By John Clary Davies
Don't call Theo Meiners or his colleagues “experts.” He's been the lead guide and owner of Alaska Rendezvous Heli Guides since 2000, and he loathes the word.
"Our mentors that were 'experts' were all killed [in avalanches]," says Meiners. "We'd rather you say that we are students. … Even as you become a grad student, you still have to have an open mind."
With 17 years on Thompson pass—first with Valdez Heli Guides and now with Rendezvous, not to mention time in Jackson, Aspen, and Chile—Meiners is probably more like a Ph.D. recipient several times over. Drawing on first-hand experience, he writes papers for the International Snow Science Workshop and makes presentations to groups like the Montana Pro Patrol on topics including avalanche survival, self-rescue, companion rescue and full-stage response. He's also infamous for being swept of a 100-foot cliff by sluff near Aspen in the 1970s and landing on his feet (though breaking his skis).
During an interview with Powder.com, Meiners ran down his tips for surviving an avalanche:
1. Avoidance: You can't get buried in an avalanche if you are never in one. Check forecasts, dig pits, have a protocol and don't compromise it.
2. Be prepared: In addition to helmet, transceiver, shovel and probe, Meiners highly recommends an Avalung and an airbag pack. The Avalung gives a buried skier better access to air while under the snow, while an airbag provides buoyancy to keep your body on top of the slide and cushion from trauma
3. Have a plan: Better to think aggressively, says Meiners. It's not what am I going to do if it slides, it's what am I going to do when it slides. Have an escape plan that includes two or three different options to get off the slope that you are skiing on. Also understand the reward/risk equation. You probably aren't going to make it through a 200-foot cliff with a bunch of trees below.
4. Know your danger zones: Meiners compared surviving an avalanche to river guiding. You have to know which spots to avoid. There's a lot of force at the front of a slide, where the slope angle decreases dramatically and when the snow settles and sinks on top of snow that did not slide.
5. Get to the bed surface: If you get caught in the lanular slide, try to scratch and spin your way to the bed surface in order to self-arrest and stay behind the moving snow.
6. Log-roll/Backstroke: If you are tumbling within the snow and you don't have an airbag, keep your feet downhill (as if in whitewater), cooperate with the currents and try to log-roll and backstroke to stay on top of the snow.
7. Create an air-pocket: If you don't have an Avalung, reach across your backpack so your arm crosses your face in order to create airspace.
8. Plan your trip so you are coming home: "You have to have some sort of responsibility to the community," says Meiners. "You got to come home. Plan the trip so the priority is that you come out."
And now your survivors:
• The state of California records zero avalanche deaths in 2010-11 despite record-setting snowfall.
• Almost as incredible as the scene of these guys avoiding a slide by ski-basing off a cliff is their reaction after landing.
• By now you've probably seen this viral POV of the BCA Float 30 in action.
• Check out this harrowing POV of a great line, a turbulent burial and a fortunately quick rescue.
• His name is Danny Ferrari. He's a snowboarder. He was under snow for 45 minutes and lived to tell about it.