By Marcie Hahn-Knoff, Explorebigsky.com contributor
It’s a beautiful winter day, sunny with just a hint of wind. The pristine mountain slopes unfold before you, freshened by an overnight dump of snow. You’ve navigated the throngs of skiers and snowboarders clamoring in the lift line, zipped to the top, and decided to leave the resort and ski the sidecountry with a friend.
You exit the gate, glancing at the skull and crossbones on the sign, indicating that sidecountry really means backcountry. Fields of sparkling powder fill your vision, tugging your attention away. Your friend drops off the ridge, and you watch him start to descend. Two turns later, a crack shoots across the slope, the snow gives way, and your friend is sucked out of sight in a powder cloud.
What are you going to do now?
Avalanches happen. They’re a powerful force of nature that can be hard to predict. Weather, slope angles, slabs, weak layers and the proper trigger are all part of the puzzle. The best way to avoid them is to stay out of avalanche-prone terrain.
However, most backcountry recreationists in Montana, including skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, ice climbers and snowshoers, often find themselves in terrain capable of avalanching.
Be prepared with functional rescue gear and know how to use it
Uninjured survival rates for buried victims plummets from 90 percent at 15 minutes to 50 percent at 30 minutes. As a rescuer you want time on your side, and having proper equipment facilitates a faster rescue.
Three pieces of gear are absolutely essential when entering avalanche terrain:
Avalanche transceiver (a beacon)
Shovel with a metal blade
These give the rescuer a way to find and dig out a buried individual, given that the buried victim is also wearing a functioning transceiver.
With this equipment, plus training and practice, any backcountry user can be an effective rescuer. The ideal, however, is to not get caught in an avalanche to begin with.
Take an avalanche course (or two), check the forecast center’s daily advisory, watch the weather, carefully select terrain based on current hazard, and always watch for bulls eye data (i.e. changes in weather, increasing wind, obvious clues of instability such as recent avalanches, cracking or slope collapsing/whumphing).
Having rescue gear in the backcountry is worth almost nothing without the smarts on how to use it. Practice often. Pull it out regularly to ensure everything works. Probe cables can erode and break, shovels get bent, transceivers wear out and batteries die.
Make sure your partners know what they’re doing and their gear is functional. Remember, they’ll be the ones saving your ass if you get caught.
Transceiver (aka beacon)
Beacons work by transmitting flux line signals, which can be tracked by a beacon turned to receive mode.
Avalanche transceiver technology has become more user friendly in the past 10 years. Many new beacons have digital directional displays and triple antenna technology that direct rescuers quickly to a buried transceiver. Some have systems for dealing more easily with multiple burials.
There are many kinds of beacons out there. The best kind is the one you know how to use really well.
Warning: If your transceiver requires an earpiece to function, is not 457khz frequency, or is older than snowboarding, donate it to a museum or use it as a conversation piece, but don’t use it in the backcountry. The frequency on these old beacons tends to drift, and most aren’t compatible with modern rescue gear.
Once the victim’s transceiver signal is pinpointed, the probe is set up and poked carefully into the snow in a spiral until the victim is struck. The probe is left in the snow to mark the victim and indicate burial depth. Practice setting up your probe. It should take less than 15 seconds.
Shovel with a metal blade
Once the victim is located with a probe strike, shoveling becomes priority number one. Shovels should be easy to assemble, and the blade should be large enough to excavate a good chunk of snow on each scoop.
Metal bladed shovels are far superior to plastic ones due to the extremely hard nature of avalanche debris. Plastic shovels can break, particularly in the cold.
Digging in debris is hard work and tiring. Learning and practicing strategic shoveling techniques—which have recently been studied and refined—makes excavation faster and more efficient.