Mountain Survival

The mountains are a beautiful but dangerous place.  This article is about the different dangers that are up there and the ways to avoid them and how to act if you encounter them.  Enjoy!

Author - Naomi Smith

Mountains are beautiful and are something that my family and I have enjoyed our whole trip.  They are something that we have climbed, hiked, explored, four-wheeled, utved, and sledded, but whenever we go up there we keep in mind the many dangers.  For example- avalanches, mountain lions (I have an article on mountain lions on our website), bears (my mom has an article on bears on our website), cliffs, surviving up in them, and things like that. 

Basic mountain survival
Getting stuck up on a mountain would be pretty rough, especially if it was in the winter.   But if something like that ever happened here is what you would want to do-
It is a good idea to have some kind of emergency blanket.  It is also a really good idea to have a knife with you, you can use it to defend yourself and others, get food, cut things to make shelter, get yourself out of ice, and quite a few other things.  Make sure that you have good boots on; this will be very helpful if you have to travel a long distance or if you have to climb something steep.  Make sure that all the clothes that you wear are nice and warm in layers, not only will this be good if you’re making a quick trip up to the mountains, but also if you get stuck there unexpectedly.  They are handy because the weather can change quickly.    

Don’t panic!  That will make the situation way worse.  Keep calm and don’t freak out.  Eighty percent of surviving is keeping calm.  Keeping calm is extremely important if you are the leader of a group that is stuck up on a mountain.  If you panic then everyone else will, if they see their leader is worried than they will think that they should worry. It is fine, of course, to ask for help and or suggestions.  

The next thing that you will want to do is find shelter.  Shelter is very important, it will help you to stay out of the cold, keep you somewhere sheltered if it is snowing or storming, help protect you from animals, and will also help with getting a good night’s rest. 
You will first want to find a good location for the shelter.  It is optional to make the camp in a protected valley, a hollow, or a dense forest.  I will say that I have heard that building a shelter in a valley is not a very good place because it will be colder down there.  One of the places that you would most definitely not want to build your shelter at is under a cornice (cliff of overhanging snow)!  This is because some of the snow could break off the end and cause issues - like getting stuck under a lot of snow!. The next thing to do is look around, what is there that you can just use around you.

It is not the best idea to go haul a bunch of heavy stuff to build the shelter, this is because you will sweat and then the sweat will freeze, or get really cold, and that will make matters worse (this can cause hypothermia).

Once you’ve taken a look around, then from what you have available you can pick which shelter you wish to make.  There are all different kinds, there is-

A Tree Pit shelter- First step to this is finding a pine tree with snow piled up all around it and then begin to dig down around the tree, in the snow, till you reach the bottom or just till you have it pretty deep down.  Then cover the inside with trees branches that are from other trees.  Then for the top, cover it with things like a poncho. Put the entrance and exit a direction that points out of the wind. 

A Snow Cave Shelter- The first step to this is finding a place where the snow is hard or has a firm crust (any snow that is not like this should be avoided).  Once this has been accomplished, make sure that the place is not by a cornice or in an avalanche area.  Then build a tunnel that goes down into the snow, the tunnel should be one yard (or one meter).  After this dig out the cave, make the roof tall enough to be able to sit in, make ventilation holes (There should be two, one in the roof and one in the door that are 3-4 inches in diameter or 7-10 in centimeters ) and the roof should be 18 inches ( or 30 centimeters) thick.  The entrance should be small, this will help with blocking out more cold air, and you can block the entrance with your backpack or something like that.  The entrance should still have a little space for clean air to get in to the shelter. 

There is a major risk to these shelters called carbon monoxide (CO2).  This is a gas, like in propane, that will come very unexpectedly.  The reason why this is so dangerous is because the first symptoms to this are fainting and collapsing.  So being alone in one of these shelters can be very risky!  Something that will eliminate carbon monoxide risk in half is getting four hours of fresh air every day.

A Snow Wall Shelter- Basically the only step to this is piling up snow into a wall and sleep on the side that isn’t pointing toward the wind.  There is a danger to this though; there is a risk to the snow on the wall falling over on the person sleeping by it.

