found digging through the snow rubble to unbury a car covered in simulated avalanche debris. The dogs use their keen sense of smell to locate the mock avalanche victim trapped in the car and are rewarded with a chew toy given to them by their recently unburied avalanche victim.

Although these dogs are cute, these furry faces might be the last thing you want to see if you go into the back country without proper avalanche training.

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