Avalanche training is very important for anyone who ventures into the snow. Below are some tips on avalanche transceiver rescue from Wanaka SAR ranger and NZAT veteran advisor, Lionel Clay.
1. Know your transceiver
Practice with your transceiver. Every transceiver works differently. Research your model of transceiver to understand its range, flagging modes and interference with other electronics. Know how long the battery will last and carry spare batteries if necessary.
2. Keep your phone away from your transceiver
Unless phones are required for navigation, these should be turned off and separated from the transceiver by at least 50cm, to reduce chances of signal interference or shielding.
3. Leadership and group roles
Assign roles quickly. One leader, others to probe and shovel.
In a serious avalanche, assign someone to activate the PLB immediately and leave in a fixed location before starting the search. Avalanches often involve trauma injury, so time is of the essence for a helicopter rescue.
In a situation with multiple rescuers:
Situation A: narrow debris field width less than the transceiver range i.e. <50m. Appoint one leader to focus on transceiver search. Others get out their shovels and probes then rejoin the leader.
Situation B: wide debris field greater than transceiver range i.e. 50m+. Spread out to a conservative estimate of the width of your transceiver range. Travel parallel to the line of the avalanche path.
Until you come into transceiver range, run in the direction of last sighting or estimated burial position. Hold transceiver close to your ear rotating slightly to pick up signals and to hear signal easily. Once in range, move swiftly towards the victim following transceiver signal prompts. When within 10m, slow down to walking pace. Within 3m, slow down again.
Bracketing is your final process of pin-pointing the location. Attention to detail with transceiver orientation and speed of movement. Slow precise search is better than poor hasty search. Start bracketing from within 3m. Transceiver should be held low to the snow surface.
Use a square spiral pattern for probing at 25cm increments to locate the victim. Probe perpendicular to the surface. Once successfully probed, note the depth.
Shovel at an angle to the depth of the victim. Use team work to excavate snow, cycle through team members in a 2 minute rotation to rest the lead shoveler.
8. Multiple burials
Learn how your model of transceiver works to ‘flag’ individual victims to allow for searching for multiple people.
9. First aid
First priority is to clear airways. Be careful of hypothermia-induced cardiac arrest due to acidosis. Take a first aid course and learn how to treat victims with a combination of trauma & hypothermia.
10. Take an avalanche course
There is no substitute for professional avalanche training. Up to 70% of avalanche accidents each year are alpine climbers. Register for an avalanche awareness, back country avalanche, Avalanche stage 1 course or similar to upskill in this area. Recommended reading is “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” by Bruce Tremper.
Practice avalanche transceiver use with your climbing partners each season – a productive activity for bad weather days.