Avalanche Rescue Technique
A HOW-TO ON AVALANCHE RESCUE
By Jake Hutchinson
This article is a refresher for backcountry skiers on the topic of avalanche rescue technique. This is not a substitute for an avalanche rescue course or snow-safety class. The more education you can receive and real-life practice you can perform, the better.
In my experience, many skiers focus in on beacon skills, to the neglect of probing and shoveling. Simply put, most people don’t practice well. They set up an overly simple search scenario, start the exercise with the beacon already in hand (that is, they don’t have to dig under layers of clothing to retrieve it), and don’t actually deploy a probe in the drill.
If you are using a modern, three-antenna digital beacon, the need for constant repetitive beacon practice is less critical than it once was. So, re-orient your practice drills to focus on the equally-critical skills of probing and shoveling.
Ski patrols often set diabolically complex – and unrealistic — beacon drills, with multiple “victims” and terrain obstacles. These often don’t contribute to skill-building, but just create confusion and frustration. I’ve been to the scene of a lot of avalanche incidents and I have yet to see someone buried on the downhill side of a tree or stuck in a tree top. And if you practice safe travel protocol, you shouldn’t have to worry about multiple burial searches.
Straightforward, realistic drills offer the most benefit. The best way to practice is to bury one sizeable target (at least the size of a day pack) and to include probing and shoveling in each drill. Once single searches are automatic, you can worry about multiple burial searches. Get good at the hard skills that matter, not the skills to impress your buddies.
Welcome to Probing 101. It will never cease to amaze me how much people can mess up something as simple as a spiral, pinpoint probe. The junk show begins with retrieving and assembling the probe itself.
- First thing first, get rid of the bag! It’s just one more thing to fumble with when stress is high, and adrenaline is pumping. To package my probe, I prefer a simple ski strap or even a single wrap-up tape that can be easily torn. Even better is a pack with a specific probe pocket, allowing you to simply pull the probe out and quickly deploy it.
- Practice deploying. Almost every probe on the market is deployed the same way: grab the cord or cable, toss the tip of the probe away from you, grab the top section and pull the cord. Sometimes the probe needs a shake or two as sections hang up on occasion. MAKE SURE all sections lock into place – this is CRITICAL! Every probe out there has a slightly different locking mechanism, and nothing will break your probe faster than trying to use it unlocked. An unlocked probe is a broken probe, which is as useful as cooked spaghetti in a rescue. Practice until deployment is on auto-pilot.
- Use the probe! Your fine-signal beacon search has zeroed in on a spot. Time to start digging, right? WRONG! Now is the moment to put that probe to work! Shoveling is hard and time consuming and you only want to do it once. The probe tells you how deep the victim is buried – and that dictates the shoveling strategy.
- Be methodical! Don’t just start randomly stabbing the snow. A proper search pattern will get a quicker probe strike, and you’ll be onto the shovel in no time. Here’s how to do it right:
- Mark that spot in the snow where you got the strongest signal.
- Pull out your probe, make sure it locks into place and begin probing.
- Insert the probe perpendicular to the slope, not the snow (as individual blocks could create massive inconsistencies here, remember a few degrees tilt one way or another at the surface could mean feet of difference four feet down).
- Your probing pattern should be an expanding spiral with spacing of about 12” between probe locations. Check out this video from our neighbors up North to see how it works in the snow.
- Once you get a strike (trust me, you’ll know, people feel very different than almost everything else in the snow) leave the probe in place, note the burial depth and implement your shoveling plan.
Shoveling plan? Wait a minute, can’t I just start wildly throwing snow all over in a desperate attempt to save my partner? Well sure, you can but…
Snow is heavy! Given the way avalanche debris solidifies, you may have to move a ton or more to fully extricate a victim buried one meter. Don’t create a situation where you have to move snow twice. Planning will help you move as little snow as required as few times as required.
There are a few well-established shoveling strategies. See video demonstrations here and here, but the reality is that you very rarely have enough partners present to execute an effective conveyer or strategic shoveling method. I use a few simple tricks to make the task more manageable.
- First, step down hill. Unless your target is crammed into the uphill side of a tree or rock, using gravity to your advantage is going to be a major help.
- Estimate the point where you can dig straight forward to the tip of your probe. This point could be quite far away, so I will take at least one or two large steps away.
- Think about moving snow once, and shovel in a manner that you won’t need to move that snow again. In the photo below, you notice snow flying everywhere. This is a tremendous waste of energy.
- Move snow diagonally downhill, letting gravity take it away. Create a semi-flat platform where first-aid, CPR and rewarming are feasible.
- On reaching the body, quickly assess where the head is. Finding the airway is more important than any other medical consideration. Once the airway is open, you can worry about other injuries.
- Don’t be surprised to find the buried person twisted or pretzeled into shapes you didn’t think possible. I have seen airway location slowed down due to ‘unnatural’ body positions. Follow the buried torso to the head.
No one wants to be involved in an accident, but we are human and make mistakes. Being a solid rescuer should be as high on your priority list as being proficient on the skin track or assessing snow stability. And carry the right gear.
Your beacon: The best beacon on the market is the one you practice with and know inside and out. The heat of battle is no time to wonder which button does what or what that different sound or light indicates. That said, given today’s technology, no one should be using a beacon with fewer than three antennae. I’ve heard all the arguments for old beacons (usually from old patrollers resistant to change) and the arguments are garbage. It’s a small investment in a potentially life-saving tool that will last you a solid five to seven years if properly maintained.
Your probe: Probes are probes. Aluminum seems to last longer than carbon fiber and aren’t that much heavier. Aluminum bends from shovel strikes, whereas carbon fiber shatters. I’ve destroyed just about every probe on the market through normal wear and tear.
Your shovel: Size matters! Get a real shovel. The ski-mo race community has done a huge disservice to the backcountry community with the influx of light, tiny shovels. If you show up to ski with me and you’re carrying one of those things, you’re useless in a rescue and I will leave you at the car. Carry a full size, collapsible shovel – the longer you can make the handle the better. It is simple math: bigger shovels move more snow faster.
Your pack: Invest in a good pack with a rescue gear pocket on the outside. I like my gear easily accessible and protected from getting brushed off or entangled in the woods. If your shovel is in two pieces, buried in your pack under your lunch, skins, extra coat and water bottle, your rescue operation will quickly look like a garage sale.
Practice these skills like your best friend’s life depends on them, and hope you never need to put them to the test.
Jake has spent more than 25 years working as an avalanche professional. He is currently a lead instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, an avalanche dog handler and trainer and an avalanche safety consultant to the resort and rescue communities. Off the snow, Hutchinson is a Certified Instructor and former Head of Instructor and Seminar Development for Gym Jones in Salt Lake City. He is currently involved in private personal training with an emphasis on high level functional fitness for mountain and military athletes.
Interested in more backcountry safety? Check out these articles: