Mountain Rescue: Avalanche safety is up to you
It’s that time of year when there is a lot of pent up passion to ski or ride as soon as the white stuff finally gets here. Skis and boards are all waxed up, snowmobiles are tuned and lots of new gear is ready to be broken in.
For mountain rescue volunteers seasonal avalanche rescue training started in October. Rescue packs are outfitted with shovels, probes, transceivers and avalanche wands. Colorado teams are especially cognizant of avalanche season since more people are killed in avalanches in Colorado than any other state, 63 since 2007. That’s an average of about six every year.
Someone recently asked me if we do many avalanche body recovery missions. My answer: If it’s a recovery, mountain rescue teams do the job. I have personally been involved in 12 avalanche fatalities.
For those who enjoy skiing or riding in the backcountry the most important gear is your avalanche safety equipment. The Know Before You Go program promoted by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center stresses five steps of preparation to ensure the safest possible experience when in uncontrolled areas. The first step is GET THE GEAR.
• Always carry a transceiver, probe, and shovel in the backcountry to help you find a buried partner and be found if you are buried
• Always carry your gear on your body with your transceiver turned on
• Consider riding with an inflatable pack to increase your chances of staying on top of an avalanche
• Practice with your gear regularly. Seconds count and your gear only works when you can use it confidently and efficiently in bad conditions
• Carry the gear and supplies you need to survive an injury or a long evacuation in winter conditions.
You can get set up with the basic gear (transceiver, probe and shovel) for under 400 bucks. Less than most spend on new skis or boots.
An avalanche transceiver, also called a beacon, is an electronic device that emits a silent signal that can be detected and located by another transceiver. An experienced user can zero in on a buried partner in minutes. This is extremely critical because after 15 minutes of burial the odds of survival go down fast.
Once the rescuer has pinpointed the buried person’s location with the transceiver, an avalanche probe is used to definitively locate the subject with systematic probe searching. A probe is an 8-10 foot long, collapsible metal pole that is quickly deployed.
For avalanche safety it is important that every person in the party have the basic safety gear – transceiver, probe and shovel. If someone doesn’t have the gear, maybe it’s time for some peer pressure. Choose your partners wisely, your partner’s knowledge and gear is what might save your life.
The second step in the Know Before You Go program is GET THE TRAINING. Avalanche awareness is the first step towards safety in avalanche terrain and can usually be accomplished in a couple of hours with a dedicated program. Caveat: A two hour program doesn’t take the place of a full-on avalanche class and the backcountry knowledge and experience required to be proficient at avalanche safety and rescue. A little knowledge goes a long way, however, when it comes to the awareness that avalanche danger is a real and present threat.
Step number three is GET THE FORECAST. Avalanche danger forecasts are available from the CAIC on the web, by email or app – all free. There is no excuse for not knowing the current weather and snow conditions that could impact your plan.
GET THE PICTURE means be aware of your surroundings. Recent avalanche activity, changing weather conditions, shooting cracks or “woomphs” indicate avalanche potential. Identify safer terrain versus hazardous terrain, change your plan if anyone is uncomfortable.
The final step is GET OUT OF HARMS WAY. If the slope is suspect, take the risk one at a time. Don’t stop or congregate in a danger zone. Always stay in visual or voice contact with your partners and avoid closed areas and terrain traps.
By understanding and following these simple five steps you can mitigate the potential of a catastrophic avalanche event and still enjoy the backcountry.
Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 37 years. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The GCSAR website can be found at grandcountySAR.com or on Facebook/GCSAR.
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