Avoiding an avalanche disaster

TACOMA -- Last winter was one of the deadliest on record for skiers and snowboarders in Washington's backcountry.

In Washington's Cascade Mountains nine people were killed by avalanches, the most since 1981, when 11 climbers were killed in one avalanche on Mount Rainier.

It was a season that was particularly hard for avalanche experts such as Paul Baugher, director of the Northwest Avalanche Institute.

"We live in a state where the No. 1 risk of dying in a natural disaster is an avalanche," he said. "When people go out, they need to check the avalanche conditions."

Several of the people who died in avalanches last season were out when the avalanche risk was listed as high on the institute's hotline.

"When avalanche risk is high, it should be a slap in the face," Baugher said. "Maybe this isn't the best time to go out there."

While these might be good days to opt for the avalanche-controlled runs of ski resorts, Baugher understands that the lure of untracked powder will always tempt backcountry skiers and snowboarders into avalanche-prone areas.

This is why it's important that these adventurers be prepared.

Here are the basics:

The tools

There are three basic tools every backcountry skier and boarder should carry: a shovel, a beacon and a probe.

"It's like taking a life jacket when paddling in the Grand Canyon. You don't even think about not taking it," said Bruce Tremper, author of the recently released Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain (The Mountaineers Books, $18.95).

Just as important as the tools is the ability to use them, Baugher said.

He said backcountry skiers should practice using their beacons regularly.

Crystal Mountain has a $12,000 beacon testing system near the Campbell Basin Lodge.

The area allows skiers to practice avalanche rescues.

Call the hotline

The avalanche institute updates avalanche conditions daily on its hotline (206-526-6677).

"Always consult the hotline before you go," Tremper said. "And when it's high, you should think twice about going."

Get smart

Tremper and Baugher said avalanche training is a must before any adventurer heads out to the backcountry.

Classes will teach you how to rescue people and assess avalanche danger, Baugher said.

Avalanche training is available at many ski areas, Baugher said.

Ashford-based International Mountain Guides teaches one-day, $125 introductory avalanche training courses that includes skiing in Crystal Mountain's backcountry.

Limit exposure

"When you are on a slope that might slide, only expose one person at a time," Tremper said. "Your buddy can't dig you out if you are both trapped in the avalanche."

Take a partner

Baugher has helped recover many bodies from avalanches, and some bother him more than others.

"The ones that get me are the people who were out by themselves and would have been recoverable if they were with a partner," Baugher said. "That's a sad way to go."

Not only is it crucial to have somebody to dig you out of an avalanche, but Baugher said it's also important to have another person to help access the terrain and help make decisions.

If you get caught

"If you have to ask yourself what to do when you are in an avalanche, it's already too late," Tremper said. "Avalanches happen so fast there is not a whole lot you can do. The best thing you can do is avoid them."

Tremper said 95 percent of avalanche victims trigger the slide themselves.

If you do get caught in an avalanche, Tremper said try to escape to the side. If you can't, try to grab a tree or another stable object.

"Most importantly," Tremper said, "before the avalanche stops, put your elbow over your face to protect your airway. Even before the avalanche stops it will solidify like concrete and you won't be able to move your hands."

For victims who survive the trauma, they have just a few minutes before they start to die from suffocation, Tremper said.

"The victim needs to be rescued quickly," Tremper said. "After 15 minutes, almost everybody is dead."