How to survive an avalanche

CASCADE, Idaho (KBOI) - Idaho is right in the middle of peak avalanche season, which runs from January to March. If your friend gets buried in one of these massive snow slides you don't have time to go for help.

You are the help.

This is why the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation runs a free avalanche safety course in which participants learn how to test the stability of the snow and practice rescue drills.

Although avalanches kill both skiers and snowmobilers, a combination of factors puts the snowmobile rider at a higher risk. In an avalanche, the heavy snowmobile can crush its rider in a slide.

Rich Gummersall, the IDPR off-highway-vehicle education coordinator, says skiers have a better feel for the snow since they are directly on it.

"Skiers, as they are skiing down, can see any cracking and feel any collapsing since they are on top of the snow. Snowmobilers, as they are traveling up, generally don't even realize they are in an avalanche until they lose track speed and their sled starts to fall backwards. At that point, you're caught," Gummersall said.

There's a five-step process to test the snow before you cut lose in the backcountry.

No. 1: Dig a snow pit along the edge of a slope all the way to the ground.

No. 2 : Use your shovel to shear off a vertical column of snow. This will give you a great profile of what you will be riding on.

No. 3 : Deploy the hand test. Take your fist and push it softly into the top layer of snow. At the top it should go in easy since the snow has just fallen. Continue down the column with your fist until the snow becomes too dense. Once this happens, push three fingers into the snow.

Continue down until the snow becomes too dense for this. Then use just one finger until you reach the bottom. If the snow stays dense at the bottom, the snow is pretty stable, but if you find a loose layer of snow at the bottom it indicates a point of weakness that could trigger a slide.

No. 4: Deploy the shovel test. Place your shovel face down on the top of the column. Give it a tap with your hand by only moving your wrist. Then give it a whack by moving your forearm at the elbow. If this this still doesn't collapse the snow, hit it hard with your arm moving from the shoulder. This test represents your weight on the snow.

No. 5: Deploy the shovel in motion test. Use your snow saw to isolate the column of snow. Put your shovel between the snow bank and the snow column and pull. If the snow slides off easily then avalanches are likely. This test represents weight in motion on the snow.

Following these precautions gives you a better sense of the conditions, but they won't prevent an avalanche.

So, what happens if your friend gets buried?

If you can dig someone out within 15 minutes, they have a pretty good chance of surviving.

That is why the IDPR runs these workshops. To give the participants a little more urgency, I agreed to be buried alive.

To find me, the trainees need three essential tools.

Homing beacons are worn by everyone and are used to pinpoint my location. Twelve-foot probes are then used to get a physical strike on me. Then the team uses shovels to dig me out.

Kyle Kirby from Eagle was part of the team that helped to find me. He says searching for a living person was more intense.

"It was scary to know that somebody was buried. The adrenaline was flowing. We were rushing there. Everybody was fumbling with their gloves to get their packs undone and then it all just kicked in. The practice we had just really made sense and everybody fell into place," Kirby said.

This rescue was a success, but more than 380 people died in avalanches in the U.S. from 1999-2012. So, in order to prevent yourself from becoming a statistic, enroll in the course. It's free, but the information is priceless.