Avalanche warnings posted in Rockies

BY SUSAN SMITH | Western U.S.& Canada | April 16, 1999

Weather officials have posted avalanche warnings for the Western U.S. and Canada this Spring, as unusually heavy wet snowfall has fallen on top of nearly

record snowpacks in some regions. Unlike other parts of the world, most North American avalanches occur in largely recreational areas where few people live

year-round. When natural disasters like floods, fire or storms happen in populated areas -- professional rescue squads are often first on the scene. But when

back country recreationists are caught in an avalanche, there is no time to run and get help. You often have to rely on your companions to save your life.

Lonnie Byrd, 36, of Quesnel, British Columbia was in an avalanche triggered by him and his friends when they were snowmobiling in the Cariboo


"We were just playing on the hill, and it just let go," says Byrd. "I remember the sound--it sounded like thunder." He tried to outride the tumbling snow, and

almost made it.

"It was bubbling in front of me and I basically jumped it," says Byrd. But the strength and speed of the wall of snow was too much, and the avalanche hit him,

pushed him across the hill, burying him up to the neck.

However, he was lucky, because within seconds, his friends heard his cries for help, and started digging him out with their hands. Byrd says that he panicked,

because he could breathe out, but not breathe in because of the pressure and weight of the snow on his chest.

"It squashed me tighter, like a vice," he says. "I felt like a truck was parked on me." It took only 20 minutes for his friends to dig him out of the heavy snow,

but the nightmares lasted for three months, he says.

Many people caught in an avalanche are not as lucky. Each year many people die or are injured by avalanches. So far, in the 1998-99 winter season, 39 people

have died in North America because of avalanches.

In Europe, the figures are even higher, because people live in avalanche areas, whereas in North America, most avalanche victims are recreationists.

Of the people that get killed by avalanches, 25 per cent of the people who die are killed by physical trauma. The rest of the people either suffocate to death or

are overtaken by hypothermia.

The danger in the springtime is exacerbated because ice from earlier in the winter is now covered with heavy, deep snow. And if there is a sudden rise in

temperature, the ice layer will melt and the whole slab will loosen.

Evan Manners, operations manager at the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, British Columbia says that the people who do survive being buried by an

avalanche are those who are rescued quickly.

If you are rescued within five minutes, you have a 95 per cent chance of survival. After 20 minutes your chances go down to 42 per cent, says Manners. "No

matter how close you are to professional rescue service, the very best people are the people with you."

He says three things are needed for survival -- a beacon, a probe and a shovel. "Everyone thinks 'oh, it's not going to happen to me,'" he says. Manners says

that may be true, but it could happen to friends or family traveling with you.

Don Bachman, executive director of the American Association of Avalanche Professionals says that the difference between avalanches and other types of

natural disasters are that many people who are killed by avalanches are, in essence, dying at their own hands because they trigger the snow. Exceptions are

people who may be working in avalanche terrain -- in rarer cases people may live in an avalanche zone.

"This is the type of natural hazard that can be avoided." And the best way to prevent an avalanche is to realize that you could trigger one.

"It's important to recognize the potential for hazards," says Bachman. Lonnie Byrd says his experience of almost being buried alive has taught him a lot.

"I know what to look for now," he says, adding that knowing the snow and weather conditions are a must for back country recreationists.

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