Knowing what gear you need and taking it with you is vital, but more importantly, you must know how to use it in a rescue situation.
If you or one of your group does become caught in an avalanche, having the right gear is important, but knowing how to use it properly and who to contact is even more vital. Our Alpine Safety Advisor Bruce Goodlad explains why:
The third episode of the series, Ski Club Alpine Safety Advisor Bruce Goodlad gives us insight into the procedures and skills needed in an avalanche rescue.
Knowing what to do and taking command is critical to effecting a quick rescue.
Always ski off piste with an avalanche transceiver, shovel & probe, and crucially, know how to use them. You’d be amazed the state and quality of the equipment some people turn up with to go skiing in the off piste. Dubious plastic shovels and ancient probes that haven’t been out of their bag in a decade are not uncommon.
Your life and that of your ski partners is dependent on this equipment working properly, and with your ability to use it effectively. Your transceiver should be a modern 3 antennae digital model. Avalanche safety equipment has moved on massively in recent years and your ownership and operation of this life saving equipment should reflect that.
Evidence shows that if we’re caught in an avalanche and rescued within the first 15 minutes, we have a good chance of survival. Beyond 15 minutes our chances drop significantly, so we have to be rescued by our companions. Professional rescue services are unlikely to get to us in time.
The skills to perform an avalanche rescue are much more involved and complex than most people think. If we believe that we can make ourselves ready to perform a rescue by looking for a transceiver under a pile of leaves in our local park at the beginning of the winter then we’re fooling ourselves.
Confusion and stress will be extremely high. Fine motor skills will disappear along with peripheral vision and hearing. Who’s in charge? How many people are missing? Where were they last seen? How we organise our digging is arguably more important than knowing how to use our transceiver, as it’s the digging that consumes most of the time in a rescue. What about first aid once we’ve dug the casualty out? Do you know how to contact the rescue services in a foreign country and guide them precisely to your location? With all that in mind, looking for friends beacons under some leaves in the park seems pretty inadequate.
Practice searching and digging for a buried transceiver in the snow that your friend has hidden at least 1 metre deep. Professional beacon parks are set up in many ski resorts (often adjacent to a ski patrol hut) that are open to the public at no cost and offer excellent training practice.
Avalanche skills and knowledge are just like any other craft, you need to learn and practice them. If you’re planning on spending more time skiing off piste or away from the resort then consider taking an avalanche training course. These not only cover the skills you’ll need for a rescue but will also teach you how to interact safely with avalanche terrain and the winter snowpack. An added advantage to taking a course like this is that you’ll also learn where and when to find the best snow and get guided around the mountain whilst learning at the same time.
Having the right equipment alone is a great start, but having the training to go along with it increases survivability. Having both the equipment and the training together gives you an important margin of safety in the mountains.
Placing the phone number of the ski patrol for the resort that you’re skiing in onto your mobile phone is also a great idea. This will enable you to quickly get in touch with the rescue services, even under the highest pressure in the most stressful situations.
Consider downloading an app such as Echo 112 that will not only direct your call to the local emergency services but will also send your location to them. Know where you are and how to communicate this, especially using traditional methods such as GPS coordinates as not all emergency services will use technology such as WhatThreeWords.
When planning travel in the backcountry, remember to look out for the following: