In the high-country it is still avalanche season. Down low, the weather is showing signs of spring. The sun is out and the birds are singing. April showers promise May flowers and this has many hikers hitting the hills and getting outdoors. These are all good things, but Friday morning’s deadly avalanche on Mount Everest should serve as a reminder to all hikers, backcountry skiers, and snowboarders hitting the high-country: as long as there is snow, there is the danger of an avalanche. The latest reports show 12 people have been killed and four more are missing.
So far, there have been 26 reported deaths caused by avalanches in the U.S. during the 2013-2014 season.
Up high, typically above timberline, April showers fall as snow. In many mountain areas, such as the Rockies, April means a lot more snow. The danger is an avalanche. If anything, the recent avalanche on Mount Everest should serve as a reminder of this distinct and dangerous possibility. What happens is quite simple, the existing snowpack above the timberline sits in the spring sun and begins to melt. When the temperature drops, on a cloudy day or at night, that melting snow freezes again and turns to ice, then it snows. The new snowfall creates a layer on top of the older, now hard-packed layer of snow, creating an unstable shelf. This new layer of snow will often shift under its own weight, and the slightest disturbance, and then slide off the old layer underneath, causing an avalanche.
The devastation can be catastrophic, wiping out rocks, debris, trees, and every living thing in its path. Once the slide stops, anything that was caught in the path of the avalanche is now tumbled into one thick pile of concrete-hard snow. The most common cause of death in an avalanche is suffocation.
The first and foremost rule of surviving an avalanche is also simple, do not be caught in one. Those who have survived an avalanche describe it as extreme disorientation, where it is impossible to tell which way is up, and a feeling of total helplessness. In most areas, where avalanches frequently occur, rescue teams have trained dogs to locate bodies beneath the snow. Even the most experienced back-country enthusiasts will not go into an area without a beacon, however, such measures only provide the smallest advantage. The window for survival in an avalanche is limited to the amount of time one can hold one’s breath after being caught by surprise by one of nature’s most powerful forces.
Avalanche watch sites all throughout the Rocky Mountain region, from the U.S. to Canada, are still reporting, at least, the moderate probability of avalanche occurrence, which is like saying, “Maybe it will happen, and maybe it won’t.”
Should it snow again, and those living in the mountains are certain it will, the probability of an avalanche happening will go up significantly, and those images from Mount Everest on Friday morning need to serve as a reminder when in avalanche country be ever vigilant and know the terrain. Not even the most experienced mountain climber is exempt from this. Such awareness can ensure a safe and fun-filled spring for all outdoor enthusiasts who wish to enjoy the best of what the mountains have to offer.
By Joseph Porter