What To Know About Colorado Avalanches, Whether You’re On The Mountain Or In Town

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Photo: Eldora Ski Patroller Backcountry Avalanche Danger
Eldora ski patroller Adam Clifton checks the density of the snow pack in a backcountry area of National Forest land adjacent to Corona Bowl, known for its extreme skiing, at Eldora Mountain Resort, near Nederland, Colo., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014.

2019 has proven to be a historic year for avalanches.

With dramatic videos of snow slides whitewashing cars and news of backcountry skiing deaths, it's easy to start wondering what you would need to do if you were that person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dale Atkins, an avalanche rescuer based in Evergreen and past president of the American Avalanche Association, talked to Colorado Matters about the basics of avalanche survival.

First Things First, Avalanches Aren't Limited To The Mountains

Three people in Crested Butte were caught in two so-called urban, or roof, avalanches last week. One died.

Urban avalanches have happened for as long as people have made their homes in snowy, high-elevation regions, Atkins said. They're more common than their mountainous cousins.

“I think that’s just a function of more people moving to the high country and living in snow country in the winter,” he said.

The four ingredients for an avalanche are the same, whether it's on the side of a mountain or a sloped roof. (That recipe is a slab of snow, a steep slope, a weak layer and a trigger.)

The Key To Survival? Don't Breathe In Snow

It's easier said than done, but the number one way to increase your chance of getting out of an avalanche alive is to not block your airways.

Snow obstructs your airways and prevents your from breathing, so doing everything possible to keep your lungs free is vital. Atkins recommends yelling as the snow approaches to grab someone's attention, then shutting your mouth and covering your mouth and nose with your hand.

“When you’re in an avalanche, you’re tumbled about, it’s like being in a raging river," Atkins said. "It’s just hard to breathe.”

A clear airway increases your time of surviving before rescue from 15 minutes to several hours.

“Time is the enemy of the buried avalanche victim,” Atkins said.

What To Do To Prepare Your Car For An Avalanche

If you travel through snow country for any reason, keep gear in your car. No exceptions, Atkins said.

Blankets, flashlights, food and water and other basics are great to store in the trunk.

Pay attention to what's happening above you as you drive through mountains. If an avalanche is coming, roll up your windows. Stay in your car if you're trapped, and turn off the engine to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you come across an avalanche that's already fallen, don't wait behind it. Find a structure or other shelter to park under, because it's likely another snow slide will follow.

How To Safely Ski In The Backcountry

Don't go alone, and invest in the gear.

Atkins recommends anything that makes you searchable, including avalanche transceivers and handheld radar detectors. Pack a shovel to dig a friend out.

While packing the equipment is important, your greatest ally or enemy will always remain chance.

“Surviving an avalanche is all about luck," Atkins said "Even though you may have all the equipment ... you want to learn how to use it, but travel as though you left it at home”