Avalanche Survivor Teaches Mountain Smarts Safety Requires Proper Planning, Respect For Nature, He Says
David Spring was lucky. The small avalanche that hit him near Snoqualmie Pass 21 years ago left him with a few bruises, a heck of a scare and something even more important: a profound respect for the power of moving snow.
“An avalanche can move at up to 200 miles an hour and hit with a force greater than a million tons, and you may get one or two seconds’ warning,” he said. “You don’t want to be in one.”
In the decades since that incident, Spring, 46, an outdoor-safety instructor and former Ski Patrol member, has placed a high priority on keeping people out of the spot he was in.
The recent avalanche deaths in Canada, Idaho and Montana, as well as frequent avalanche warnings in the Cascades and Olympics, underscore the need for caution in the mountains.
Too many people, Spring said, are concentrating on the wrong thing: what they would do if they get caught in an avalanche.
“Most people who are in avalanches die in them,” he said. “So the best time to avoid an avalanche is not when you’re on the mountain, but when you’re at home on the dining room table, planning your route,” Spring said.
Over the years, Spring said, he has noticed that many people hit by avalanches knew the dangers but didn’t heed them.
He’s concerned about people who discuss how to “swim” with a snowslide and who place great reliance on transceivers that will send out signals marking their positions.
“Transceivers are giving some people a false sense of security,” he said. “Too often, all they do is help searchers find the body.”
Spring has been on search-and-rescue missions and felt the emptiness of bringing a body out of the mountains to devastated relatives waiting in a parking lot below.
“It isn’t just the person in the avalanche that’s the victim. The whole family feels destroyed.” Relatives might feel guilty for having given the victim a book or a piece of climbing gear that encouraged them into the adventure.
People who go into the mountain back country for any reason, Spring said, need to know that cold, fatigue, hunger, dehydration and peer pressure can cause smart people to make poor decisions.
Spring shows his students at Bellevue Community College how to work with maps and compasses to plan routes that follow ridges rather than valleys and avoid slopes with the greatest avalanche danger.
He encourages them to get to know the people they’re going into the mountains with and make sure they agree on common-sense survival points.
“You want to know their attitudes and priorities,” he said. “Most people feel staying alive is the top priority. But for some people staying alive might not be as important as getting an adrenaline rush, and you don’t want to be with them.”
Even on an outing with a guide or leader, each person in the group should assess the risk and make his or her concerns known. Spring said some people fall victim to a “wall of silence” and keep going into dangerous territory because they don’t want to speak up and appear afraid.
“I’m a big believer in helping people stay out of avalanche danger by understanding some of these social dynamics,” Spring said.
Outdoor-sports stores have books available about avalanche danger. For those not inclined to read a book, Spring recommends a video, “Winning the Avalanche Game,” funded by the parents of an avalanche victim in Colorado.
In the United States, Washington is second only to Colorado in avalanche fatalities, Spring said. Avalanches are the most common natural disaster in King County, which includes Seattle and stretches east into the Cascade Mountains, and are known to have killed more than 180 people this century.
Spring said the wrong reaction to avalanche warnings is to stay at home and hibernate. Even when there’s low-to-moderate avalanche danger in some mountain areas, others can be quite safe.
To Spring, appreciating the outdoors is a fundamental part of life, crucial to helping preserve the environment.
“And I actually feel safer in the mountains than I do in the city,” he said.