Backcountry and off piste rescue operations and methods

The ANENA (French Association for the Study of Snow and Avalanches) has analyzed 368 avalanche incidents between 2004-2010 and as a result have some important recommendations. With the widespread use of Recco detectors by the rescue services they say that off piste skiers consider using both reflectors and an avalanche beacon. While companion rescue remains important for survival rates, especially for off-piste skiers, the rescue services should be involved as soon a possible without jeopardizing the search of any victims. Calling the local PGHM or piste service number is fastest but you will need to give your exact location (reference points: valley name, summit/passes, altitude) as well as the number of victims.

avalanche emergency first aid

Between 2004-2010 over 649 people were caught by avalanches while ski touring and off piste skiing in France in 368 incidents. 277 people were completely buried and 167 died. Half the victims were off piste skiers and snowboarders (access via ski lifts), that is 133 people over 6 years.The remainder were ski tourers in back country areas. Of the 133 victims buried in off-piste areas, 69 were found alive and more than half of them, 35 victims, were saved by the rescue services (51%).

Thanks to good cell-phone coverage and the number of skiers off piste, alerts are received very quickly after an incident. Due to their proximity, transportation methods and readiness, the arrival time of the emergency services in off-piste areas is also very fast. The time for rescuers to arrive on the scene of an off-piste incident is less than 15 minutes in 60% of accidents, and less than 35 minutes in 94% of accidents. 83% of all avalanche victims survive a burial of less than 15 minutes and 54% survive between 15 and 35 minutes.After 35 minutes the chances decrease to 30%. In addition to the response time one must take into account the effectiveness of the rescue services to find and recover a victim, the availability of emergency medical treatment and the speed of evacuation by helicopter.

It should be noted that half (45%) of buried victims were not using an avalanche beacon or RECCO, 35 of them (30%) were found with probes or dogs. Of this group just 7 (20%) survived. Use of avalanche beacons enables rescue by people skiing with the victim or eyewitnesses (9 survivors out of 20 people rescued by their buddies) and also facilitates recovery by the rescue services (14 survivors out of 28 found). Wearing Recco reflectors also increases the chances that the rescue services will find the victim alive (3 survivors out of 6 found). Nowadays in France almost all first responder rescue services are equipped with Recco detectors for rapid location of buried victims with reflectors. 85 ski resorts, 25 mountain rescue services and 15 helicopter bases are equipped with the more than 200 detectors in total

Note that in the case of back country travelers, the emergency response times are on average much longer. Companion rescue using avalanche beacons gives the greatest chance of survival. 81% of practitioners carry beacons, probes and shovels. Never the less in the case of accident it is vital to alert the rescue services quickly but without abandoning buried companions. It is also important to remember that in case of accident having a beacon does not guarantee survival. A quarter of victims caught by an avalanche die, that is half of all those completely buried.

The best safety practices to avoid avalanches when off piste or ski touring are knowledge and common sense and knowing when to turn back.

source:, Cedric Larcher

Further Information

Posted by davidof on Tuesday, 14 December, 2010 at 11:29 PM

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