Avalanche survival

Like a scout, be prepared, remember the ABCs
BIG FUN - It can also mean big danger. Highmarking like this is a thrill for many mountain riders, but doing it in avalanche prone areas is not smart and not having proper training is downright dumb.
AVALANCHE AHEAD - Even small slides can be dangerous, and with the best training, predicting them is never 100%.
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT - Students from one of Mike's classes practice using their beacons, probes and shovels to search an avalanche area.
ABS BACKPACKS - ABS inflatable backpacks like the one shown here are worth their weight in gold if you are an avid mountain rider. They inflate to keep you on top of the sliding snow.
The best way to approach riding in avalanche areas is to increase your knowledge so you or someone in your group is less likely to get caught in an avalanche.

Treat every 30-45 degree slope as if it may avalanche, you can never be 100% sure in avalanche terrain. Learn to rescue effectively, but don't count on a fast rescue to save someone's life.

This article represents a small portion of the knowledge needed to increase your odds in avalanche terrain. If you ride in the mountains, we suggest you take at least four 1-hour classes to gain more knowledge. Here are the basics:

5 rules of riding avalanche terrain
1. Always go one at a time when highmarking and while on avalanche slopes. Only put one person in danger at a time.
2. Never go above your partner. Get out of the way if you are below.
3. Have a plan.
-Who's first? Who's last?
-What slope?
-Where are you stopping?
-What is your escape route if there is a slide? Where are the islands of safety?
4. Stay in voice or visual contact. Helmet to helmet communication is essential in avalanche terrain. Hand signals also can work if a rider makes it a habit to look at those watching as he descends a slope.
5. Alter your riding according to the avalanche danger.

5 signs of snowpack instability
First, check the avalanche report before you ride. Avalanche reports may be very general and may vary within a forecast area, be observant when you're riding. Here are 5 signs of potential danger you should be looking for:
1. Significant snowfall in past 24 hours.
2. Recent natural avalanche on same peak.
3. Wind. Know which slopes are currently getting wind loaded with snow and which slopes have been wind loaded.
4. Collapsing or cracking of the snow.
5. Rapid rise in temperature.
Note: One of these signs is enough for you to alter your riding to safer terrain.

Avalanche rescue:
Hasty search (Buried person has a beacon):
All hope of live rescue depends on the people in your group. Hopefully you will never find yourself in this situation. This is where training and practice really make a difference.

If you are properly trained it increases the survival rate significantly (70% by one study). This is not the time to teach someone how to use a beacon or try to remember how to use your beacon.

Watch the victim as they are carried down the slope. Count heads as soon as the avalanche stops.

Stay on site and search; the first 15 minutes are crucial. Remember you must realize how long it would take to get help and for help to return.

Before entering the search area, make sure there is no further avalanche danger, pick an escape route and someone must take charge and direct the rescue effort.

Turn off snowmobiles, which may interfere with the beacon signal. Leave extra equipment outside the search area.

Switch all beacons to search then double check all the beacons to make sure.

Analyze the avalanche. Where was the last seen point? Where are the deepest areas of deposition and the most likely burial locations? Are there visual clues?

Look for visual clues. Everyone has their beacon switched to receive, but one person is concentrating on looking for visual clues while also doing a beacon search. Too often searchers miss the visual clues since they have tunnel vision on the beacon readout screen. All searchers should be looking for visual clues. Visual clues are vital and are a faster way to find someone. Each situation is different, an effective rescue encompasses more than just using a beacon, especially in larger avalanches. Look for clues from the last seen point down (gloves, boot, helmet, snowmobile parts). Kick at the surface of the snow to reveal clues. Mark clues or leave in place. Perform a quick 360-degree search at the toe of the avalanche.

Mark last seen point and tracks in, they can be used as reference points.

Keep tools with you, including shovels, probes and packs.

Do not contaminate the search area with food, spit, urine or clothes.

Be silent, listen for shouting.

Without beacons:
Probe most likely burial spots: areas of greatest deposition, depressions, rocks, trees, uphill from where the snowmobile was found.

After thoroughly probing all likely burial spots and looking for clues, start a probe line from just below the toe of the avalanche to the last seen point.

Remember: If there are multiple victims and you find one victim, turn their beacon to search. Keep looking for others after administering first aid.

You do not have to uncover the victim completely if they are breathing and others are still buried.

Search until you cannot or should not continue. Do not jeopardize your own safety. Stop when there is danger of hypothermia, when weather conditions dictate or there is threat of another avalanche.

When you go out for help, flag or mark the area and the way in. Call 911.

Remember the ABCs
This is quite a bit to remember, and takes training and practice. One way to simplify it is to think of ABC:

Analyze the avalanche for clues, the last seen point and the most likely burial spots.

Beacons, turn them on and set them to search.

Comb the area.

Mike Duffy, from Eagle, Colo., is a Level I & II Avalanche instructor at Colorado Mountain College, was a rescue/avalanche team leader/avalanche mission coordinator at Vail Mountain Rescue Group for 18 years, is an instructor at Walter Kirch Avalanche Seminars, a graduate of National Avalanche School and National Academy of Winter Guiding. He has been a mountain snowmobiler for 20 years, a member of the American Avalanche Association and teaching avalanche classes for 14 years. He teaches snowmobile specific avalanche classes throughout the upper Midwest and western U.S. Class info may be found at www.avalanche1.com or e-mail him at duffyw1@aol.com.
BEACON VITAL - If you ride the mountains you need a beacon and you need to practice with it.
You must bring this gear with you at all times in avalanche territory and remember that NONE of your essential avalanche gear (beacon, shovel, probe, first aid kit) should be stored on the sled.

The exception is with an ABS pack (Avalanche Airbag System) in the following situation. Do not take off an ABS pack to access the shovel in the pack if you are on or in the run out of an avalanche slope (i.e. trying to dig out your sled that is stuck while highmarking). In this situation you want an extra shovel on the sled. The reason we keep all the essentials in our pack is in case our sled gets buried and we need to rescue someone else who is buried.

Backpack: Large enough so you can carry enough gear to survive the night.
Avalanche beacon: Get a newer digital beacon, they are faster and easier to use. Look for a proven design. Most riders do not practice enough. Carry spare batteries.
Shovel: Large metal blade, extendable shaft, solid design. Do not get a small shovel. If it's not big enough to shovel a driveway, why use it to dig for someone's life?
Avalanche probe: To pin point the exact location of the buried person. Can also locate a buried snowmobile, 260cm (8-ft., 6-in.) or longer.
Map and compass: The ability to use it. Don't rely on GPS alone.
Flagging: May be used in an avalanche rescue to mark last seen point, areas searched and your trail in and out. Wrap around a tree to be found.
Others: Strobe, first aid/survival kit, extra clothes, food and water, bivy sack/space blanket, headlamp, communication and learn more.
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