Friday, January 20, 2017

Avalanche Awareness: Strategic Shovelling

Avalanches are terrifying.

I’ve never been caught in an avalanche, but I’ve had a few close calls. Most winter backcountry travelers have logged one or two these. But there are some that have encountered something worse than a close call. They’ve been caught in an avalanche. Or they’ve had to rescue a partner from an avalanche.

The modern winter backcountry traveler has an arsenal of tools that can be used to locate a buried avalanche victim. First, she has a transceiver. This should get her into the vicinity of the victim. Second, she has a probe. This should allow her to poke around until she pinpoints the location of the victim. And then finally she has a shovel. This should allow her to dig the victim free.

The only way than an individual will ever be able to rescue a companion is with practice. A strong rescuer that has extensively practiced will be able to locate her companion quickly with a transceiver and probe. The digging part though, is another story. It’s not uncommon for rescuers in practice scenarios to take up to 30-minutes to free a mock victim. This is way too slow.

The statistics tell us that most recreational avalanche victims are buried between 1 and 1.3 meters deep. To the uninitiated, this doesn’t sound that deep, but the reality is quite different. An average burial of this depth requires the rescuer to remove up to one-and-a-half tons of snow!

If you have to remove so much snow, then you better do it as strategically as possible. Following is a video on this topic.

Review and a Few Additional Thoughts:

Choosing the right spot for your excavation is essential. If you select the wrong spot you have to move significantly more snow, while simultaneously leaving the victim buried for a longer period of time. In order to effectively save one’s partner, a rescuer has to have a plan, and a rescuer has to shovel her partner out strategically.

Once the probe strikes the victim, many rescuers are inclined to start digging straight down. There are three problems with this. First, if you’re standing right on top of the victim, you might collapse any air pockets that he was able to create during the avalanche. Second, digging straight down requires one to remove a great deal more snow than other strategies. And third, it’s very difficult to do first aid in a vertical hole in the ground.

Once you’ve found the victim, leave the probe in. This will help you to estimate where you need to dig.

In a shallow burial (less than 1 meter), the rescuer should dig just downhill of the probe-strike. Think of it as digging toward the victim, instead of down to the victim.

If the victim is deeper than 1 meter, then the rescuer should begin digging a terraced hole toward the victim 1.5 times the burial depth downhill of the probe-strike. The depth should be apparent to the rescuer from the probe-strike.

Start with a small hole, approximately as wide as your extended arms. If there is more than one rescuer, then the starter hole can be as wide as a body-length.

Begin the excavation by digging on your knees and throwing snow off to the side. If you throw snow behind you it will create a mound that may have to move again. You never want to move snow twice! However, if it’s a deeper burial, it’s possible that you will eventually have to terrace the hole and throw snow behind you. This usually happens once you get down approximately waist deep.

Keep the avalanche probe in sight. Don’t bury it or move it. The last thing you want to do is to dig in the wrong spot or dig below the victim.

Once you’ve found the victim, focus on clearing snow from the head. And once you can reach the victim’s face check the mouth and airway for compacted snow that may obstruct breathing.

Rescuing someone from an avalanche is hard work. Be sure that once you know where the victim is, that you have a solid digging strategy. The less dialed your strategy is, the more likely it is that your partner will die…

Avalanches are terrifying…

--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 1/19/17


--Former AAI Guides Kurt Hicks and Mark Allen made the first ascent of Crater Creek Falls (WI4+, III) on Mt. Si. This is possibly the closest ice climbing to the Seattle metropolitan area. However, it's seldom cold low enough, long enough for something like this to form. To read more and to see a route description, click here.

--Some Squamish climbers sent a variation to the Ultimate Everything (5.10b, IV) last week all on ice... To read about it, click here.

--Speaking of Squamish, access at the popular climbing area may be under threat due to a lack of parking. To read more, click here.

--Unofficial Networks reported last week that, "Mount Shasta, California, home of the world record for a single dump (189 inches in February 1959) is getting pounded by a storm of biblical proportions. NOAA is predicting as much as 18 feet of snow could fall on Mt. Shasta over 4 days and as much as 22 feet in a 7 day timeframe. Here is a day-by-day breakdown from the National Weather Service." To read more, click here.

