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…