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Avalanche Rescues – Essential Gear

Currently the Holy Ttrinity of avalanche rescue gear for winter backcountry travelers is an avalanche beacon, probe, and shovel.  In the event of an avalanche, the speed in which you find and uncover a buried partner is synonymous with survival.  

Photo: The Holy Trinity for avalanche rescue

Well, it’s partly synonymous with survival. A quarter of the people caught in slides are killed outright by trauma as they get smashed against rocks, dragged over cliffs, or pinned against trees. Should they survive grim reaper of trauma, however, buried victims need very quick release if they are to survive the equally grim fate of suffocation.

The most quoted research from Europe derived its stats from 422 buried victims and suggests that about 90 percent of the people buried for less than 15 minutes can be revived (CPR  may be necessary). After 15 minutes, survival rates drop precipitously with only about 30 percent of the victims surviving after 35 minutes. Those who live longer than 35 minutes almost always have an air pocket that sustains them and the European stats show that 20 percent of these victims will still be alive after 120 minutes. Then comes the final plunge with only 5 percent of those buried surviving past 130 minutes. 

Put this together with the fact that brain damage often starts to occur after 10 minutes, and the need to find and uncover avalanche victims really, really fast cannot be overstated. Every minute counts -- so you need gear and techniques to squeeze everything you can out of that limited window of time. At the very minimum every member of skiing or snowshoeing party traveling through avalanche terrain should carry a transceiver (the newer digital beacons are easiest to use), a dedicated probe (made of stainless steel and at least 3-meters long), and a sturdy shovel (with an aluminum scoop and extendable handle).

When you need this gear you need it to perform so these are not the items on which to shave ounces. We don't recommend the lighter shovels with plastic scoops. And a lightweight probe that nestles inside a shovel handle can act as a backup probe, but it should not be your main probe. Get sturdy, reliable gear. Here’s our recommends for what to look for in a shovel and in a probe.

You also need to be practiced on the use of the gear so that you trim as many minutes as possible from a rescue. Here’s a video on beacon use  for performing a coarse search and then a fine search. People who practice with their beacon should be able to search a debris field that’s a few acres large and complete a coarse and fine search in several minutes. 

Digging someone out of the snow is the slow part of the process so knowing exactly where to dig is critical. In the case of deeper burials you may have a sizable area up on the surface (e.g. 6-foot by 6-foot) where your transceiver gives a fairly uniform distance reading to the victim.This is where a sturdy probe comes into play. After homing in close with the beacon, the probe allows you to quickly pinpoint the victim.  It's important to know exactly where the victim is before the slowest part of the process (digging) begins. Here’s a video covering probe technique.

A probe needs to come out of the pack and snap into place in seconds so forget about ski poles that double as probes – these require minutes to assemble. Imagine yourself as an avalanche victim right now by taking a deep breath and holding it. Hold your breath for a minute (don't cheat) and now ask yourself whether you want someone already probing for you because they had the right gear or whether it might bother you that they're trying to assemble ski poles into a probe. Ask the same about a shovel. Do you care now that you're blue in the face that they are digging with a plastic shovel which deflects easily and doesn't chop through blocks with the same efficiency of a good aluminum shovel?  Damn right you care. So don't get any gear for the rescue of your friends that you wouldn't want used on you.

For a practiced party the slow part of a rescue is the digging. If your probing reveals the victim is less than a meter down, dig straight down following the probe; then figure out how to dig towards the person’s face as fast as possible. If the victim is more than a meter down, strategic shoveling techniques become critical in saving time and preserving the rescuer’s strength. To rescue someone buried 5 feet deep may entail moving over 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of snow (no kidding) -- you need to be smart about where that snow is going so you only move it once, so it doesn’t get in your way as you dig deeper, and so snow doesn’t keep falling in on the victim when you reach him.

Watch this strategic digging video to learn more about efficient shoveling technique. Also read this article.

Key points about strategic digging:

  • Leave the probe in place. Starting on the downhill side of the probe and from a distance that’s 1.5 times the burial depth, dig in toward the probe.
  • Initially kneel down and throw snow sideways rather than downhill. This ‘starter hole’ (which is really more of a terrace) should be about as wide as your wingspan (a tad wider if two of you are shoveling side by side) and should create a terrace that takes you about half way to the probe. Stand up as the terrace gets deeper, and keep digging and throwing snow to the side until the hole (terrace) is waist deep. 
  • Now start digging out the rest of the area between you and the probe. Rather than moving this snow to the side, throw it downhill beyond the starter hole you’ve already created.
  • If there are two diggers, you can greatly accelerate the time neededto reach the victim. There are different techniques but the video above shows a simple, effective strategy. Have the two shovelers start downhill of the probe with the back shoveler working at a distance of 1.5 the probe-strike distance downhill of the victim and the front victim working more immediately downhill of the probe. Both shovelers should throw snow to the side until their respective holes are waist deep. At this point the front shoveler starts throwing snow on the back shovelers terrace and the back shoveler throws it downhill.
  • Upon reaching the victim determine how you’re going to uncover the head and face as quickly as possible.

While a beacon, probe, and shovel are the three items every winter traveler entering avalanche terrain should carry, they’re not the only products to consider. Avalungs are a newer product that, if used, can significantly increase the amount of time a victim can survive under the snow. Also ABS packs, which are beginning to see more frequent used in Europe, have an impressive record in keeping those caught in avalanches on top of the snowpack and alive.

Naturally, the main lesson is not to get caught in avalanches. Over 90 percent of those buried in slides are trapped in a monster of their own making. Re-read the sobering statistics at the start of this article—that might help you err on the side of caution when deciding which slopes you're willing to risk ascending or descending.