--Gripped is reporting on Fred Becky's 94th birthday. "Fred Beckey is one of the world’s most accomplished climbers and turned 94 on Jan. 14, 2017. Born on Jan. 14, 1923, Friedrich Wolfgang Beckey has established new routes all around the world, authored a number of best sellers and continues to get out into the mountains." To read more, click here.

--It appears that the Forest Service is considering some kind of system to limit backcountry use in Oregon's Three Sisters Wilderness. To read more, click here.

Desert Southwest:

--Arizona's 3 TV News is reporting that, "a difficult rescue ended Sunday when crews managed to reach an injured mountain climber stranded in steep, rugged terrain west of Sedona. It took more than three hours to reach the man who was incapacitated in the area of the Capitol Butte and Thunder Mountain trails in the Coconino National Forest." To read more, click here.

--The Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting that, "A local environmental nonprofit is invoking Nevada’s anti-SLAPP law in an attempt to dismissal lawsuit filed last month by Clark County, according to a court motion filed Monday. Save Red Rock attorney Justin Jones said the lawsuit, filed in Clark County District Court, could bar the nonprofit from testifying at County Commission meetings against a plan to build about 5,000 homes atop Blue Diamond Hill, located near the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area." To read more, click here.

Mt. Wilson in Red Rock Canyon

--Climbing magazine has published an article that explains all the ins and outs of the housing development issue. To read the article, click here.

--It's amazing how fast a climber squabble can blow up online. A pro boulderer (Courtney Sanders)  posted a photo of her climbing after a rainstorm on sandstone in Red Rock Canyon on Instagram. This is a questionable activity given the fragility of sandstone and the local ethics. She was called out on her activity and then her husband -- also a pro boulderer named Daniel Woods -- got involved, and things went downhill from there. There was a full-on flame war and even threats of violence. Much of the material online was deleted, but the original poster eventually apologized. Daniel Woods also made an attempt to apologize, but did it in an extremely passive aggressive way. His "Sorry, Not Sorry" apology is still burning up Red Rock locals Facebook pages. To read an article about this skirmish, click here. There's also a conversation about this incident, here.


--A skier in Breckenridge died of a skull fracture after skiing into a tree. To read more, click here.

--A backcountry skier was swept down a slope and over a 25-foot cliff near Silverton this week. The skier was buried under four-feet of snow. Thankfully, an avalanche educator happened upon the scene and rescued the skier. To read more, click here.

--A Mountain Rescue team member was swept away in an avalanche last week and seriously injured. To read more, click here.

--The Denver Post is reporting on the statistics behind US in-bounds skier fatalities. "The average person who died on the slopes of U.S. ski resorts during the 2015/2016 season was a 30-something experienced male skier wearing a helmet who hit a tree going too fast on an intermediate run, according to the National Ski Area Association’s annual report on safety." To read more, click here.

--The Denver 7 Channel's Crime Stoppers Unit is offering a reward for information concerning a snowboarder who hit a woman and shattered her leg and then left. It is completely inappropriate to be blasting down a run, barely in control, while ripping past other skiers and boarders. To see more about this, click on the video below:

Notes from All Over:
--The Vail Daily is reporting that, "Two snowboarders were rescued late Wednesday night after becoming buried and seriously injured in an avalanche on a backcountry slope near the Smith and Morehouse Reservoir in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest." To read more, click here.

--Twin Cities Pioneer Press is reporting that, " Minnesota climber and adventurer Lonnie Dupre narrowly escaped disaster during his attempt this past week to solo-climb Alaska’s Mount Hunter. Dupre, 55, of Grand Marais broke through a crevasse on his retreat from the 14,573-foot mountain and hung by a single ice axe for several minutes with his feet dangling beneath him, he said." To read more, click here.

