Danger in the Mountains
Watch out for avalanches, landslides, and explosions!Mountains can be dangerous places. It’s not just the cold and snow, the chance of getting lost, or falling off a cliff. There are bigger dangers. You definitely don’t want to get in the way of an exploding volcano, a hurtling avalanche, or a flash flood.
Mountains command our respect!
How to Survive an Avalanche
Every year dozens of people are killed by avalanches. These sliding masses of snow and ice can let loose with little warning. They can reach speeds of more than 2 kilometers per minute and carry rocks, trees and people with them. Many avalanches are natural, but some are triggered by skiers, snowboarders, hikers and snowmobilers.
The people living near Mt. Huascarán in Peru have suffered some of the worst avalanches in the world. In 1970, a huge mass of falling rock and ice killed 18,000 people and destroyed the town of Yungay, Peru.
Being in an avalanche has been compared to standing on a carpet and suddenly having it ripped out from under you. It's an apt metaphor, except in an avalanche the carpet can weigh hundreds of thousands of tons and can travel at well over 100 miles per hour, destroying everything in its path. Around the world, avalanches are responsible for an average of nearly 150 deaths per year. If you're unfortunate enough to be caught in an avalanche, here's what you can do to increase your chances of survival.
Landslides can wash out roads and destroy homes and fields. In the pictures below, farmers cut down the forest that used to cover these steep mountains in Rwanda. They planted crops to feed their families. But, without the forest to catch and soak up rainfall, and without a strong network of roots to hold the soil in place, the soil washed away in huge landslides during a storm in 1988.
What to do during avalanche
- Jump upslope. Most avalanche victims trigger the avalanche themselves, and sometimes the avalanche will start right beneath their feet. If this happens, try to jump upslope, beyond the fracture line. An avalanche happens so quickly that it's almost impossible to react fast enough to do this, but it has been done.
- Move to the side of the avalanche. Whether the avalanche starts above you or beneath you, you may be able to make your way toward the side. Don't hesitate: move as quickly as possible to the side of the avalanche slope. If the avalanche begins well above you, you may be able to get out of its path before it reaches you. Even if the avalanche starts right beneath your feet, you may be able to make it to safety, and the further you get toward the side, the better. The snow will be moving fastest near the center of the flow, and that's also where the highest volume of snow will be.
- Stay on your feet as long as possible. If you're skiing or on foot, the longer you can keep your balance and stay upright, the better your chance will be of making it to the side of the avalanche or to a sheltered area. Staying upright, however, is easier said than done if the snow beneath you is moving. Do your best, and if you fall, try to ditch your skis, poles, and/or backpack--they'll more than likely drag you deeper in the snow than you would normally go.
- Hold on to something. If you're unable to escape the avalanche, try to grab on to a boulder or sturdy tree. If it's a small avalanche, or if you're near the edge of the avalanche, you may be able to hold on until the flow of snow passes you. Even if you get ripped away from the object you're holding, if you can succeed in delaying your departure downhill, you have a better chance of not being buried or, at least, of not being buried as deeply. Keep in mind, however, that a very powerful avalanche can carry away even large rocks and trees.
- Swim to stay near the surface of the snow. The human body is much denser than snow, so you'll tend to sink as you get carried downhill. Try to stay afloat by using a swimming motion. It's no use to try to swim against the snow, so swim with it, as you would swim with the tide if you were bodysurfing. No particular stroke is recommended; just do whatever works to keep your head above the surface. As the avalanche slows down, quickly try to get yourself to the surface before the snow settles.
- Give yourself some breathing room if you're going to be buried. Once the avalanche stops, the snow settles very quickly, and if you're buried more than a foot or so when it sets, it will be impossible to get out on your own. Your only hope then is to ward off asphyxiation long enough for people to dig you out.
- Create an air pocket near your nose and mouth. When the avalanche slows down--but before it stops--cup one or both of your hands in front of your mouth to create an air pocket. With a small air pocket to breathe from, you should have enough air to last at least 30 minutes.
