Ski Patrollers: Become a cliff rescue expert.
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Avalanche Rescue

Avalanche accidents are confusing, tearful experiences. Executing a successful rescue requires that you control your emotions and focus on the rescue. A successful rescue begins before you leave the trailhead and continues until the rescuers and victim are safely in the frontcountry.

The keys to a successful rescue are training and practice, training and practice, and training and practice. Don't postpone it any longer. Get together with your buddies and practice. When the shit hits the fan, when your friend or lover is beat up and buried, your training will help you achieve the best possible outcome.

This page explains the tasks that take place before, during, and immediately after an avalanche. Subsequent pages explain how to search the avalanche using your transceiver, how to locate the victim using an avalanche probe, and how to extricate the victim using a shovel. These instructions are concise. You'll need to take a course and read a good avalanche book.

Time and Trauma

The statistics aren't in the victim's favor. They show that ~25% of avalanche victims are killed by trauma. Of those that survive, more than half will die within the first 15 minutes. And 90% will be dead within the first 40 minutes. When all is said and done, only 30% of fully buried victims will survive.

This data makes your objectives clear. Quickly locate the victim and access his or her airway.

Before Leaving the Trailhead

(Random photo from an avalanche mission)
  1. Learn about the current avalanche conditions by calling your local avalanche forecast center.
  2. Have good, high-quality batteries in your transceiver.
  3. Test your (and your partner's) transceiver.
  4. Carry sturdy avalanche probes and a shovel.
  5. Wear your transceiver under your outer layer where it is less likely to get damaged or removed by obstacles such as trees and rocks. A well-attached pants pocket is acceptable (although it may be more susceptible to impact damage). Don't wear it over clothes that you might take off such as your jacket—you don't want to remove your transceiver when in avalanche terrain. And keep your transceiver's display toward your body so it is less likely to get damaged.
  6. Ensure that your other electronics and metallic objects (even foil food wrappers like gels) are not near your transceiver (read about interference).
  7. Make a plan with your partners. What are the risks? How will you minimize them? Where do plan to go? Where won't you go? What would cause you to change your plans?
  8. Use safe travel techniques (e.g., good route selection, only expose one person at a time, communicate openly, etc).

During and Immediately After the Avalanche

  1. Watch the victim and try to determine the point where they were last seen (PLS). You can dramatically reduce the size of the search area if you do this accurately.
  2. Make sure the scene is safe. It is important that rescuers are not exposed to additional avalanche hazard. The actual avalanche path is almost always safe if there isn't significant "hang fire" remaining above the slide or significant accumulation of new snow.
  3. Consider selecting a rescue leader. Even in small groups, having one person focused on the big picture will improve the outcome.
  4. Determine the number of victims. The number of victims will influence how the search should be organized (e.g., whether you should perform a multiple burial search, when to call for additional help, etc). If you were not a member of the party involved in the accident, you can determine the number of victims by using your transceiver, by interviewing witnesses, and by observing physical clues (e.g., finding two different brands of skis).
  5. Look for visual clues (e.g., gloves, skis, etc). If you see a glove or ski, check to see if it is connected to a victim. There are many examples, including avalanches that I have responded to, where gear on the snow surface (e.g., a glove) was still connected to the victim.
  6. Consider calling for additional help. When you should call for help is very situational dependent. Be sure to consider (1) how many additional minutes the victim will be buried if you do place the call, (2) how fast the rescuers can respond, and (3) how you will transport the victims once you do locate them. Knowing that 90% of victims die within 40 minutes, it's rarely beneficial to call for additional help unless there are already enough rescuers on-scene that placing the call won't slow the search. Keep in mind, however, that you will need additional resources to help transport the victim once extracted.