Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), is billed as “a merging of theory and practice.” The confab is indeed a fascinating mixture of full-on snow science geeks, mountain guides, artillery, tales of heroism and horror, all focused specifically on the study of snow avalanches — cause, prediction, avoidance, and consequences.
I attended this year’s ISSW (September 21-26 in Whistler), and enjoyed the conference format with a trade-show-like experience, where between oral and poster presentations you’re able to wander among manufacturers’ booths.
Aside from the cannons and avalanche dogs, one of biggest “crowd-pleaser” was AK Rendezvous Heli-Guide Theo Meiners’ talk on survival strategies for different parts of a flowing avalanche, spiced with harrowing TGR footage. Bottom line: One should “fight like hell” to get to the sides or tail of the flow where forces are weakest, and avoid the head at all costs. “Swimming” is advisable only insofar as it serves this end, while swimming toward the head is suicidal. Bracing on and spinning off the hard bed surface, and log rolling were also suggested as viable strategies.
Most terrifying: If you are stuck on the slab as it goes over the stauchwall, you will apparently encounter a large uphill standing wave that will stuff you under and spit you out — you are to ride this out and resume the struggle.
Speaking of which, a variety of research presented here unequivocally supports Lou’s oft-repeated message that an avalanche ride is a brutally violent experience that will very likely inflict trauma. So in addition to avalanche risk avoidance and rescue skills, winter backcountry travelers should know first aid and be prepared to practice it.
A current hot topic in the avalanche professional community is multiple burials, and how much education and technology should focus on these scenarios.
Research presented by BCA indicates that an extremely small percentage of avalanche fatalities in Europe and North America have involved complications associated with multiple burial search, whereas extraction is by far the most time-consuming aspect of rescues.
Conclusion: Multiple burial search technique instruction should be left to advanced classes (e.g. guides), whereas recreational instruction should focus on organization, single search, and shoveling technique.
Much of what goes on at ISSW is discussion of how professionals should advise and interact with recreationalists. Judging by the message from luminaries such as Bruce Jamieson of U. Calgary, future directions are characterized by greater integration of local and global capabilities in backcountry situations. For example, avalanche danger assessment procedures are being modified to combine regional forecasts with local information (stability tests and skier observations) in a systematic way. And given drastically decreased reaction times of S&R crews due to technology available to recreationalists (e.g., GPS, SPOT, and cellphones), some experts are advocating better cooperation of companions and rescue services, as opposed to stressing companion rescue as the only hope in avalanche rescue situations.
(Guest blogger profile: Christian Skalka and his wife Susan live in Burlington, VT, where he is a Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Vermont. In the winter you’ll often find them at Mad River Glen.”)