It's a winter nightmare: being buried alive beneath the snow.
It's been happening almost every week this winter - deadly avalanches claiming lives - and the season is far from over. With more on this white threat, CBS This Morning's Hattie Kauffman is in avalanche country along Loveland Pass, Colorado.
Colorado is the leader in yearly avalanche fatalities. That's especially true in February -the most avalanche-prone month of the year. With more and more people venturing further into the backcountry for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, more lives are in the path of danger.
Bruce Edgerly is an avalanche survivor. He says, "It happened so fast...It took me down 1,200 feet, a pretty long violent ride. Once it stops you're frozen in place, as if you're stuck in cement. I couldn't breath. I even had snow in my mouth."
Buried for close to 30 minutes by an avalanche, Edgerly, an expert skier, narrowly escaped death. Had it not been for his own training and that of his ski partner, the outcome might have been very different.
He recalls,"I knew I only had a 50/50 chance of living. Fortunately, my partner wasn't buried and he dug me out."
Although Edgerly survived to tell of his ordeal, not everyone is this lucky. So far this year, 33 deaths can be attributed to avalanches in North America alone.
In Europe, the numbers are even higher. Earlier this month, there were at least a dozen fatalities in the French Alps when an avalanche swept over a ski town near Chamonix.
A simple act of gravity, these sliding masses of snow are awesome to behold at a distance, but deadly up close. Without warning, a slope can give way, often dragging its victim under at speeds up to 200 miles per hour and hitting with a force greater than a million tons.
In the words of one rescue patrol officer, "If you don't die of trauma from hitting rocks and trees on the way down, you die of suffocation. There's only a 30-minute window to be dug up before suffocation, then your chances of survival drop off."
Efforts to prevent avalanche tragedies include education, forecasting, and even inducing slides to make areas safer. But these measures only go so far. Outside developed ski areas hundreds of thousands of square miles of backcountry lay unpatrolled and potentially dangerous.
Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center offers some fundamentals on avalanche safety.
What's the first step in avalanche safety?
Avoid it. Don't put yourself in front of a potential avalanche.
Take precautions, take an avalanche safety course and learn to recognize and identify clues to avalanche dangers.
What are some clues to avalanche dangers?
Recognize hints in the terrain. For instance, the steepness of an incline -- a slope 30 to 45 degrees is ripe for a slide. Anther hint is lack of vegetation. Second, check the weather forecast. New snow, wind and temperatures all play a role. And finally, check the snowpack. Clues include cracks, talking snow and hollow drum-like sounds. You should test the snow for its stability.
What causes instability resulting in an avalanche?
Basically, when a denser layer forms on top of a weaker layer of snow, its weight is too much - causing the snow to glide down the slope.
What if you've taken all these precautions, and you still get caught. What do you do?
Never leave home without your standard avalanche safety equipment. It consists of a beacon, a shovel, and a probe pole.
If you can, ski out of the slide to avoid it, but if caught - start swimming. Once it stops try to stay on top so you don't get buried. Push your hand up punching through the snow or cup your hands around your mouth to form an air pocket.
That's where the gear comes in. A new digital beacon, the "Tracker," includes a direction and distance indicator, but you have to practice using this gear.
Self rescue is the only chance you'll have if you're buried.
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