A Packed Snow Igloo Shelter- First cover a pile of evergreens with some sort of material or a plastic sheet.  Then cover that with snow.  After letting that sit for 1-2 hours (The snow needs to be hardened so you may have to do it longer) after that take off the material that was used to make it and then form an entrance.  It is a good idea to take a bag and fill it with tree branches to put in the entrance of the shelter.

A Drift Snow Cave Shelter- This is where you find a place with well packed drift snow and dig a square that is horizontal in the snow about chest high.  Then at the top of the square make a horizontal rectangle (keep the snow that you remove to make this square, you will need it or something later.)  Then dig up on the rectangle that was just made, your goal is to make a platform like thing to be able to sleep on.  The sleeping area is up in the cave because heat rises.  After this is accomplished make the entrance go out, at ground level, about two more feet and down for about one more foot. Now the shelter should look like a T.  Next take the snow that has been saved and cover the top of the T with the extra snow that was saved, make sure to fill in all the cracks with snow.  Finely make a ventilation hole in the roof and the shelter is complete.  The sleeping area in this is the platform like thing at the top of the shelter.

A Snow Trench Shelter - This is where you make a vertical trench that is long enough for a sleeping bag and wide enough for one to two people; the depth just depends on the persons that are in it.  The trench should be dug at a slant; this is because the heat can get built up at foot end.  Make sure to keep the snow that is taken out to build the trench, you will use this later on.  Also when the snow is being taken out make sure to take it out by cutting blocks, this is because the blocks are used to make the roof. They should be 8-12 inches thick. Make a notch in the shelter after that goes along all the inside of the shelter.  Then make one of the blocks a triangle shape for the one end of the shelter, you of course would not that on the other end, because then you would have no way to enter or exit the shelter!  Then after this start with placing the blocks for the roof.  The blocks should be angle trimmed and the first block should be half sized from the rest of them (Making the first block half sized is essential because if this is not done then there will be a weakness in the roof.)  Also make sure to remember to put in the ventilation hole, this is also essential.  Finally after all these steps are completed your shelter will be finished.  When you are in it though you can cover the entrance with a backpack or something like that.  Make sure to have stuff under you when it is slept in.

There are a few issues to the shelter-

1. It is really cramped; because of this trench shelter should not be used as a long term shelter.
2.  It will become damp, when compared to an igloo.                                                                                                              
3.  There is also not enough room to be able to scrape snow off of your equipment and bed.

Avalanches are something that you do not want to ever run into.  They are very dangerous and hurtful.  But if you or some else ran into one you would want to-

If you are going up in the mountains, check to see if the temperatures are changing up and down.  This can cause an avalanche.  Other things that trigger an avalanche are vibration, shearing, and overloading.

Vibration- This is when a loud noise or vibration, like an explosion, a big machine, or thunder even, starts an avalanche.

Shearing- this is when a drop of snow, like off of a tree, or a skier skies starts an avalanche.
Overloading- This is when there is too much weight, snow, on an area and it cannot be held any longer where it is and it therefore causes an avalanche.

There are different snow avalanches-
#1- Damp and wet snow avalanches-this is when the snow in the avalanche is wet and damp, because of this the snow will actually make its own banks as it goes down.  When the avalanche stops moving it goes solid, this makes extremely hard to get people out of it if they are caught in the avalanche.  The avalanches that are in the spring are sometimes caused by this because of all the snow melting.  These are the most destructive kind of avalanche, because whenever they go into towns, and such, they take out everything in their way.

#2- Dry Snow avalanches- This kind of avalanche is in the category of Loose Snow Avalanches. This is where the avalanche starts of loose snow. These avalanches are when the snow going down the mountain slowly gains speed and eventually gets going very fast.  These ones are also very dangerous because they are a mix of high speed and the avalanche.  The wind alone can be extremely damaging. The danger of these avalanches passes very fast.

#3- Wind Slab, there is two kinds wind slab avalanches-
 Soft Slab- This is the result of wind going on falling snow, therefore causing the avalanche.
Hard Slab- This is the result of wind on the surface of the snow, therefore causing the avalanche.
Wind slab avalanches are very dangerous.

