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Avalanche dangers: How to prevent one, protect yourself from being buried alive

An avalanche buries one home in Missoula, Mont. while trapping three people for hours, including an eight-year-old boy.
An avalanche buries one home in Missoula, Mont. while trapping three people for hours, including an eight-year-old boy.
NBC News

It is too late for eight-year-old Phoenix Scoles to protect himself from becoming a victim of an overzealous snowboarder who triggered a Montana avalanche after entering a restricted area this weekend. The young boy and two elderly people barely survived the experience according to a March 1, 2014, NBC News report. But since the National Snow and Ice Data Center says that an avalanche can occur at any time during the year, there may still be hope for you and your loved ones to prevent or protect yourselves from one.

NSIDC says that they have recorded an avalanche occurring every month of the year, which means that you can't assume this type of sliding snow danger only occurs in the winter months.

Avalanche danger occurs whenever a mass of snow becomes dislodged enough to slide down a slope. And that can happen when a snowboarder attempts to spend recreational time on backcountry snow slopes that have been marked restricted to prevent such a danger--or when Mother Nature chooses to dump even more snow on an area already deemed precariously risky for such an event.

On Friday, a retired biology professor named Fred Allendorf, 66, and his artist wife Michel Jo Colville, 68, found themselves, along with an eight-year-old boy, buried alive for hours following a snow avalanche in Missoula, Mont. because one snowboarder wanted to feel what it would be like to play on snow no one else had walked on before. And when he or she entered the restricted area, they probably had no idea that they would be putting three people's lives in danger by doing it.

That's why the Aspen Times reports that a group of individuals and organizations are coming together to create a greater awareness in vacationers and others about avalanche dangers, calling their new effort Project Zero. SnowSports Industries America, along with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, have joined forces with the National Ski Areas Association, the National Ski Patrol and others to educate the masses about the dangers of avalanches.

And those Project Zero members feel that the danger does not just lie with novices, vacationing skiers and those who violate restrictive areas; it also lies with very experienced skiers who think their past successes of pushing the limits may make them misjudge the potential for an avalanche to occur.

They think, 'we beat the mountain on a dangerous day; we did the right things. But they need to ask themselves, 'How lucky were we today?' Eventually--not always--their luck runs out," according to Dale Atkins, the past director of the American Avalanche Association.

If you are planning a skiing trip in 2014, even if you are an experienced skier, do you and your family a favor by participating in snow stability evaluation training classes like those offered by the National Avalanche Foundation. You and your loved ones can learn about snow profiles and stability tests, terrain analysis, mountain meteorology, the weather's effect on snowpack and avalanche protection fundamentals and more. And what you learn could help you prevent an avalanche and prevent yourself from falling victim to one.

Montana avalanche victims Phoenix Scoles, Fred Allendorf and Michel Jo Colville likely wish that the snowboarder who violated a restricted area above their residence had taken such a class. And if that person had, they would not have put three people's lives at risk, as well as their own.

The Montana snowboarder who snowboarded an avalanche into existence in Montana this weekend has not been named yet--or charged, and that may be because their body has not been found (alive or dead).

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