Weather Thesaurus Entry: Avalanche

WEATHER is an important element in any setting, providing sensory texture and contributing to the mood the writer wishes to create in a scene. With a deft touch, weather can enhance the character's emotional response to a specific location, it can add conflict, and it can also (lightly) foreshadow coming events.

However, caution must accompany this entry: the weather should not be used as a window into a character's soul. The weather can add invisible pressure for the character, it can layer the SCENE with symbolism, it can carefully hint at the internal landscape, but it must never OVERTLY TELL emotion. Such a heavy-handed approach results in weather cliches and melodrama (a storm raging above a bloody battle, a broken-hearted girl crying in the rain).



Avalanches occur in mountainous terrain where a natural pockets of snowpack build up, made from either fresh snow or layers of older, compacted snow.  Often a shift in temperature (thaw), rainfall or windstorm can trigger an avalanche. If too much snow accumulates too quickly, or rain compacts fresh snow creating an unstable heavy slab, an avalanche is an event waiting to happen. Wind is a dangerous factor, as it erodes snow from the upwind side and deposits it on the downwind, creating an uneven build up. When a sluff (loose snow) or a slab (compacted snow) fractures, nothing can stand in its way. Traveling at 60-80 miles per hour, a dry avalanche takes down anything in its path. Trees are uprooted and splintered, rock, ice, man-made structures and debris is swept up and carried away. A wet avalanche is slower, traveling at only twenty miles per hour.

A person caught in the avalanche is carried with it, tumbling without control like a giant ball of snow down a hill. Most often they are pulled under by heavy gear (skis, ski boots, etc) and they must 'swim' furiously against the pull. This happens quickly and trying to retain any sort of control against such a force is almost impossible. From a distance, clouds of snow billow and form at the site of the avalanche. If you are writing an avalanche scene and need to see a first person account of a skier caught in an avalanche, buried alive and then rescued, here's a video. It's not for the faint of heart however, so watch at your own risk.


The tang of ozone would be the most noticeable, along with pine or spruce needles, cedar wood (if trees are uprooted/splintered)


Cold, metallic snow, ice crystals, one's own sour breath from fear


Chunks of snow pummeling the body, branches whipping against the face, clawing for handholds, the drag of snow pulling you under, arms and fist slamming into the snow in an attempt to stay at the surface, the squeeze of snow debris against the body and chest as it sets into place in the aftermath, unbearable cold and tingling against exposed skin, snow clogging mouth and nose or pressing against the face


The precursor sound to an avalanche is a whomp noise.  This is the sound of instability in the ice pack and if close enough a person would hear the crack as a layer of snowpack breaks. If an avalanche is in motion, trees crack and snap on the way down, there is a hiss as fresh slow slips and tumbles, and from afar it is a slow rumble that builds. It can almost sound like thunder during a summer storm. In the aftermath, the area seems almost unnaturally quiet. Want to hear one for yourself? Follow this link!


Mood: Avalanches can infuse a sense of terror into a scene. Wild, uncontrolled and deadly, those who witness one, live through one or by chance alone, narrowly miss being caught in one are brought face to face with their own mortality. A somberness follows in its wake as horror sets in: being caught in such a force would most likely be the end. A brush with such an event may cause people to rethink their paths and bring about the need to be with people they care about. Avalanches can make good foreshadowing tools of a similar, life-altering event about to occur in a POV character's personal life that make them feel a loss of control and leave a hard, emotional impact.

Symbolism: A lack of control, volatility, an unstable lifestyle, the fury of Mother Nature, an impossible foe, risk

Possible Cliches: Outpacing an avalanche in an action scene

OTHER: Most avalanches are triggered by people placing their weight on unstable surfaces (skiers, snowboarders, hikers & snowmobiles). It is a myth that noise can trigger avalanches--the sound would have to be intensely loud (such as explosions going off nearby). Outrunning an avalanche is nearly impossible without a vehicle that can travel at high speeds and has strong maneuverability. Stats show that 93% of avalanche victims survive if dug out within the first fifteen minutes. Odds drop to 30% or lower after forty five minutes and after two hours, there are no survivors. The cause of death in most cases is carbon monoxide poisoning.

Don't be afraid to use the weather to add contrast. Unusual pairings, especially when drawing attention to the Character's emotions, is a powerful trigger for tension. Consider how the bleak mood of a character is even more noticeable as morning sunlight dances across the crystals of fresh snow on the walk to work. Or how the feeling of betrayal is so much more poignant on a hot summer day. Likewise, success or joy can be hampered by a cutting wind or drizzling sleet, foreshadowing conflict to come. 


Karen Lange said...

Love the idea of layering a scene. Thanks so much for this. It's great, as always! :)

JC Piech said...

I love these weather thesaurus posts! :D

Also, I really love this blog in general, so I've nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award! It's a great way for bloggers to network and support each other! I have more information here:

Deb Marshall said...

As always...most excellent post!

Angela Brown said...

You were right. That video was not for the faint of heart. But it would provide someone incorporating avalanche with a first hand account of the experience of being buried alive; the immediate terror, rapid breathing, the noises made by clothing while buried alive. Very intense scenes can be designed.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Didn't Braveheart have a scene where it was raining over a battle? It worked there. Why can't it work in you manuscript?

Christina Farley said...

Eek! I hope I don't have to write a scene where my characters have to be buried alive. Please don't give them any ideas. I've got enough bad things going on as it is.

But fantastic post as always.

tracikenworth said...

Ah, watch out!! Lol. Don't ever want to land under the deafening roar and crash of an avalanche, for sure. Great sensory details!!

tracikenworth said...

Ah, watch out!! Lol. Don't ever want to land under the deafening roar and crash of an avalanche, for sure. Great sensory details!!

Tara Tyler said...

i love these posts with sensory descriptions! so helpful!

Stacy Green said...

These sensory posts are my favorite. Gives me so much to think about. Thanks, Angela!

Leslie Rose said...

Don't avalanches form ice caves so you can get stuck inside with your true love? Oh, wait. That's avalanches on soap operas.

Jeanne said...

So is there any truth to the old wisdom of raising your arm directly overhead before the avalanche comes - it's supposed to make it easier for search crews to find you because they' see your blue, frozen fingers above the snow. But if the force of the avalanche pushes you ass over teakettle, where did that kind of advice come from?


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