When he was about 10 years old, Doug Driskell narrowly escaped an avalanche. He and some friends were waiting for a tram to carry them down a mountain at a ski resort, and they started goofing around. Then Driskell stepped down into a bowl-shaped area.
“We were just walking around having snowball fights,” he says. “All of a sudden, the whole bowl took off. I ran and jumped out. There was a huge rumble later when the avalanche hit the valley. It was the closest call I ever had.”
Within five seconds of taking off, an avalanche can move at 80 miles an hour (129 kilometers an hour), so people rarely have time to jump or run out of harm’s way like Driskell did as a kid. But these days, avalanches don’t often overtake skiers at resorts because the ski patrol makes sure the slopes are safe.
Driskell, Snow Safety Coordinator for Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol in Aspen, Colorado, says Colorado has the most avalanche accidents in the country, keeping him very busy.
Big storms and warming weather make the month of March especially treacherous for avalanches. “The most activity happens when we get a bunch of snow, because the added weight increases the stress,” he explains.
An avalanche occurs when one entire area or slab of snow slides off of another layer underneath it. The layers form as wind and weather lay down layers of snow. Each layer takes a different form. For example, some will be wetter or icier than others.
When a slab starts to slide, anything on top is carried along, and the avalanche picks up whatever lies in its path as it roars down a slope—including rocks, trees, and people.
The Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol demonstrates this action by stacking up books with salt sprinkled between them. The salt makes each book or layer unstable; adding weight can cause one book in the pile to slide off.
The same thing happens when a person starts to travel across an area of unstable snow—their weight can trigger a slide. Most people who get caught are skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling in the back county, the wilderness beyond the ski area where there is no patrol to manage the avalanches.
As long as skiers stay in the official ski areas, they don’t have to worry. “We control the hazard, so it is unlikely you’ll get caught,” Driskell explains. “We do that by compacting the snow, and we use explosives to make an avalanche move or to test an area to see if it is unstable.” This work can be dangerous, so ski patrol members look out for each other and keep the public at a safe distance.
Driskell and his colleagues also dig holes in the snow to study the layers. Back at headquarters, they enter measurements into a computer; special software creates a graph showing how the different layers are holding up. If an area looks risky, the ski patrol closes it.
People going out into the backcountry often wear a special instrument called an avalanche transceiver that sends out a radio signal. All members of the ski patrol wear one as well, in case they get caught in an avalanche while working.
The signal tells the patrol where to dig if someone ends up under the snow. Driskell and his colleagues rehearse constantly at a practice site to be ready in an emergency.
Once the patrol identifies the area where a person might be, they push a probe, or long pole, down into the snow. When it hits an object, they start digging with the shovels they always carry.
Everyone on the ski patrol has studied first aid, and many are Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) or paramedics, so they can start treating life-threatening injuries right there on the mountain.
An Australian shepherd, a Labrador retriever, and a German shepherd are important members of the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol team. These amazing dogs are trained to use their keen sense of smell to seek out people unseen beneath the snow. First, they learn to find their master, then someone else they know, then a stranger.
Driskell loves his work: “You’re working with a bunch of great people, trying to figure out the snow pack each year is pretty interesting, and you are right out there in nature most of the time.”
Avalanche tips for the back country:
- Never go alone
- Wear an avalanche transceiver
- Carry a folding probe and a shovel
- If you see someone swept up by an avalanche, keep your eye on them as long as you can; knowing where to dig may save a life