10 minutes under the snow is enough for a lifetime

Essay by Mark Matthews

Outdoors – April 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

I COULDN’T SLEEP LAST NIGHT. I spent the day writing about avalanches. In bed, bad memories returned of the ten minutes I once spent buried under snow. As I put my head to my pillow I again experienced the hysteria of claustrophobia. I felt as if I couldn’t suck enough air into my lungs.

It only takes a couple of feet of snow to pin the strongest man. Three feet of snow and he’s down for good. Once snow shifts, it looses that light powdery texture. Make a snowball and you’ll see what I mean. It sits on your body like unfired clay.

Beneath snow, time becomes a contradiction. It races and it stands still. Translucent light filters from above, just like underwater, and the quiet is vast. If you can stop hyperventilating, you hear your own blood coursing through your veins, like the barely perceptible drone of an electric alarm clock.

I was lucky. An avalanche did not sweep me away. Instead, I had voluntarily stepped into my frozen piece of Hell to help some friends train their search dogs.

After only five minutes I heard the frantic paces of the dog above, sounding like a horse galloping miles away. Then she stopped above me, picking up my scent, and her weight pressed the snow down even tighter on my body. As she scratched open a hole, the dim light in the small air pocket brightened into sunshine.

When asked if I’d do it again for another dog, I said “No way!” Ten minutes under snow is enough for a lifetime.

As of February, thirty-three people had died in avalanches in North America this winter, and that’s just hitting the height of the season. Last winter 35 people died in avalanches over the entire winter.

A November storm set the stage. That snow quickly transformed into a sugary foundation which acted as a lubricant for subsequent snowfalls. The dangerous conditions stretched from Canada to Colorado.

Most victims bring down avalanches upon themselves, according to the experts. The best chance for survival is if members of your own party find you immediately. When completely buried you’ve got an 80% chance of surviving if found immediately. But if you’re not found within 30 minutes, your chances drop to 50%, and for each subsequent half hour spent buried your chance of survival is cut in half. Only about four out of ten avalanche victims survive.

In the 1960s many mountain climbers perished in avalanches. During the 1970s, as cross-country skiing became popular, backcountry skiers tended to trigger slides. However, during the last five years, snowmobiler deaths have topped the chart. There seems to be a lag time before each group gains experience on how to avoid dangerous situations. And novice snowmobilers are proving to be slow learners. In the United States this winter, a majority of the 18 avalanche victims have been swept away while riding snowmobiles.

Many snowmobilers think it’s fun to push a machine straight up steep slopes at full throttle until it’s about to stall, then loop back down. The thrilling procedure is called “high-marking.” They might as well be tracing the outline of a tombstone on the side of the mountain.

As a cross-country skier, I sometimes feel a slight temptation to say: “Serves them right. Those mechanized cowboys stink up the air, harass wildlife, and disturb my peace while I’m out in the woods.” But I resist the urge, even in jest. Instead, I mourn them. No one deserves to die in that manner. Besides, skiers are not immune to avalanches. In Canada this winter, avalanches have killed eight skiers and four hikers.

To all backcountry users, here’s some advice: The innocuous symmetrical snowflakes we watch melt in an outstretched palm can become a merciless force of nature if they bond a certain way. As destructive as a forest fire or a flooding river. Beware.

Take a course in avalanche safety. Don’t cross open slopes when danger is high. And learn how to use and wear a transreceiver, a device about the size of a checkbook that sends and receives a radio signal. If every member of a party wears one, a lone survivor of an avalanche has a chance of rescuing a friend or two. Snowmobilers especially should strap on the device. If you’ve got thousands of dollars to spend on a high-powered machine, you can afford a couple hundred bucks for a device that may save your life.

Believe me you won’t like it under the snow. Dig a hole and find out for yourself. But don’t expect to get any sleep that night.

Mark Matthews lives in Missoula, Montana, and is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News based in Paonia, Colorado.