#4- Climax Avalanches, these are avalanches that slowly build up over time then they release.
There is also something called a cornice.  This is where snow builds up on an area and its side facing the wind becomes indented.  When the snow above the indention becomes too heavy a huge chunk of the snow mountain will come off and can make an avalanche.  These things are also dangerous by themselves.    

If someone that you are hiking with or walking with gets stuck in an avalanche you might have about one hour to get them out, though there have been some stories of people surviving in avalanches for 72 hours (three days).  When searching for the victim, look around the top and edges of the avalanche and where there are more debris the more likely it is to find the person there. Something that will help is forming a search party, but this may take a little while to do so it would lessen the person’s chance of survival.  Ask around to find out where the last place was that the person was seen at and then from that information you can determine where the victim would probably be.  If you find anything related to the person, such as equipment, look EVERYWHERE around the area! Sometimes though the victim will not be in the avalanche because they can be thrown to areas around the avalanche. You can also look for snares that the person would have gotten caught on; these could be things like rocks, trees, and plants.  Also, where there is a bend in the place where the avalanche came down it is very possible that is where the person is stuck.
When you find the person get them medical attention immediately!  If they are knocked out revive them immediately!  It is also a good idea to carry a collapsible shovel to be able to dig out someone. 

If you get stuck in an avalanche don’t panic!  If you’re falling down and you are completely covered by the snow, put your arms out in front of you to try to make an air space for when it stops.  When you’re tumbling down in the snow you will want to do swim motions with your hands to try to stay up in snow as much as possible.  This will make it easier for you to get out and easier for people to find you.  Grabbing any object to help you stay as far above the ice as possible.  Also if you are wearing skis, you can try to take them off.  They can injure you. 

If you are totally buried then it is likely that you are injured.  So, first you will want to spit and see which direction the spit goes.  When you see which direction is down then began to dig up and out of the snow, immediately and quickly!  If you are in hard and solid snow (This will happen when the snow is wet and slushy when it is going down the mountain and such) it will be very difficult to get out. 

Do all that you can to be visible for the people looking for you.

It is a good idea to carry a beacon with you, this will make it were people will be able to locate where you are buried in the snow.

The most likely sport to start an avalanche is snowmobiling.  So be careful if you do! 
Never ever go skiing, snowmobiling, hiking, climbing, and such in the mountains by yourself.

It is also a good idea to carry with you a six to eight foot long pole to help you get out of the snow.  There are collapsible ones that are good and there are also some ski poles that will become one of those poles when you hook them together.

How to make a fire up in the mountains-
Fire is another of the most important thing for survival.  A fire is helpful as it takes away insects and bugs, dries clothes, cooks food, can be used as a signal, purifies water, and will keep you warm. 
If you’re going to be hiking up into the mountains ,or just anywhere, make sure to take waterproof matches with you.  These things are really helpful and handy.  If you know how to use them, then they can be a great way to get a fire started fast.  Make sure to practice using the matches at home, even outdoorsman have been found lost in the wilderness without a fire.  Now there may be an instance when a person is trapped in the wilderness with no matches or other tools that will help make starting the fire easier, if you are in this situation then there is actually a way to make a fire without these things.  Here are the steps to do that-
1. Here what you need-                                

1. A knife.
2. Kindling. Make sure to have long and short pieces of kindling.
3. Wood. Get the wood off of a tree, not off the ground. The wood should be dead that is gotten off of the tree.
4. A bow that is a curved stick of two feet.
5. A string.
6. A socket.
7. A lube. This can be anything oily.
8. A spindle. The spindle needs to be ¾ to 1 inch thick and 12 to 18 inches. One end of the point should be pointed and the other end should be rounded.
9. A fire board, it should be ¾ to 1 inch thick, 2 to 3 inches wide, and 10 to 12 inches long.
10. A tray, this can be a piece of leaf or bark. They tray should not be a piece of dead wood.
11. A nest, this can be made out of cattail fuzz, leaves, dry bark, grass, or something else that will catch on fire like that, then form it in to a bird’s nest shape.

