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Avalanche Rescue—Multiple Burials

Searching for Multiple Avalanche Victims

(The rescue information on these pages is quite detailed. If you are short on time or looking for a quick review, you can jump to the Avalanche Rescue Summary.)

When more than one person is buried in an avalanche, the searching transceiver receives multiple signals. If you have a limited number of rescuers (e.g., probably four or fewer), the best strategy is usually to use your transceiver to find the closest victim, dig him up, turn off his transceiver, and then search for the next victim. With limited resources, and with the realization that more than half of avalanche victims are dead within 15 minutes, the best strategy is to put all your effort into quickly saving one victim rather than slowly attempting to save two. If you do have enough people to extricate multiple victims, then you should locate the first victim with your transceiver, confirm it with a probe, and while other rescuers begin unburying the first victim, use your transceiver to search for the next victim.

Avalanche transceivers always direct you to the strongest signal. Searching for the victim with the strongest signal, turning of his transceiver, and then searching for the next victim, can be thought of as performing multiple single-burial searches. This is an excellent strategy for most avalanche accidents (where resources are limited).

If you don't turn off the first victim's transceiver, special search techniques are required to search for subsequent victims, because your transceiver will be receiving beeps from more than one transceiver. Consider two cars at an intersection with their turn signals on. If the cadence of the turn signals is not identical, there will be times when the lights of both cars are blinking at the same time, periods when they are partially overlapping, and periods when the lights are blinking independently. This also happens with two transceivers. There are times when both transceivers are transmitting a "beep" at the same time ("signal overlap"), times when they are partially overlapping, and times when the beeps do not overlap. Unfortunately, when the beeps overlap, the searching transceiver receives this as one beep. This makes it difficult for the searching avalanche transceiver to distinguish between multiple victims.

Some manufactures, such as Mammut, use a variety of transmission cadences in their avalanche transceivers. That reduces the likelihood that two transmitters will be continuously overlapped (e.g., the Mammut Pulse and Element have 10 different cadences which vary based on their serial number).

Articles about avalanche rescue often claim that avalanches with multiple victims are rare, and everything is relative, but between 10% and 20% of avalanche accidents do involve multiple victims.

If you have enough rescuers that you can begin searching for a second victim after finding the first victim (and before turning off his transceiver), you have three options: you can use the transceiver's electronics to "mark" (i.e., ignore) the first transceiver's signal, or you can use the generic expanding circle or micro search strip techniques. The advantage of using the transceiver's "mark" function is it is fast; the disadvantages are the mark functions don't work consistently and some transceivers don't have a mark function. The advantage of using the generic techniques is they don't rely on complex electronics; the disadvantage is they require significantly more skill and practice.

Transceiver "Marking" of Multiple Avalanche Victims

Most digital avalanche transceivers analyze the multiple signals and attempt to estimate the number of, and the location of, the victims. These transceivers then allow you to "suppress" a specific signal. This is done by "ignoring" a signal based on the previously analyzed signals. The buried beacon will continue to transmit a signal, but the searching transceiver will try to ignore that strong transmission and direct you to the next-closest transceiver. Manufactures refer to the process of ignoring a signal as either "marking," "masking," "suppressing," or "flagging."

It is critical that you always confirm the location of each victim using an avalanche probe before suppressing a signal.

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Transceivers use various techniques to analyze the multiple, occasionally overlapping, signals. Although the algorithms are proprietary, some transceivers, like the Pulse, appear to focus on the cadence in addition to the signal strength of the multiple signals. Transceivers that use this approach take a little longer to analyze the multiple signals, but tend to do a better job at reporting the number of transmitters and at suppressing the individual signals. Other transceivers, like the Tracker3, appear to focus more on the signal strength. These transceivers tend to do well when there are only two transceivers and less well when there are more than two transceivers.

When there are three or four victims, it becomes almost impossible for the searching transceiver to separate the signals due to signal overlap. It is also more difficult for the searching transceiver to separate the signals if the victims are located close to each other, because it is harder for the searching transceiver to distinguish the signals based on their strength.

And finally, digital transceivers can be confused when receiving transmissions from older, single-antenna analog transceivers, that emit a continuous carrier signal.

Although none of the transceivers are perfect at suppressing a signal, they do a pretty good job. If your avalanche transceiver mistakenly returns you to a victim you previously suppressed, you should repeat the suppression process.

It is very important that you read the user's manual that comes with your transceiver and that you practice using your transceiver's multiple burial features—none of these techniques are intuitive enough to figure out after the avalanche strikes.

The typical approach to using the marking feature is to locate the first victim, hold the searching transceiver still, and momentarily press the "mark" (or "flag") button. The searching transceiver should then point you toward the next-closest victim. Note that most transceivers require you to be within a few meters of the transmitting beacon before you can mark it.

Testing a transceiver's ability to suppress a signal is complicated because there are so many variables (e.g., the amount of time the signals overlap, the individual cadence of the transmitting beacons, the distance between the transmitters, how quickly the searcher moves toward the second transceiver after suppressing the first, the starting location of the search, etc). The individual transceiver reviews provide details on how to search for multiple burials using that model of transceiver. For example, the Tracker3 only ignores the first victim for 60 seconds. You can read the details of multiple burial tests here.

