As details emerged of Monday’s devastating avalanche at a ski resort in Tochigi Prefecture, which killed seven high school students and a teacher, an instruction given by a teacher has come under scrutiny.
According to media reports, a supervising teacher shouted “get down” upon noticing the avalanche. Some survivors said they followed the instruction.
But experts say the instruction was completely wrong, as the most important thing to do first is to run away as fast as possible. If they are caught in an avalanche, they should “swim” in an effort to stay as high up in the layers of snow as possible, they said.
“To ‘get down’ is not the right action to take when people face an avalanche,” said Hiroyuki Hirashima, a senior researcher at the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Resilience’s Snow and Ice Research Center. “The first thing you must do is run away to avoid being caught in the snow.”
“Once an avalanche stops, the snow hardens, and you’re unable to move. So it’s important for you to move toward the surface as much as possible while you are being tossed around in the snow.”
Azusa Degawa, head of Yokohama-based nonprofit organization Japan Avalanche Network, said, “The chance of survival drops sharply when you are buried 1.5 meters deep from the surface. If it goes down to 2 meters, most people can’t survive.”
Degawa also advised against getting caught in the center of an avalanche where the snow slide is the most powerful. “If possible, it’s best to move sideways,” he said.
While dragged down in the snow, Degawa said it is important to hold one hand toward the surface of the snow while cupping your mouth with the other hand to create an air pocket.
“Many people who were saved after being buried in the snow in the past had part of their bodies sticking out from the snow. They could be easily spotted by rescuers,” he said.
Since the only way out — once completely buried — is to be discovered by others, experts said avalanche beacons that send out radio signals are a must-have. In the case of the Tochigi incident, no students were carrying the crucial gadget.
If all else fails, the only thing to do is to wait for help.
“I know it would be difficult, but it’s best to stay calm, otherwise your consumption of oxygen would increase,” Degawa said.
Most avalanche deaths are caused by asphyxiation. The chance of survival drops sharply after the first 15 minutes, experts said.
“When there is a possibility of an avalanche, people should avoid going to a mountain,” Hirashima said. “But if they do, the important thing is to bring necessary equipment, and also to avoid steep slopes.”
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