2. Now take the fire board and shape it to the right measurements.  After this is completed form a shallow bowl in the middle of the board, it should be a half an inch from the edge.  Then form a V shaped notch on board.   After that preparation is finished tie the string to the ends of the bow, make sure that the string is nice and tight.  You will also want to make the socket smooth.

3. Now you can form the stand to get the fire started.  First take the fire board and then take the needle and put it inside of the hole in the board. Push the board to the ground.   Then place bow (With the string) on to the needle (The pointed end should be up).  The string should be looped on the needle.  The loop should be placed in the middle of the bow).  Now place the socket object that you got on the top of all this (There should be a whole in the middle of it for the needle to go into).  Then take the leaf or bark tray and put it under the end of the needle, with one end of it sticking out.  Make sure to have your nest handy! 

5.  Now it is ready to make the fire.  First place your foot on the fire board and your hand on the socket.  Grab the bow and pull it back and forth, first do it slowly and then speed up the motions.  Don’t worry if the spindle spins, it is supposed to do that.  Just keep doing this till you get a smoke and ash.  As soon as you get the ash push it in to the tray (you do this by tapping the spindle on the tray to put the embers into the tray) and then from the tray into the nest.  When it is in the nest begin to blow on it.  After you get the fire started add some kindling to your nest slowly and as your fire builds add bigger pieces of wood.
Make sure to practice this at home before attempting to do it in the wild.  Also remember that there are more than one bow and drill way stills to start a fire.
There are tons of ways to start fires and it is very interesting how it all works, but this is just one example.

Ice Travel-
It is possible that if you are surviving up in the mountains then you will come across ice that you have to travel across or maybe you just come across ice in another survival situation.  But in whatever case here is what you want to do.

When you are going to be traveling across any kind of ice bring a pole that is nice and long.  This will be a help if someone falls through the ice.  When the pole is being carried it should be held horizontal.  Also it is handy to have a rope with you if you are traveling with other people, because then all the members can hold on to the rope, not tied, and this will keep the group together and will help keep everyone in single file when you are going across ice. 

If you fall through ice then you want to-
First pick a place to get out then begin to break away all the thin ice on this area and then you reach ice that is thick enough to hold you, pull yourself up on to the ice.  After this is completed roll across the ice to land and then role around in the snow (this is done because the snow takes out the water that is on the person).  Definitely want to get into warm clothes as soon as possible.

Another way is if you are carrying around a sheath knife then as the person is falling in then they should put the knife into solid ice, then using the knife pull themselves up and out of the water.

A third is that while the person is falling that they spread their arms out and hold themselves up and then they should pull themselves up with their arms and legs.

Keep in mind that it is possible that the person who falls through the ice could possibly get hypothermia.  There are two stages of hypothermia-
1. The person begins to get cold so fast that the body doesn’t have enough time to produce enough heat for the person.
2. The person begins to get confused.  This happens when the person’s brain gets cold. 

Hopefully if you fall into the water you will not get hypothermia, but if you or someone does then you will want to-

If the person has it only mildly then-
Get them a warm drink, put them in dry clothes, and then get them in a tube tent and an emergency blanket.

If the person has it bad then-
 You will want to first keep the person awake, get them warm drinks, and, if you can, get the person a warm bath.    

Keep in mind that sweating can make someone get hypothermia, so be careful when doing anything that might make you sweat.

Try as hard as you can not to get hypothermia, it can be very harmful and something that you definitely don’t want to get!

Thankfully our family has never had an experience with surviving up in the mountains or just in the wilderness in general, like I said at the beginning of the article, though we have seen on more than one of our many trips up into the mountains places where avalanches have happened.  We take every precaution, starting with contacting my grandma to tell her where we are going and when we should return. We have warm clothes,  water, emergency kits, first aid kits, and survival items.

I got some of my information from three great survival books that I highly recommend.  If you want to learn more on this subject and loads of other situations read them!
The Pocket Survival Guide
The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook-
Camping And Wilderness Survival

I would also like to say thank you to my brother Cody for answers to questions that I had about the subject and more!

Here are some mountains that my family and I have visited. Both are mountain ranges in Colorado.

Naomi Smith