Any hiker walking through snow capped mountains should ensure the correct equipment is carried at all times. At the very least the hiker should have a holdall consisting of a small snow shovel, a thermal blanket (one of the tin foil type), a radio (to call for assistance should there be problems), a survival kit (including foil type food), spare ropes and climbing gear, some small candles and a matches or a lighter in a waterproof box and a portable hand warmer and extra fuel rods. In addition, the hiker will have some trekking poles.
So, whilst out walking what happens if the worst comes to the worst and you find yourself trapped by an avalanche? Whilst it is going to be a frightening experience, it is essential you keep your head and don’t panic. You need to remain composed and by following a few pieces of advice you will increase your chance of getting out of the situation alive to hike another day.
The first thing to do is to radio for assistance and send out an SOS message. If the weather has taken a turn for the worst the rescue team may not be able to come to your aid immediately, and there may be a delay of a couple of days. Therefore simply sending out an SOS is not enough and you need to prepare yourself for the worse.
With the distress call made you need to take the snow shovel and dig a hole that is large enough for you to sit in. The size of the hole is entirely your choice, although it should be remembered this may be your home for the next couple of days so, ideally, it needs to be big enough to lie down in. The hole will provide shelter and keep you out of the wind, which is a major contributor to frost bite and making you ‘feel’ cold. Snow is a good insulator, so it should help to provide warmth. During the times you are tucked up in the shelter you need to try and seal it and the foil type blanket is ideal for this.
Outside the hole you need to build a small mound, which will serve as an indicator of your position for the rescue team. On top of the mound you need to put an item that will improve the chances of the mound being seen. Sticking your trekking poles in the mound in an ‘X’ is ideal for this as it is a visual distress sign. Under no circumstances should you use your snow shovel. If there is a further avalanche it could get buried and disappear, which is not good. The same could happen to the trekking poles however a shovel is going to be more useful to you than trekking poles.
Tie a piece of the coloured climbing rope around your waist and place the tag end out of the hole and lay it on the ground. This can be a life saver as it is something the recue team may find whilst you are tucked up in your shelter and the team are looking for you. A further avalanche may cover up the foil blanket over the top of the hole, making it invisible where the rope may still be visible.
Once in the shelter light a candle when you start to feel cold. The candle will help to provide some heat, but will not burn so fierce your snow shelter will start to melt. Try and leave lighting the candles for as long as possible and try to acclimatise to the shelter.
The limbs are at most risk of frost bite, with the hands and feet often coming off worst. As a result these should be kept warm at all times, especially the hands which are most likely to come in to contact with the snow and ice and the hand warmer in your kit bag should help with this. Only remove your gloves when absolutely necessary and keep the exposure to snow time to an absolute minimum. When the hand warmer runs out of fuel, put your hands inside your top, remove your gloves and stick your hands under your arm pits or between your legs to keep them warm.
The survival food you have in your kit bag should help to keep you fed. To keep hydrated make large snow balls and suck the water out of them. It is important to keep well hydrated, after all the human body can go a few days without food but it needs watering regularly, so you frequently need to suck on snowballs.
When you need the toilet, do not go in or anywhere near your shelter, regardless of how cold you get. It is important to urinate in the same area each time so you know where not to get your next hydrating snowball from.
It is important not to spend all your time in the shelter. Try and get out and look for the rescue team. Shout, yell and make some noise to alert anyone in earshot you are there. Getting out regularly will allow you to ensure the trekking pole distress signal is still upright, visible and hasn’t been covered by snow.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, never ever give up no matter how bleak the future looks. It is important to keep your spirit high and the belief that you will be found alive up at all times. Do whatever it takes to keep you awake and motivated. Sing, dance, think of loved ones, think of your next vacation, make up a story, anything just keep moving and alert.