--The HuffingtonPost is reporting that, "Patagonia last year spent $1 million on a get-out-the-vote campaign, completely shut down its operations on Election Day and donated all $10 million it earned on Black Friday to environmental causes. Now, the high-end outdoor apparel retailer is gearing up to battle Utah officials’ plan to roll back President Barack Obama’s designation of a new national monument in the state. The company this week threatened to pull out of Salt Lake City’s biannual Outdoor Retailer Show, a trade show that brings in 45,000 visitors spending more than $40 million each year." To read more, click here.

--Yvon Chouinard has written an editorial at the Patagoinia blog, The Cleanest Line about Patagonia, the outdoor industry and Utah. " The outdoor industry creates three times the amount of jobs than the fossil fuels industry, yet the Governor has spent most of his time in office trying to rip taxpayer-owned lands out from under us and hand them over to drilling and mining companies. And just a few days ago, the state announced plans to sue the federal government to reverse the recent protection of Bears Ears, a site containing thousands of years of Native American archeological treasures and craggy red rocks beloved by climbers from all over the world. Politicians in the state don’t seem to get that the outdoor industry—and their own state economy—depend on access to public lands for recreation." To read the complete editorial, click here.

--The Access Fund is reporting that, "The Red River Gorge Climbers’ Coalition (RRGCC) and Access Fund, with assistance from Trango Climbing Gear, are thrilled to announce the purchase of the Bald Rock Recreational Preserve in the Red River Gorge of Kentucky. This acquisition secures access to a popular set of world-renowned climbing areas—including the Motherlode, the Chocolate Factory, the Bear’s Den, and the Unlode. The 102-acre acquisition secures access to these areas for climbing and land conservation." To read more, click here.

--The Access Fund is also reporting that, "Rumney Climber’s Association (RCA) and Access Fund are excited to announce that we have completed the second phase of protecting Rumney’s Northwest Crags (aka the Final Frontier). In just under a year, the climbing community rallied to raise over $100,000, and RCA now owns the 85-acre property. Access Fund provided RCA with two loans to cover the gap in the purchase price, which RCA will pay back after they transfer the property to White Mountain National Forest." To read more, click here.

--We usually don't post bouldering videos, but how often do you get to see Khal Drogo climbing with Chris Sharma. Khal Drogo (or at least Jason Momoa, the actor who plays him) seems to have been reborn after his death in Game of Thrones to be a pretty good climber...

--Senator Lisa Murkowski (R - Alaska) mentioned climbing access in her opening statement in the Ryan Zinke confirmation hearing in Washington DC. Zinke is being considered for the position of Secretary of the Interior. To see the clip, click here.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Avalanche Airbags and You

It was February of 2012, and three skiers were dead just outside of the Stevens Pass Ski Area in the Tunnel Creek drainage. Five people were initially caught in the backcountry avalanche. One of the survivors became wedged between two trees while snow rushed over him. The other survivor – Elyse Saugstad – deployed an avalanche airbag, which kept her near the surface of the snow and allowed rescuers to find her quickly.

Saugstad’s survival created a great deal of interest in avalanche airbags. Our shop at the American Alpine Institute began to receive almost daily inquiries about these potentially lifesaving tools. And now today, these devices are standard for ski patrollers and backcountry ski guides.

The BCA Float 42 is a single balloon pack
with 42-liters of space.

But what are they?

In essence an avalanche airbag is a regular backpack with one or more large balloons stowed in the top and the side. The idea is that if there is an avalanche, the skier can pull a ripcord and deploy the rapid inflation balloons almost immediately. And then in theory, these balloons will keep your body near the surface of a moving avalanche, allowing for an easier rescue.

There are many aspects that must be taken into account prior to the purchase of one of these systems. First, of course, there's affordability. Second, there's the difficulty of refilling the cartridge. Third, there's the question of how easy it is to stow and retrieve the trigger. And lastly, one's perception of a given brand and indeed, even one's loyalty to it.

Before making any purchasing decisions, you must look at the advantages and disadvantages of three main aspects of this system.

