Backcountry skiing is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling outdoor activities we can engage in. Spending time in untamed wilderness and mountains, far from the reaches of worry-free and controlled situations found in-bounds, is soothing for the soul while engaging body and mind.
Of course, it is also an inherently dangerous sport. And while injuries can track down skiers on either side of the resort boundary, the danger of getting caught in an avalanche adds another dimension of risk to ski-touring. It is necessary to be properly equipped and prepared at all times to mitigate said risk as much as possible.
There exist numerous ways in which backcountry recreationists can reduce their overall exposure to avalanche hazard, thus drastically reducing the likelihood of having to deal with the consequences of a slide. Avoiding this hazard altogether through an intricate web of decision-making is certainly a good approach.
However, if the mountains teach us one thing, is that no matter how much experience and wisdom we possess, they will always have the last word.
So, if your friend gets caught and fully buried in an avalanche despite taking as many precautionary measures as you could think of – how do you save them?
Performing an effective avalanche rescue is comparable to administering first aid. It is a methodical and precise undertaking which becomes better the more it is practiced.
Before anything else, it is absolutely essential to carry the necessary avalanche safety gear: a transceiver (preferably a modern, 3-antenna model), a shovel, and a probe (the length of which will depend on the overall depth of the snowpack). Without these three pieces of equipment, a concise rescue cannot be performed.
The first phase of an avalanche rescue is all about signal acquisition. Starting from the point where the victim was last seen (or from the top of the pile of avalanche debris), with the transceiver in its ‘search’ mode and skis still under their feet, the rescuer has to make their way down the slope. Depending on the width of the slide, they will have to ski down the deposit zone in a more-or-less waving pattern. This is to ensure that the transceiver’s range of about 40 meters covers the entire search area.
Once a signal is acquired, the rescue enters its second search phase: pin-pointing. At this point, the screen on the transceiver will display a number and directional arrows. The former is the distance, in meters, separating the searching transceiver from its buried, transmitting partner. The latter indicates which direction the signal is coming from. Skis still attached to their feet, the rescuer must now follow both these indicators to hone in on the victim’s location.
Within 5 meters of the victim, skis are taken off and the rescuer can drop down close to the surface of the snow. At this point, the searching transceiver must remain in whichever orientation it is in. Since these devices rely on flux lines (a similar pattern to the Earth’s magnetic field) to emit their signal, doing so keeps the receiving transceiver from picking up a different flux line which can alter the distance readings and cause unnecessary confusion. The rescuer uses a grid pattern to find the lowest reading on their transceiver. Using imaginary X and Y axes, the rescuer slides their transceiver along them (without re-orienting it). Once the lowest reading is established on the X axis, the same is done on the Y axis.
The third phase of an avalanche rescue, probing, starts once the lowest reading has been established in the pin-pointing process. At this time, the rescuer will mark the exact location of their lowest reading with an object such as a glove. After putting the transceiver away in a pocket, the rescuer puts together their probe and starts probing at the marked spot, perpendicular to the slope. If the victim is not located on the first try, the rescuer will probe, spiraling outwards from this point, at 30-centimeter intervals. Once they strike the victim, the probe is left in place.
Once the victim is located begins the fourth phase of the rescue: extrication. This step is all about efficient shoveling technique. The rescuer starts to dig on the downhill side of the probe. Once they have dug down to the victim, it is essential to quickly figure out the way to the victim’s face in order to get their airways free of snow and get them breathing. This is the most crucial step in this phase of the rescue, as asphyxiation is the number one cause of death among avalanche victims.
All four phases detailed above need to be completed in under 15 minutes, as chances of survival drop significantly past this threshold.
The quicker the rescue, the better. This is why thorough and methodical practice of companion rescue scenarios are incredibly important if we want to experience the rewards and exhilaration of backcountry skiing as safely and prepared as possible.