- Take a deep breath before the snow settles. Right before the snow settles, inhale deeply and hold your breath for a few seconds. This causes your chest to expand, which will give you some breathing room when the snow hardens around you. If you don't have this breathing room, you may not even be able to expand your chest to breathe while you're buried.
- Conserve air and energy. Try to move once the snow settles, but don't jeopardize your air pocket. If you're very near the surface, you may be able to dig your way out, but otherwise you aren't going anywhere. Don't waste precious breath by struggling against the snow. Remain calm and wait. If you hear people nearby, try to call them, but don't keep it up if they don't seem to hear you. You can probably hear them better than they can hear you, and shouting just wastes your limited air supply.
Before and after landslides in Ruhengeri, Rwanda (photos by Alton Byers)
Steam eruption of Nevado del Ruiz
(photo by NOAA)
Volcanoes are loud, spectacular, and deadly. In 1883, tremendous explosions from the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia were heard in California. That is one-eighth of the way around the world! One of the worst volcanic eruptions in history was at Nevado del Ruiz, Columbia, in 1985. The eruption triggered a deadly mudflow that sped down the slope, killing 23,000 people. The people in the town below did not have any idea that it was coming.
Aerial view of Mt. Pinatubo crater (photo by NOAA)
Scientists are getting better at predicting eruptions. In 1991, scientists spotted early warning signs of an eruption at Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines. Scientists sent out a warning to the people living near the volcano. The people were able to get away. They lost their homes and land but 200,000 lives were saved. As the world's population grows, the land gets more crowded. More people are living in potentially dangerous mountain areas. What do you think can be done to help?
Would you like to see mountain hazards in action?
See an animated diagram of an avalanche (USA Today)
Flash animation (Savage Earth, WNET, PBS)
Quicktime movie of of Popocatepetal eruption, Mexico (TV Azteca and CNN Interactive)
Mount St. Helens in Washington, USA erupted with such violence that the top of the mountain was blown off, spewing a cloud of ash and gases that rose to an altitude of 19 kilometers (NASA)
Zoom into Mt. Etna, an active volcano in Sicily (NASA)
- While the techniques in this article may save your life, in reality the key to surviving in avalanche country is to avoid getting caught in an avalanche in the first place. This means paying attention to weather reports, asking rangers and others in the know about local conditions and being savvy about where avalanches occur. Never presume that an area will be safe - do your research in advance.
- If you get buried in a remote area and know there's no one around to dig you out, your only chance of survival will be to dig yourself out. It can be difficult to tell which way is up, so if you can see any light, try to dig toward it. If you can see your breath, dig in the direction that it rises. You can also -- though it sounds gross -- spit in your hand and see which way it runs, then dig the opposite way.
- If you can't get out of the path of the avalanche and you can't grab on to something sturdy, try to seek shelter behind a rock outcropping or any other large object that isn't likely to move. If you're lucky, you will at least avoid being hit by tumbling debris, and if you're very lucky, your shelter may protect you from being buried. The second you start to be buried, however, start swimming with the avalanche to stay above the surface.
- Often it's not possible to ditch your skis before you're buried in snow. Don't worry if you can't; it sometimes works out OK. There are many cases where victims were quickly found because a ski tip protruded above the surface.
- If you witness someone get buried in an avalanche, you may be their only hope of survival. It's imperative that witnesses try to rescue an avalanche victim immediately.
- Be prepared, know where you are going and if there is an avalanche risk. Take the proper gear for all emergencies. Special backpack/hydration packs are available for purchase that will also help provide air if trapped under an avalanche. This as well as an emergency beacon can improve survival chances if burried.
- If you do get stuck in an avalanche, you may become disoriented as in which way is up and which way is down. If you do manage to get an air pocket in front of your face, spit. If it lands on your face, behind you is down. If it lands in front of you, you are facing the earth and you should start to dig the opposite way. If it lands either to the left or right, dig opposite of where it goes.
- Once you're caught in an avalanche, your survival mainly comes down to luck. The only sure way to survive an avalanche is to avoid one altogether. Learn how to do so, and always err on the side of caution in avalanche country..
Digging out the "victim" after about one hour in the snow