Why You Need Beacons, Probes and Shovels
I was skiing at Alta Ski Area one morning after an overnight snowfall of about a modest six or eight inches. I came across a small debris field at the bottom of an intentionally triggered avalanche flow set off by the ski patrol as part of their avalanche strategy to prevent a possible larger one from occurring in this terrain.
I clicked out of my skis and walked onto the debris field so I could see how hard and clumpy the snow that sat as powder before it ran down could really become. I had read and heard about the compaction that results as the still flowing snow pushes into the snow that has stopped, but I really did not expect to find that it had become, as they say, like cement. I kicked around, moved some small surface chunks and tried to dig a bit with my gloves, but quickly realized that there was no way I would be able to dig down more than a foot in any reasonable amount of time and over three feet is a common full body burial depth in an avalanche.
It's important to understand what physically happens to the snow during after avalanche, i.e. when it's over you are dealing with very compacted snow and a person completely buried, even under a few feet of the compacted snow, is almost never able to move arms or legs let alone dig themselves out. Locating where a person is buried in the avalanche, and then moving the snow covering the person is the only way to save that person's life.
Most significant is the fact that locating and saving a person completely buried even a few feet without the use of the tools is virtually impossible and is more luck than anything else. An excellent introduction to what it's all about just outside the resort boundaries or deep in the backcountry is the Utah Avalanche Center's basic "Know Before You Go" avalanche awareness video.
Time Is Of the Essence
Being dug out alive after being completely buried in an avalanche is relative to how long you are covered and deprived of oxygen or how long you remain covered with a life threatening trauma injury. Studies by Swiss scientists of avalanche fatalities (946) over a long period of time (1980 - 2005) concluded that survival time for completely buried victims is 18 minutes. However, a more recent study of avalanche fatalities in Canada (301) suggests survival time here in North America is significantly shorter - as little as 10 minutes.
The Canadian study concludes the difference is because the Swiss avalanches mostly happened above the treeline, while in North America the avalanches are mostly in and below the treeline and carry victims through more terrain where deadly trauma can occur i.e. through old growth trees and over cliffs.
We can't stop time and so the next best thing we can do in an avalanche rescue situation is make the best use of the time we have to extract a buried person before they die of asphyxiation or injuries. While the studies mentioned above are averages, each incident is individual to itself based on many variables and we can't just stop searching, or digging after ten minutes or so. That's because people have been pulled out alive after a half hour and even longer, but the time curve quickly works against someone buried. However, both the Canadian and the Swiss studies are pretty close on the rate of overall survivability - 46.2% in Canada versus 46.9% in Switzerland - so never give up.
Emergency Situations Create Panic and Immobility
Do you know why firemen do drills, have dedicated buildings they can set on fire, and practice rescuing people and putting the fire out and do it over and over? Because, if and when the real thing happens, they can respond instantly on adrenalin rushes and memory reaction. Even a rookie fireman knows basically what to do in the emergency situation because they have practiced it over and over - it may not be the exact circumstances but panic doesn't cause them to run around trying to figure what to do. They have the tools and they know how to use them to.
To be instantly effective in a backcountry or sidecountry avalanche situation, skiers have to know how to use the tools. It could be your brother, wife or best friend buried and you have push through the panic and fear to find them. The best way to do this is just like the firemen - practice, practice practice - so that if and when an avalanche burial situation occurs you can react on functioning memory.
Know Your Tools and How To Use Them
All three tools - beacon, probe and shovel - play important parts in avalanche rescue and you should know the most efficient way to use each of them - always with the basic tenet that time is of the essence. Understand that just knowing how to turn on your avalanche transceiver and how to switch from transmitting to receiving isn't all there is to it. How to hold it, understanding what the readings mean, and how to most efficiently search a debris field are just some of the things you need to learn and practice in the field. There are a number of ski resorts, mostly in the west, that host a 'Beacon Park' where you can actually search for buried transceivers in different scenarios.
If you don't have a Beacon Park nearby, another effective way to practice is with a group of friends. If they are your touring buddies who have beacons, you can you get together and hide one or several and learn from each other how to improve everyone's reaction time and searching skills.
Don't Take Your Probe or Shovel For Granted
Obviously, the intricacies of avalanche transceivers means that it takes time to master and use them effectively and efficiently - and to learn how to use yours in conjunction with other searchers. However, just because you learned to quickly flick out and set your avalanche probe doesn't mean expertise. Remember, time is of the essence and efficiency is the time saver so understand there are efficient ways to search with your probe especially in conjunction with others and also when acting alone.
Sure you've shoveled snow before, but efficiently and effectively digging out a person buried under snow is a whole different ballgame than shoveling your driveway. I've seen estimates that a burial of three feet - and that's purportedly less than the average complete burial depth - means moving over two tons of snow to reach the victim and remember the clock is ticking.
There are shoveling techniques to learn and practice by yourself and in conjunction with others. Moving two tons of snow is most efficiently done when you and at least one other first responder can switch on and off digging and clearing. Most likely, you will be at an elevation where you will tire more easily and you are definitely in a stressful situation so learning, practicing and then following techniques gives the person buried the best chance of being uncovered alive. An excellent introduction to what it's all about just outside the resort boundaries or deep in the backcountry is the Utah Avalanche Center's basic "Know Before You Go" avalanche awareness video.
Bottom line here is knowing how to use your avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel isn't going to save you personally if you are buried in an avalanche. However, when you know your tools and practice to make the most effective and efficient use of beacons, probes and shovels you may save a life - and that's the greatest accomplishment you may ever have in your lifetime.