Exit Strategies: Why and How to Take a proactive approach if you are caught in an avalanche

November 7, 2021

In this 'Demystifying Avalanche Concepts' post, snow science pro Karl Birkeland talks about the idea that there are exit strategies that skiers and riders can employ that may help you escape the debris when an avalanche releases.

It’s a backcountry skier’s worst fear: slabs cracking, snow sliding around your legs, getting swept toward the bottom of a slope, possibly to be buried, hurled through a stand of trees or over a cliff. And here at BCA, there is much time spent developing and testing backcountry safety gear—from beacons to probes to avalanche airbags—that help protect you when the worst-case scenario happens. But while this safety gear is vital, it is not the only path to survival in the event of an avalanche.

For the 2008 International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), three snow science and avalanche professionals, Karl Birkeland, Perry Bartelt, and the late Theo Meiners (who tragically passed at the 2012 ISSW event), collaborated on a paper that centered on the idea that there are exit strategies that skiers and riders can employ that may help fight the deadly pull of a slide. From a fast ski escape to back-stroke swimming and log rolling, there are numerous anecdotal stories that highlight how fighting for your life in an avalanche might be worth it.

Meiners, founder of Alaska Rendezvous Heli-ski Guides, Birkeland, an avalanche scientist with the USDA Forest Service National Avalanche Center, and Bartelt, a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, collaborated on the paper, dubbed Avalanche Survival Strategies for Different Parts of a Flowing Avalanche, in response to a theory being circulated at the time that using a swimming motion to try to survive an avalanche was useless. This didn’t sit well with Meiners, Birkeland, and Bartelt, so they took it upon themselves to outline how to attempt a self-rescue in an avalanche based on personal experience, a compilation of stories from avalanche survivors, and the most recent research on modeling the dynamics of a flowing avalanche.

In our recent conversation with Karl Birkeland, he notes his frustration that some people were suggesting that swimming in an avalanche was futile. 

“As an avalanche forecaster, I talked to a lot of people that either had close calls, had been buried, or watched their friends get buried. Often these people told me, ‘I'm so glad that I swam in the avalanche. I was getting sucked under, and then by thrashing around I was able to end up on the surface”. Or, when the avalanche started I was able to fight and grab onto the downhill side of a tree and more snow went by, allowing me to escape’” Birkeland explains.

These stories of survival were reflected in Meiners’s personal experiences, says Birkeland. “He (Meiners) approached me and said, ‘Oh my God, you know, this is totally wrong (about the ‘swimming is futile’ theory), and people are going to die.’ And I said, ‘What do you think people should do?’ He said, ‘Well, I've got this whole sequence of things I think people should do.’ And he shared that graphic with me.”

So with the on-the-ground experience, Meiners brought from his time spent heli-guiding in Alaska and Bartelt’s cutting edge understanding of snow fluid dynamics, the three men created a series of moves based on where you were in a slide that could assist in the escape.

“The most effective way to survive an avalanche is to get out of it,” emphasizes Birkeland. “And even though the actual propagation of cracks across the slope is extremely rapid—you're not going to out ski those or anything—it does take a couple of seconds for the snow to accelerate. So, you do have this initial window of opportunity if you're paying attention or if a partner yells ‘avalanche’ or something, you have this initial window of opportunity where you might be able to ski off that slab, or if the slab is soft enough and not too deep and there's not too much snow above you, you might be able to dig in with your skis or your boots or whatever you have available to you to dig into that bed surface and get the snow by you and you might not get caught.”

He continues to explain that the farther away from the leading edge of the avalanche you can get, the better off you are. “Hopefully you're not there ’cause if you're in that leading edge zone, it's going to be really difficult to do anything. You're going to be getting tumbled and beat up and spun around. And, you're going to have a very difficult time helping yourself.” But he reaffirms, “If you're farther back in the avalanche, Meiners thought was ‘get your feet down,’ just like if you were swimming a rapid. If you come out of your kayak or you get spit out of a whitewater boat, you want to get your feet downhill.”

Meiners also believed that once in the middle part of the slide, you may not be able to ski to safety, but there were other movements you could attempt to try to get yourself to the back or the edge of the slide and to safety. Birkeland explains, “Meiners was talking about backstroking and the whole idea behind that was to, again, try and push yourself towards the back end of that slide. He was finding that potentially the easiest way to move to the side in the avalanche was just to roll over and do these log roll motions. The idea is that if the flow of the avalanche in that front end is doing this sort of washing machine motion, it keeps turning over. But the back end is more laminar where the whole motion of the avalanche is just sort of flowing along. You might be able to make some progress with rolling over.”

When faced with a life-or-death situation, Meiners, Birkeland, and Bartelt wanted to make sure that people knew the importance of taking back whatever small amount of agency they might have when caught in an avalanche. Birkeland emphasizes, however, that these techniques don’t exist in exclusion of other safety measures.

“Just don't give up, keep rolling, keep trying to work your way towards the edge,” Birkeland stresses. “You keep your eyes open, you know, be aware, look for trees. If you're going too fast, you want to avoid trees. If you're going slow enough, you want to grab onto the trees. So there are just a lot of pieces totally happening all over the place.”

These techniques stand the test of time and Birkeland mentions that now and then he is contacted by someone who has used one of the strategies from the 2008 paper in a life-saving struggle. He is aware, however, that an update for the modern backcountry crowd should include how to navigate an avalanche with an airbag.

“Just speaking for myself, I would think that you could integrate airbags into this discussion. If you are trying to actively stop yourself and especially if you're in a situation where your ride in that avalanche is going to carry you through trees or over rocks, you might want to take a few seconds to try and get out of the avalanche,” Birkeland explains about a possible theory he will have to explore if he chooses to update the article. “Having your airbag inflated might make hanging on to the bed surface more difficult. But if you are in an avalanche path with a fairly clean run-out then you might want to take that opportunity to pull the trigger immediately, because it's a real mix, right? We know airbags save lives and if you spend all your effort trying to stay off that avalanche, and then suddenly you start getting bucked around, it might be harder to find that trigger and pull it. I think in some situations you might want to fight the avalanche a little bit first, and then if you get dragged down into the slide, yank that dang trigger!”

He makes it clear, however, that this is all conjecture and that he would need to formally collect data regarding how airbags affect these self-rescue techniques. But overall, he believes these techniques hold true today as they did in 2008, and his takeaway, if you are ever caught in an avalanche, is to do what Tom Kimbrough, a long-time Utah Avalanche Center forecaster fiercely advocated for: Fight for your life like hell!

This blog is dedicated to Theo Meiners, a longtime friend of BCA, and founder of Alaska Rendezvous Heli-Ski Guides. It was his experience in the avalanche below that inspired his research into avalanche exit strategies. Photos courtesy of Ali Meiners/Alaska Rendezvous.



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