The Spit Test

I know you’ll be surprised to discover this, but I am not a back-country skier, snowboarder, snowshoe-er, or snowmobile-er. Indeed, I do not do any of these things even in the front country, so I’m not sure what caused me to click on the link, but click I did. Maybe it was the promise of a three-minute read.

How to Survive an Avalanche

Boy, some folks can pack a lot into three minutes. Here are the key points, lightly paraphrased/editorialized/digressed-upon:

  • Abandon (no, no, not hope) your equipment. It can fend for itself. (Where the heck “fend” comes from is a topic for another day.)
  • Take shelter if you can. Think something big enough that an avalanche won’t push it over.
  • No shelter available? Try to swim in the snow and move toward the edge of the avalanche. DO NOT swim over any cliffs or even among boulders.
  • As you’re about to be swamped by snow, abandon hope. No, no, take a deep breath and cover your nose and mouth with your hand.
  • After you’re buried in the snow, bring your hands up to your face (OK, one hand should already be there) so you can clear a space in the snow right in front of it. You know, for breathing.

Then it really gets interesting, with instructions for aiding your own rescue. It starts with suggesting you wiggle a hand/arm up to the surface, both to make an air channel (you know, for breathing) and (I assume) to be able to stick your hand out to be seen.

Yoo hoo!
Over here!

Then it gets to the best part: If you can dig in the snow, start digging towards the surface. But first, figure out which way is up.

Ah. Yes. That would be important. You might well be sideways or angled or upside down. Without a hint of awareness of the double entendre aspect of this advice, the article says to go toward the light, if light there be, shining through the snow. And if there’s no light? If you’re too deep or wrongly positioned? Abandon hope.

No, no, clear a space in front of your face (You should really have done this already but we won’t make a fuss about it.) and spit. Yes, spit. Gently. Watch what direction the spit falls as gravity takes hold: That’s down. Dig the other way.

When you’re going through Hell,
keep going.

As usual, Winston Churchill didn’t say this, but it’s a worthy sentiment nonetheless and somehow it came to mind at this point. But it’s not enough to just keep going, just as it’s not enough to dig in any old direction under a pile of snow.  If we’re buried in an avalanche, we have to dig up. In the same way, when we’re going through Hell we have to keep going in a direction that will take us out, not around in a circle or back and forth.

The good folks at Outdoor Life have done a public service by giving us the Spit Test for directional digging in an avalanche. Now we just have to find the equivalent test for directional walking in Hell. In the meantime, we can always spit. It won’t give us any information but it might make us feel better. And it’s better than abandoning hope.


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8 Responses to The Spit Test

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    When I first started reading, I thought the “spit test” would be about determining winter temperatures. I’m told — I’ve never been in this temperature myself, so don’t take my word for it — that if you spit and it freezes solid before it hits the ground/snow/neighbour then the temperature is -70C. Or worse.

    Jim T

  2. So funny. But not funny, either. I shall be spending some thought on the spit test for Hell.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – If you make any progress, let me know. As someone who avoids potential avalanche locations, I found it quite a startling thought that you’d have to determine up from down before trying to move. I guess it’s the landlubber equivalent of what they say for divers: to check which way the air bubbles are going and to follow them to the surface. We can get disoriented easily, and the first things is to recognize situations where that possibility exists.

      • You have that right. A couple of nights ago a friend was reminiscing about a dive she took in the crystal clear water of Lake Huron near Tobermory. She knew which way was up but not how far because of that clarity. She had a “souvenir” spike from the wreck they were exploring and she was determined to retrieve it despite the fact that she was running out of air. Fortunately, the person on deck could see she wasn’t going to make it — she already was swallowing water — and shouted at her until she dropped her treasure and could be hauled up. The fellow diver went after the spike while she was retrieving her breath. The mocking reminder of her bad judgement sits in a corner of her garage, sort of like an on-going spit test, I guess.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Laurna – Oh dear. Thinking of running out of air makes me anxious. I would have been a good swimmer except for the part where you have to put your face in the water. I’m glad your friend’s story ended well.

  3. Judith Umbach says:

    At least I know I will never be in an avalanche. I don’t do winter sports and I don’t drive on winter roads. My fireplace is my locus for the winter. No spitting allowed. But a good hint, if ever wondering which way is up.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – I’m with you. I believe this is the exact sort of situation that led to the adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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