Rohrig: No excuses in the backcountry
As an avalanche educator, I’ve had the opportunity to work all over the United States for different schools and outfitters. Due to permitting and logistics, some outfitters have a fairly limited venue for teaching rescue. Fortunately, my primary employer, located in Edwards, has been around since the ‘70s, so they’ve secured an expansive choice of terrain options and permits.
On teaching and practicing rescue, we’ve moved away from setting up a 15-meter ski into the practice burial, which is standard protocol for most outfitters. Instead, we’ve started using a bigger venue with unlimited space for rescue drills.
Two years ago it occurred to us that our students were comprehending the finer nuances of searches faster with our use of a bigger, more complex, snow playground. Having additional terrain, and thus the ability to start further away from the buried transceiver, allows students to attain the signal versus starting the search within signal range giving the search a more realistic feel. We hypothesized that more area and topography has given the students a better understanding of the search process by requiring them to obtain the search signal, compelled them to understand signal deflection from undulating terrain and allowed students more space to contend with gear mishaps.
To put this theory to test, last winter I embarked on a public rescue research mission. I set up shop at a local backcountry access gate. The user demographics of this area tend to be moderate to highly-skilled riders — the same user often goes out the gate multiple times a day. To cover all directions from the gate, I set up two rescue scenarios, both in the direction of skier traffic so participants could ride into the scene.
I hoped that being able to ride into the search would encourage users to do the rescue as it would add negligible time to their descent. Both schemes had a least a 40-meter run-in and the transceivers were buried shallowly below a convexity. I used the international 12-minute benchmark for locating, probing and digging out an avalanche victim (the average backcountry burial depth being around 1.5 meters) as a time standard. I allowed searchers a generous three minutes to locate the transceiver, probing was not required. The professional standard is to locate and probe two beacons in five minutes, three in seven minutes.
The results weren’t stellar. Of the 33 gate users we contacted, only 16 were inclined to participate in a search. Of the 16, two were ski patrol, two were my former students who happened to be in the area and all but one of the 16 had formal avalanche education.
Those unwilling to play had the following responses:
- “I’m good, I don’t need to do a search.”
- “Ski time is ski time, not education time.”
- “I don’t have time, I need to get to work.”
- “I just don’t want to do it.”
Three of the 16 searchers found the transceiver after three minutes and five were either unable to find the beacon after a long effort or gave up in frustration. This is a 50% failure rate.
Some remarkable notes:
- One partner actively discouraged and left his partners who wanted to do the search, one participant had an older beacon that was detuned and no longer had a viable search range and an old school daily gate user had borrowed a transceiver because he couldn’t find his.
- Two recent Level 1 graduates had their two-way radios mounted directly over their chest harnessed beacons which has significant potential to cause interference. The alumni reported that their instructor had not explained electronic interference, thus the placement of their radios.
- Another searcher who went over the three-minute mark was most likely thrown off course due to his pocketed cell phone which was within 50 centimeters of his searching transceiver causing interference.
- Finally, I had the opportunity to work with a photographer during my research. We buried a beacon under his backcountry photo pack. My updated transceiver had a search jump of 15 meters, the photographer’s beacon was erratic and his search time increased significantly.
The takeaway — as professionals, we have no excuse to not be practicing realistic rescues. As the public, make sure you understand how to use your beacon, acquire a signal and follow it efficiently, and be a useful partner or rescuer. This includes having medical training.
Bottom line: Get educated.
Kelli Rohrig is the co-founder of The Glide Project, a Level 1 and 2 AIARE lead instructor and a ski guide. She is the lead avalanche educator for Paragon Guides. For more information on getting educated in the backcountry, go to https://www.chrisanthony.com/the-glide-project or call 970-390-9145.