  1. What type of gas is being used to inflate the balloon chamber?
  2. How many balloons are being inflated?
  3. What type of mechanism is being used to trigger the deployment of the balloon(s)?
To decide what kind of gas (compressed air or nitrogen) is the most appropriate for you, first and foremost, you must think about where you are going to use your pack. Air temperatures and altitude may have an effect on cartridge performance and in effect, the speed by which the gas moves from the cartridge to the balloon(s). It appears that the compressed air works a little better at lower altitudes – like those found in the PNW – while nitrogen works a little bit better up high, like those found in Colorado.

One additional concern that should be mentioned is the difficulty that some have had taking these backpacks abroad. For some reason the TSA doesn't like weird cartridges of gas stashed inside backpacks on their planes...

North Face Avalanche Airbag Pack
Note that this is a two balloon system.

The terrain that you're skiing is another factor to take into account. If you’re skiing in a place where there are lots of sharp trees and branches, or in a place where there are a lot of sharp rocks, there is the possibility that you are going to puncture a balloon. Some systems employ a two balloon pack with two valves for two reasons -- first, in case one of the valves malfunctions; and second, in case one of the balloons is punctured after deployment. Some brands have worked hard to develop a configuration that provides more "floatability" by playing with the volume and spatial adjustability of the balloons...

If you are going to be using the pack as a recreationalist you may have different needs than a ski patroller or a guide. Why? Because each group has different needs. The recreationalist needs affordability and functionality with a simple pull. Professionals often use packs with mini-explosives that (according to the respective marketing departments) will guarantee deployment above and beyond the minimum standards. And lastly, a guide may want a remote control triggering mechanism in case one of his or her participants is in a slide, but fails to trigger the system.

Now the real trick of these packs is not that they might "save" you from an avalanche. Instead, it's that they might trick you into a false sense of security. The pack will give you a better chance if you're in a slide (about 16% overall or about a bit more than half of those who would have otherwise died in an avalanche), but it won't save you from drop-offs or trees or boulders or any number of other terrible things that could happen to you if you're involved in a slide. The best tool that you have to avoid an avalanche is your own brain and your own ability to use it. If you haven't taken an avalanche course, then you're missing the key ingredient.

--Jason D. Martin

Monday, January 16, 2017

How to Place an Ice Screw

In the following video, AMGA Instructor Team Member Patrick Ormond, describes how to place an ice screw.

--Jason D. Martin

Friday, January 13, 2017

Avalanche Rescue: Patient Care

BCA has put together a nice series of instructional videos about avalanche safety and companion rescue.

In this video, avalanche instructor Sarah Carpenter talks about what to do after you have unburied your partner...

Once you've dug the patient out, do the following:
  1. Check the mouth and airway. Clear any snow plugs.
  2. Check the chest and lungs. Make sure that patient is breathing. If they're not breathing, stop and fix that! Provide CPR.
  3. Check for a pulse. If there's no pulse, commence with CPR.
  4. Check for bleeds. If there are any massive bleeds, stop and fix that.
  5. Check for spinal injury and check for that. Stabilize if needed.
  6. Can we stay and work on this problem? Or do we need a rapid evacuation.
  7. As soon as someone is dug up, they are exposed to the cold. Get the patient off the snow and bundled up. Treat for hypothermia.
  8. Do a complete patient assessment from head-to-toe to determine if there are other injuries.
  9. Carry and emergency kit that allows you to build a shelter, make a fire and make water.
--Jason D. Martin

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Grizzly Bear Restoration in the North Cascades

The American Alpine Institute just received the following notice from North Cascades National Park:

Public Invited to Open Houses on Proposed Alternatives for
Grizzly Bear Restoration in North Cascades Ecosystem

Public comment period open through March 14, 2017

SEDRO WOOLLEY, Wash. – The National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) invite the public to participate in a series of informational open houses regarding the proposed alternatives for the restoration of grizzly bears to the North Cascades Ecosystem. The alternatives are described in the draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (draft EIS), released today by the two agencies. The meetings are one part of the public’s opportunity to comment on the draft EIS.

