Surviving the Elements
Outdoor athletes can quickly find themselves in a life-threatening crisis. Here's how to be ready if it happens to you.
The situation: A tidal wave of deadly snow sweeps you down the slope.
How to survive: "One essential key to surviving an avalanche is wearing an avalanche beacon," says Shin Campos, a pro snowboarder with more than 18 years' experience in the backcountry. "If you are buried, there isn't much chance of being found without one." After that, it's all about maneuvering through the snow. If the avalanche is triggered under your feet, look for a patch of snow or something solid like a rock or a tree that doesn't move during the slide and swim like crazy toward it, fighting with your arms to stay on top of the moving snow. "If you go under," says Campos, "take a deep breath and close your mouth so you don't choke on snow. Then use your arms to make a breathing area in front of your head and face — you'll need as much air and room as possible for the time you are buried in the snow and waiting to be found."
The situation: You fall through thin ice while trying to cross a frozen lake.
How to survive: "In Hollywood, cold-water immersion is where the hero does his big dramatic scene, but in the real world, people die," says Tim Smith, owner of Jack Mountain Bushcraft, a wilderness survival school in Wolfeboro Falls, N.H. To help his students survive, Smith instructs that they cut a 10- to 12-foot pole out of a sapling before crossing untested ice. The branch helps you move evenly by redistributing your weight. Should you fall, it will also catch on the ice surrounding the hole so you won't go under, then you can use it to get out. No pole? "Lay flat on your back and kick so you can slide up on the ice," says Smith. Carefully roll away from the hole. Don't stand up and put your full weight on the already fractured ice. "Once you're out of the water, your next threat is hypothermia," says Smith. "Exercise like hell and have the biggest, hottest fire possible."
The situation: A whiteout blizzard blows in, and you're lost in the woods.
How to survive: Hunker down and wait out the squall. "The biggest thing is to not panic," says Smith. "If you can stop yourself from doing something foolish because you feel rushed or frightened, then they're not going to have to go searching for you later." Instead, find the biggest evergreen possible, break off a few boughs for a seat, and cozy up to the trunk: It's a ready-made shelter, and it'll keep the worst of the snow off you. When the weather clears, it's time to find the trailhead. "Pay attention to landmarks as you travel," says Smith. "Look behind you—it looks different when you're going back; there might be landmarks you can't see going forward."
The situation: The temperature drops, and signs of frostbite are setting in.
How to survive: "When you see superficial frostbite, the skin will take on a white or slightly blanched appearance," says Dave Neely, assistant district ranger with the White Mountain National Forest. "That's when you immediately need to take action." First thing, cover up, rewarm, and increase blood flow to the area—stick hands in armpits, loosen boots, and move feet around. Taking the right action means recognizing the difference between the early, preventable stages and the more consequential deep-layer frostbite. "With deep-layer frostbite the limb begins to look grayish and wooden—it feels firm, and looks frozen," says Neely. "Cover up, pay attention to your body, keep an eye on your partner's ears, cheeks, and nose. If you begin to feel that you're losing sensation in your hands and feet, stop right then and address it."
BY THE NUMBERS
- 92% chance of surviving an avalanche after 15 minutes
- 27% chance of surviving after 35 minutes
- 15 minutes is the time it can take frostbite to occur in windchill values near -25 degrees fahrenheit
- 40% of avalanche victims die from severe hypothermia
- 80 mph is the speed an avalanche can reach in just five seconds