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How Not to Die in an Avalanche

Heidi Julavits went to avalanche school
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 1, 2020 4:45 PM CST
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Stock photo of an avalanche.   (Getty Images)

(Newser) – Heidi Julavits went to avalanche school and lived to tell the tale. That certainly wasn't a sure thing. After wrapping up the three-day Level 1 course in the Eastern Sierra, she read an article about an avalanche death that happened that very day—during an advanced avalanche safety course in Colorado. As she learned at the start of the course, "Nature doesn’t kill people with avalanches. People kill people with avalanches." There are essentially six traps people fall into that put them at greater risk when confronted with possible avalanche conditions—think "familiarity" (ie, you know the terrain well so you're less watchful) and "expert halo" (ie, thinking the experts are the pros, so it's OK to blindly follow them). They talked about how to avoid those traps—make decisions as a group, for one—then spent two days in the snow.

The group attempted rescuing an avalanche victim (really just a plywood board outfitted with a beacon that was buried two feet down), an exercise that led Julavits to circle back to the idea of being buried alive—an admitted fear and one she explores from a historical perspective in the New York Times piece—and explain what happens if you are. If being dug out isn't a possibility, wish for a rapid death, she writes. An "unlucky 2% ... die of hypothermia over the course of hours." Some 25% die of trauma instantly, and the rest asphyxiate over a 15- to 45-minute period. Why can't a victim just escape on his own? The average burial depth in the US is nearly 4 feet, and then there's this: "The snow, as it slides, heats up and becomes wetter. When it stops, it freezes instantly. If a victim is caught inside the churn when this happens, they’re effectively sealed inside an ice coffin." (Read the full story here.)

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