The purpose of the EIS is to determine what actions, if any, should be taken to restore the grizzly bear to the North Cascades Ecosystem. Although there are six populations of grizzly bears in North America, the last-known siting of grizzlies in the United States portion of the North Cascades Ecosystem is 1996. The goal of the public comment period is to gather comments regarding the draft EIS; public comments received on the draft EIS will be evaluated and considered in the identification of the preferred alternative, which will be published in the Final EIS. The full draft EIS is available at

The alternatives analyzed in this draft EIS include a “no-action” alternative, plus three action alternatives that would seek to restore a reproducing population of approximately 200 bears through the capture and release of grizzly bears into the North Cascades Ecosystem. The alternatives were developed by a planning team with input from the public, local, state and federal agencies, and the scientific community.

In addition to the open houses, the public also is invited to submit written comments at Comments may also be submitted through March 14, 2017 via regular mail or hand delivery at: Superintendent’s Office, North Cascades National Park Service Complex, 810 State Route 20, Sedro Woolley, WA 98284

In order to maximize opportunities for public input, webinars are scheduled for Tuesday, February 14 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Pacific Time and Sunday, February 26 from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. Pacific Time. For more information about the open houses and to register for the webinars, visit: and click on the “Meetings” link.

The public open houses will be held from 6-8 p.m. at the following locations:

Cle Elum – February 13 at the Putnam Centennial Center
Cashmere – February 14 at the Riverside Center
Winthrop – February 15 at the Red Barn
Omak – February 16 at the Annex Facility at Okanogan County Fairgrounds
Bellingham – February 21 at the Bellingham Technical College
Darrington – February 22 at the Darrington Community Center
Sultan – February 23 at the Sultan High School
Renton – February 24 at the Renton Community Center

The grizzly bear was listed as a threatened species in the contiguous United States in 1975. The species was listed as endangered by the state of Washington in 1980.

The North Cascades Ecosystem encompasses 9,800 square miles in the United States and another 3,800 square miles in British Columbia, Canada. The United States portion of the ecosystem includes North Cascades National Park, Ross Lake National Recreation Area, Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are cooperating agencies on the EIS. Funding for the EIS is provided by the NPS. The U.S. Forest Service, FWS and other cooperating agencies and partners will provide technical support throughout.

For more information on grizzly bear recovery, visit or

More than 20,000 National Park Service employees care for America's 412 national parks and work with communities across the nation to help preserve local history and create close-to-home recreational opportunities. Visit us at, on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service works with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information, visit, or connect with us through any of these channels:,,, or

Climbing and Outdoor News from Here and Abroad - 1/12/17


--A 64-year old woman was killed in an avalanche last Thursday while skiing out-of-bounds near Crystal Mountain Ski Area. It appears that Elizabeth Hampson was traveling

--Spokane-based skier, Danny Miller, has skied every month for 23-years. To read more, click here.

--USA Today is reporting that, "A massive winter storm forced officials to temporarily close Crater Lake National Park on Tuesday. Oregon's only national park was pounded with heavy snow and high winds during the past few days, resulting in the uncommon closure on Tuesday of what's often called one of the "snowiest inhabited places in North America." To read more, click here.

--It appears that a mining project that would have impacted Mazama climbing will not happen. Read more, here.


--The Los Angeles Times is reporting that, "Two backcountry skiers escaped uninjured Thursday after being caught in an avalanche that closed the state highway between Reno and Lake Tahoe in a part of the Sierra Nevada where as much as 6 feet of snow has fallen over the past four days." To read more, click here.

--The Los Angeles Times is also reporting that, "ski resort operators are looking for crowds of near record size — with price increases to match. Storms have dumped up to 7 feet of snow on some peaks in as little as 48 hours." To read more, click here.

The High Sierra got hammered by snow last week. As one of our teams
descended from the Whitney region they encountered chest deep snow!
Photo by Ian McEleney

--On Friday, all non-essential employees were evacuated from Yosemite Valley amid flooding fears. To read more, click here.

--A controlled avalanche hit several houses in Alpine Meadows this week. To read more, click here.

