Every winter, an average of 25 people die in avalanches in the United States. Washington state ranks 5th in the nation when it comes to avalanche deaths according to the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center .
"That number has been growing just because more and more people are getting out and enjoying the back country," says WSDOT Avalanche Forecaster John Stimberis.
So would you know what to do if you got caught in an avalanche? Do you know some of the warning signs?
The National Snow and Ice Data Center suggests keeping any eye out for any cracks shooting across the surface, or small slabs shearing off. These are signs of weakened snowpack."One of the biggest indicators you hear is a 'whomp' sound. It's like a settlement of a snow pack and that's particularly indicative of a slab avalanche where a large slab of snow releases at once," says Stimberis.
When you hear that noise, get off of the slab as quickly as possible. If you can't, Stimberis says try to slow yourself down by pushing your arm into the snow or digging your ski poles into the snow.
"You don't want to be in that leading edge where you'll get going 30, 40, 50 mph hitting a tree or a rock. At that speed, it could be very dangerous." says Stimberis.
In fact, in 2008 Washington state lead the nation with nine avalanche deaths. That's why if you get caught in one and can't slow yourself down, you really need to fight.
"Try to get your feet facing downhill so if you do hit something, it's your feet that hit first and not your head. Thrash about and keep yourself on to of that slab because when it comes to a stop, you want to be above the snow - particularly your head," says Stimberis.
Stimberis says this is really important because while many avalanche victims die from severe injuries, the majority actually suffocate.
If it does come down at that point where you're getting buried, the best thing you can do is try to create an airspace around your head. One great way to do that is to grab your collar and cover your face like that with your elbow . It's something you can do to try to create an airspace," says Stimberis.
Another thing that will help you survive is an avalanche beacon. If you're going into the back country, consider this a must. Make sure it's on and switched to transmit rather than receive. Also carry a collapsable shovel.
But Stimberis says the most important thing you can do is know before you go. Check with the National Weather Service or the Northwest Weather & Avalanche Center to find out the current avalanche forecast/hazard levels.
He also recommends leaving a travel plan with someone. Let them know where you're going and when you plan on returning so if you don't return, they can point rescue teams in the right direction.
But you don't have to be in the back country to be at risk. Avalanches have been known to bury cars and trap people inside. If an avalanche comes down around your car, Stimberis says stay inside and if you see another car get buried, do not try to rescue anyone. Stimberis says another slide could come crashing down while you're trying to help.