Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Avalanche Awareness

Our Wanderers meeting last night was a little different in the sense that another group had booked the same space, bypassing our Pauling House shared calendar.

These mountaineers had invited an avalanche specialist to discuss warning signs, what to do if buried, how to undertake a rescue op. Wanderers simply joined the meeting, contributing wine and cheese, and a twisted sense of humor.

Weather, snowpack, terrain, and the human factor all play a role in setting the danger level. About 90% of fatalities get attributed to human misjudgments.

Beware of these three modes or pitfalls:
  • sheep mode (following blindly)
  • horse mode (cutting corners in the rush to get home)
  • lion mode (woo hoo, I'm immortal).
Operating in any of these modes might get you killed. Males in the presence of females tend to take greater risks. Don't be afraid to speak up even if you're not the leader. Leaders, give your group members frequent opportunities to check in and share about their state. Keep both laser focus and peripheral awareness (urban analogy: never cross a busy intersection talking obliviously on your cell phone, even if the light is with you).

The avalanche-aware know how to read a site for signs, plus bring to bear their knowledge of recent history. Releases are triggered by shifting weight, not loud sounds. If the snow is layered, with a top layer only weakly bonded to the one beneath it, and if the slope is moderately steep (quasi-vertical isn't usually a problem), look out.

If caught in a release, plant your poles, shed gear, yell loudly to help others mark your position (you'll likely be downhill from where they last saw you). They'll need to find you soon. Warm breath within the snow pocket, usually 4-6 feet under, seals it with ice and reduces the oxygen flow. Your chance of survival drops by 50% after about 30 minutes. Carry a beacon. Carry a collapsable pole to search for your friends.

I found the speaker highly engaging and effective. This was the kind of presentation Wanderers would do well to emulate (he had slides, handouts, quotes, quips, actual gear). He was also on the older side, which was reassuring (the guy must be doing something right, given how many hours he's spent on the slopes).

Terry and I ducked out a couple times to continue our meeting of earlier today. We're city rats, less likely to be leading clueless newbies through snowy mountain mazes. However, I did pick up a wallet card for the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, just in case.