Generic Techniques to Search for Multiple Avalanche Victims

In addition to using a transceiver's built-in electronics to suppress a transmitter, you can use "generic" multiple burial search techniques to locate multiple victims. The advantage of these generic techniques is they can be done with any avalanche transceiver. The disadvantage is they require significantly more training and practice.

Expanding Circle Technique

The expanding circle technique works well and is relatively easy to learn. The disadvantage is you must cover a lot of ground and walk uphill to complete the circles.

  1. Locate the first victim using the normal transceiver search and probing techniques. (This is represented by the red line in the following illustration.)
  2. Your partners will begin digging for the first victim.
  3. Back away from the first victim by taking three big steps. This will move you about 3 meters from the victim. The distance indicator on your digital beacon should increase by roughly 3 meters.
  4. Walk in a circle around the first victim while watching the displayed distance. Hold your transceiver low as you walk this first circle. You are looking for a significant change in the distance. A significant change in distance will occur if you get closer to a second victim than the first.
  5. If a significant change occurs, use the coarse (if necessary) and fine search techniques to locate the second victim.
  6. If you complete the circle without finding a second victim, expand the circle by taking three more steps away from the first victim. The displayed distance should increase by roughly 3 meters. Again circle the first victim while looking for a significant change in the displayed distance.
  7. If a significant change occurs, use the coarse (if necessary) and fine search techniques to locate the second victim.
  8. If your transceiver ever leads you back to the first victim when performing one of these secondary course searches, return to the previous 3-meter circle and repeat the circular process.
  9. If a second victim is found and victims are still missing, you should return to your last location on the circle and complete the circle. If you complete three circles (approximately 9-meter radius) without finding a victim, you should return to your signal search or begin a micro search strip search.

In the above illustration, the red line represents your coarse search path to the first victim. You would then move 3 meters from the victim and circle the victim as shown by the smallest blue circle. As you walk around the victim on this 3-meter circle, your transceiver will continue to point to the first victim and display a distance of approximately 3 meters.

After completing the first circle without a significant change in the displayed distance, you would enlarge the circle by 3 meters. While walking on this second circle you should expect the distance to be approximately 6 meters (because you are now ~6 meters from the first victim).

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In this example, as you get closer to the second victim than the first, the distance displayed on your transceiver will drop from the expected 6 meters down to approximately 1 or 2 meters. You should then use the fine search technique to locate the second victim.

The distances displayed by your transceiver in this example, i.e., 3 meters when on the 3-meter circle and 6 meters when on the 6-meter circle, are very rough estimates—don't take them too literally. Mathematically, the distance would also include the depth of the first victim and, realistically, the distances displayed by avalanche transceivers aren't that accurate and will vary as the alignment between the antennas change. It's more important that you watch for a significant change in the distance (and possibly a change in the direction indicator). It's critical that you understand the concept of the expanding circle technique which is that by making 3-meter circles, at some point you will end up much closer to the second victim than to the first.

Micro Search Strip Technique

This technique is like the expanding circle technique in that you search the terrain within 3 meters with the goal of getting very close to the second transmitter. This method is physically easier than the expanding circle technique, because you don't have to walk up hill (which makes this preferable on steeper terrain). Conceptually it is more difficult, because the distance between you and the first victim changes (whereas in the expanding circles, you remain approximately the same distance from the victim as you circle him).

  1. Locate the first victim using the normal search techniques. (This is represented by the red line in the following illustration.)
  2. Your partners will begin digging for the first victim.
  3. Move approximately 3 meters from the victim toward the direction that you initially approached the first victim. Your digital beacon should display approximately 3 meters.
  4. Now begin a traditional signal-search-like route, but this time with only 3 meters between each search strip. As with the expanding circle technique, you are looking for an unexpected change in the distance relative to the first victim.
  5. When a change is noted (i.e., your transceiver receives a new, closer signal), remain on your narrow search strip until the displayed distance is less than approximately meters.
  6. When the displayed distance is approximately 3 or 4 meters, use the fine search technique to locate the second victim. If your transceiver ever leads you back to the first victim, return to your previous micro-strip location and continue your micro-strip searching.

In this example "micro search strip" illustration, the red line shows your initial search path to the first victim. You should then move 3 meters up hill and continue searching, but this time with only 3 meters between your zigzagging search strips.

Your directional indicator will continue to point to the first victim and the displayed distance will increase as you move further way from the first victim.

When you zigzag back, the displayed distance will decrease as expected as you approach the first victim and then increase as you pass the first victim.

When you eventually get closer to the second victim than the first victim (this is the point where the blue line changes to a dotted line in this illustration), your transceiver will point toward the second victim and the distance indicator will decrease to display the distance to the second victim. When the displayed distance is close to the width of your micro search strips (i.e., about 3 meters), you can use the fine search technique to locate the second victim.

As with the expanding circle technique, don't take the displayed distances and direction indicator too literally. It's more important that you watch for a significant, unexpected change in the distance (and possibly a change in the direction indicator).

It is critical that you understand the concept of the micro search strip technique which is that by making narrow, 3-meter search strips, at some point you will end up closer to the second victim than to the first (and get within 3 meters of the second victim).

Additional details on the micro search strip technique can be found here.