Lessons Learned

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So lets summarize what we have learned with some simple rules:

  • As the day progresses skiers and boarders encroach onto slopes they themselves avoided in the morning, having judged them as too dangerous. Under no circumstances will they be safer in the afternoon.
  • Each time that a piece of the skier or their equipment was visible on the surface of the slide they survived given the condition that they had not already been fatally injured and were not skiing alone. Marking where you are as the avalanche slows with an arm or ski pole might be a useful piece of advice and also suggests that safety gear such as the avalanche ball and ABS Airbag could be useful.
  • Instructions must always be clear and precise. The group leader must take particular care that these are understood and followed to the letter.
  • Study the avalanche and weather reports very carefully and pay particular attention to any local risks.
  • Take care with your route planning, evaluate the different options with respect to potential dangers.
  • Finding someone alive with an avalanche transceiver requires two prerequisites. Prior training and rapid response in the case of an accident.
  • Delays in rescuing a victim are often due to not every member of the group carrying a shovel.
  • A probe is essential when there is more than one victim as it permits the group to rapidly decide where to deploy the resources available based on the burial depth of each victim.
  • A transceiver is of no use: if the searcher has not trained in its use, if it is turned off, if it is in the victim's rucksack.

Other Resources

This site has a basic introduction into search and rescue techniques but readers should also think about getting some training and reading more in depth studies of avalanches.

David Spring, a member of the Ski Patrol Rescue Team based in Washington State, wrote an article based on his experiences after a particularly bad month of avalanche fatalities. Washington State has a Maritime Climate and the snow-pack there is particularly dense. David commented that "''no one has been found alive when buried more than 1 meter whether wearing a transceiver or not. This is one of the statistics that has persuaded me that the best way to deal with avalanches is to avoid them all together.''" Being part of the rescue patrol David probably arrives on the scene some time after the slide but his words echo those of the article above.

Most of the English speaking literature comes from the North America. Ed Lachapelle worked at the Swiss Avalanche Research institute just after the Second World War and is one of the founders and foremost experts in American Avalanche Research, his book The ABC of Avalanche Safety (ISBN:0898861039) is a classic.

Like his countryman LaChapelle, Peter Schaerer cut his teeth in the world of Swiss avalanche research. He has co authored The Avalanche Handbook (ISBN:0898863643). with David McClung. This book goes further into avalanche theory and discusses weather systems and snow structures and then progresses to more advanced topics of snow pack analysis, avalanche prediction and the techniques of search and rescue. There is an excellent section on the various avalanche control methods which would be an excellent basis for aspiring piste patrollers. A useful book for anyone who will be going on a course. The book is aimed at anyone going into the backcountry.

Finally White Death (ISBN:184115055X) is McKay Jenkins' in depth study of a climbing accident that reverberated across America. Through the story of a group of young climbers hit by a massive avalanche on the North face of Mount Cleveland in the Northern Rockies he tells the story of avalanches from Hanibal's crossing of the Alps to the present day.

Categories: Snow Safety