When all else fails
Avalanche companion rescue skills
By Richard Riquelme and Jason D. Martin
We see it every day. Backcountry skiers come into our shop and ask to rent shovels, avalanche probes and beacons. They purchase ava-lungs or balloon packs and they take avalanche courses. And then they think they’re ready to get after it in the most extreme conditions, because now they know they can ski or shred the sickest, sketchiest line and get rescued if something goes wrong. This is an incredibly unhealthy perspective.
Avalanche companion rescue skills should be reserved as a last resort. The primary line of defense is to simply avoid getting caught in an avalanche in the first place. There are many ways to mitigate the inherent risk of traveling in backcountry winter conditions. Among the most common are avoiding unstable avalanche terrain, effective communication in your team, paying attention to signs of instability and making educated guesses about the behavior of other teams traveling nearby.
The American Alpine Institute teaches curriculum provided by the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), which offers three levels of training. AIARE Level I, the first program, was designed specifically with the recreationalist in mind. It provides students with a decision-making framework for how to stay out of an avalanche, but it also gives them the baseline tools for companion rescue.
Although situations that require the use of this knowledge should be avoided at all costs, companion rescue is what we’ll be covering here, because it’s a process with which every backcountry user should be intimately familiar.
What do you do when your friend gets caught and buried in an avalanche? The following is a quick reference guide.
This list might seem obvious to the climber or skier sitting in the coffee shop and reading this, but when there’s an emergency, it’s easy to forget these steps. Rehearse your response. Practice with your beacon and with your buddies. And finally, cut this list out and keep it safely hidden away in your first aid kit for reference.
Avalanche terrain might make for great skiing, but it is also very dangerous. People die in the mountains every year doing what they love the most. The best way to avoid this is to first honestly evaluate your personal skills. If you haven’t taken an avalanche course, take one. Second, be aware of your surroundings and constantly assess the consequences of your actions. And third, practice your companion rescue skills until you can do them in your sleep. x
Step-by-step quick reference: avalanche companion rescue
1. Stop, take a deep breath and stay calm.
2. Assess safety and assure no further hazard. Is there a risk of triggering a second avalanche from above?
3. Take charge or assign a leader.
4. Take a head count. How many are missing?
5. Call 911 using a cell phone, radio or emergency locator. Assign someone to do this while others move ahead with the rescue process. Tell the dispatcher your name, location, nature of the emergency, number of involvements, number of missing people and known injuries.
6. Switch avalanche transceivers to search mode. Physically check to make sure everyone nearby is in search mode. A transmitting signal from a non-victim can seriously delay rescue efforts.
7. Determine point last seen and look for a flow line below to determine the area to search. Consider terrain traps where victims are likely to be deposited.
8. Search for signal and visual clues. Enter debris safely from the side of the path or toe of debris field. Determine an escape route. Spread searchers out in an effective pattern. Search strips a maximum of 30 meters (approximately 30-40 strides) apart. Search to the edges of avalanche debris.
9. Yell to others when you find a clue or receive a signal. If you find a clue such as a piece of clothing or equipment, pull it out of the snow and leave it on the surface for others to see.
10. Follow the transceiver signal to the target area. When possible, two searchers should work together. Move slowly and precisely within 10 meters (33 feet). Hold the transceiver near the snow’s surface on the final approach, while the second searcher assembles the probe and shovel.
11. Target the burial site with transceiver and probe. The second searcher probes the likely burial site in front of the first searcher’s trajectory when the transceiver signals 3 meters (10 feet) to the target. Moving the transceiver slowly over the surface of the snow, mark the points where the signal fades ahead, behind and to the sides of the target area. At the center of the transceiver searcher’s marks, pinpoint using the probe. Ensure the path of the probe is parallel on every attempt. Use a circular pattern from the center of the target outwards. Probe strike = burial location. Do not remove the probe!
12. Shovel quickly and efficiently. Consider burial depth and therefore the size of the hole. Start with a large step downhill and away from the probe. Dig toward the probe and throw snow far away. Shovel in teams if rescuers are available. Be careful shoveling as you reach your buried companion.
13. Patient care. Keep them dry and warm (insulate from snow) and manage any injuries. Move to safe terrain, consider options for evacuation and communicate the victim’s condition to arriving rescuers.
14. If a helicopter comes to your aid, secure loose items so they do not blow away. Wait for the rescuer to come to you.
Editor’s Note: Although the authors said it, we can’t stress it enough: companion rescue is a last resort that should never be necessary. Knowing how to read avalanche reports, profile the snowpack, recognize signs of avalanche activity, make good terrain choices and communicate with your group; these are the skills that will keep you from being caught in an avalanche, and you can’t learn them from a book or magazine.
Furthermore, this article is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for knowledge gained from a class. You are responsible for your own actions. Bottom line: Take an avalanche class and learn how to keep yourself and your companions out of danger.
Find classes in the Mt. Baker area through AAI (alpineinstitute.com) Mt. Baker Mountain Guides (mtbakerguides.com) and Mt. Baker Ski Area’s Mountain Education Center. (mtbaker.us/mtn-safety).
American Alpine Institute Avalanche Level I Course dates:
• November 28–30
• December 5–7
• December 12–14
• December 27–29
• January 2–4
• January 9–11
• January 17–19
• January 23–25
• January 31–February 1
• February 6–8
• February 14–16
• February 20–22
• February 27–March 1
• March 6–8
• March 13–15