--And in Mammoth, they're using a howitzer cannon to manage the avalanche hazard...

Desert Southwest:

--Fox News Travel is reporting that, "Although the U.S. marked its national parks centennial in 2016, the end of celebratory free passes hasn't kept visitors from flooding into Utah's Zion National Park, some 160 miles from Salt Lake City. Park officials report that while winter is usually the slow season at Zion, the 2016-2017 winter is seeing so many travelers coming to the park that there have been traffic backups on the road leading into the site. The Associated Press reports that Zion is set to hit four million visitors in 2016 (final numbers are being tallied now), and that some cars have been exempted from the $30-per-vehicle park fee in order to speed up the queue and keep it from spilling over into the nearby town of Springdale." To read more, click here.


--ABC News is reporting that, "Authorities say one of two missing backcountry skiers who were found in the central Colorado mountains died while he was being treated for hypothermia. The Lake County Office of Emergency Management posted on its Facebook page that Brett Beasley and a boy he was skiing with were found near Turquoise Lake west of Leadville on Thursday afternoon. The boy, whose name and age have not been released, was uninjured and was taken from the area on a snowmobile to be reunited with his family. Beasley was treated for hypothermia but did not survive." To read more, click here.

Mickey Wilson slacklining on a lift cable to save an unconscious man.
It's not clear if Mickey was wearing ski boots when he did this. 

--So a guy got his backpack straps caught in a chairlift in Arapahoe Basin and got dragged back up by the neck. He went unconscious after the lift stopped. A rescue team tried to make a human pyramid to rescue him, but kept slipping. That's when Mickey Wilson sprung into action, climbed up a tower and SLACKLINED (you read that right!) across the cable to cut the victim down, saving his life. To read more, click here. To see a video of the victim being cut down, click below.

--In more Arapahoe Basin news, the resort shut down on Tuesday amid avalanche concerns at Loveland Pass. To read more, click here.

--Rock and Ice is reporting that, "Chris Snobeck, of Colorado, has made the third ascent of Saphira in Vail's Fang Amphitheater—a climb considered to be the hardest mixed route and only M15- in the United States. With his ascent, Snobeck became the second American to climb M15-. Moreover, he climbed the route twice." To read more, click here.

Notes from All Over:

--The Flathead Beacon is reporting that, "A 36-year-old Kalispell man was killed Thursday in an avalanche while backcountry skiing on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park, officials confirmed. Authorities have not released the name of the victim pending notification of next of kin." To read more, click here.

--WCVB in Vermont is reporting that, "A longtime Killington Resort mechanic died from injuries after police say he fell over 10 feet inside a gondola terminal." To read more, click here.

--The GOP House has recently changed the rules concerning the way that federal lands are transferred, making it much easier to sell off public lands to private entities. This is a very disturbing move that could have a far reaching impact on outdoor recreationalists of all stripes. To read more, click here.

--On a related note, Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond, wrote an editorial for the Salt Lake Tribune where he argues that it's time for the Outdoor Retailer show -- a show that brings 50 million dollars in direct spending -- to leave Utah. "Over the past several months Utah's political leadership has unleashed an all-out assault against Utah's protected public lands and Utah's newest monument. It's time for Outdoor Retailer to leave the state in disgust." To read more, click here.

--We often forget how important ski patrollers are in keeping us safe when we ski in-bounds. They manage avalanche hazard, patrol for dangerous skiers and boarders, set boundaries to keep people out of dangerous areas and provide first aid. In Montana last week, Big Sky Patrollers were responsible for bringing a snowboarder back from the dead, before a life flight crew took over... To read about it, click here.

--Polar explorer Lonnie Dupre is back in Alaska, hoping to make the first solo winter ascent of Mt. Hunter. Dupre made the first successful solo winter ascent of Denali in 2015. To read more, click here.

--Climbing magazine has posted a list of their top ten most read climbing stories from 2016. To check out the list, click here.

--And finally, some yahoo free soloed a route in North Carolina completely naked. To read more, click here.