Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Winter Accidents

I was fortunate to spend a few days with my family in the Sierra Nevada over the Christmas Holiday and enjoy terrific fresh powder. We skied at Squaw Valley and Sugar Bowl until I had to beg for mercy for my tired old legs.

As much fun as we had, there were others who suffered tragic endings in the same environment. A young man was caught in an avalanche on Christmas Day in the Red Dog area of Squaw Valley ski resort. He was later found by search dogs dead and buried under several feet of snow. The unwitnessed slide occurred in a heavily wooded and steep area, so the precise details of what triggered the avalanche are not known. In a separate incident, also on Christmas Day, a woman and her son were struck by an oncoming Union Pacific Railroad train during a snowstorm. They were hiking along the train tracks, presumably mistaking it for a trail, when the train overtook them. They attempted to escape, but were not successful. The woman was killed and the son seriously injured.

First and foremost, our condolences go out to all of the victims and their families. These tragic events were certainly unintended and unforeseen.

To assist others who might find themselves in similar circumstance to those that preceded the accidents, here is some advice:

Snow Avalanche

1. Be prepared for the most harsh environmental conditions you might expect to encounter. To the best extent possible, become familiar with the setting and possible survival scenarios, particularly should you become stranded or lost. If you will be traveling in avalanche country, consider taking a level 1 avalanche certification course recognized by the American Avalanche Association or other reputable organization. Do not assume that you are completely safe within a ski area, even within bounds, during avalanche conditions. While the patrollers may have made the area as safe as they could using controlled avalanche release, when the snowfall is heavy, avalanche conditions may reoccur, and it is impossible to trigger every conceivable area of dangerous snow over an entire large ski area.

2. If you are traveling in snow country, you should know how to avoid being caught in an avalanche, and consider carrying an avalanche rescue beacon (transceiver) that operates on the frequency of 457 kilohertz (kHz). The signal carries 100 to 150 ft (30 to 46 m) and is received by the rescuers’ units. In avalanche country, also carry a shovel and a collapsible probe pole. Consider wearing an AvaLung or an ABS Avalanche Airbag System. A new technology for locating an avalanche victim is the RECCO® harmonic radar-based detector.

Train Avoidance

1. Do not walk, bike, or snowmobile on train tracks, particularly in the winter when rapid escape from an oncoming train may be difficult or impossible. The plows used to break through deep snowpack are enormous, and the visibility of the persons operating the trains may be severely diminished during times of heavy snowfall.

2. Wear brightly colored clothing whenever possible if someone's ability to spot you might save your life.

3. Always expect a train coming from any direction and on any track. You may not hear quieter trains approaching, particularly in times of high winds.

4. Never take a shortcut across a train track. Always cross at a designated crossing when the signal indicates that it is safe to cross. Do not expect a train to stop for you at a crossing. A train moving 55 miles per hour may require up to a mile in distance to be able to stop.

photo by Mark LLanuza at

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.