Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
An expert, in some literature, is defined as someone who has 10,000 hours of practice. Fully 10,000 hours of any activity is a tremendous amount of time. I ski tour day in and day out each winter. Get 10,000 hours of that? Might take some years but it’s possible. On the other hand, I don’t do transceiver searches, mock rescues, and strategizing for how to evacuate injured people day in and day out. These skills get rusty.
But things happen, people get hurt. It’s important to be prepared so we can be there to help — and be safe doing it. As for the 10,000 hours, in my view we can cut that down with focused practice and prep, both as pre-season rituals as well as periodic sessions over the course of the season.
Transceiver practice — No matter how many years I have under my belt, my rescue skills get rusty over the summer. I practice single and multiple burial transceiver scenarios with my partners early season, and throughout the winter. We often take advantage of the early season to jumpstart our rescue skills. I don’t ski when there is 12” of snow on the ground. I value my knees and my skis more than that. Early season, I am more than happy to spend a few hours outside in the snow practicing with transceivers. Once more snow falls, I take advantage of beacon parks in our area.
Shoveling practice — Time and time again, people who have been involved in avalanche rescues talk about the challenges of excavating their partners. Many people have said that the biggest challenge was not the beacon search, but the shoveling. Having a system for shoveling and practicing this system with your regular partners is essential. If you don’t practice it and develop muscle memory, this task might prove more challenging if the real life need arises. Take advantage of the plowed snow in the parking lots of local trailheads. That snow is similar to avalanche debris – chunky and set up. If you need to source this knowlege, check out BCA’s website or enjoy the video we’ve embedded below.
First aid practice — Run through likely injuries from ski touring. When I think of likely injuries, I think about a tweaked knee, a laceration from a ski edge or a tree branch, skiers thumb, and blisters from new boots. For advanced first aiders, brush up on your cervical and head injury procedures as well. Keep these and other likely injuries in mind as you construct or restock your first aid kit for your pack. Oh, and in North America where we commonly do not have professional first-aid just minutes away, we _all_ should have done a first aid class within the last few years.
Constructing a rescue sled — My husband broke his fibula while skiing on Teton Pass years ago. He was able to ski out with the help of his ski partner, which amazes me to this day. Had he broken his tibia, as well as his fibula, the scenario would have been different. The good news is they were prepared with a tarp and the ability to improvise a rescue sled. They also had fire starter and a few other things for an emergency bivy. Are you prepared to drag your partner out of the mountains? Or prepared to stay put and survive if your partner is immobile? Think about it. Carry enough gear for an improvised bivy. Consider carrying some sort of rescue sled. There are several options out there. The K2 rescue shovel plus is a shovel and an improvised sled in one. Alpine Threadworks and Brooks Range make rescue sleds that doubles as tarps. No matter which improvised sled you choose to carry, if you carry one, know how to use it. Know what extra gear you need to make it work. Know how well it handles when you add a patient to it. In other words, you probably need a least one full practice session.
Gear check and the restocking of a gear repair kit — Every year, before I go ski touring, I take my ski pack out of storage and check everything in my pack. I check my shovel and probe. I check my transceiver. I check my ski gear. In a perfect world, all of my gear is in great shape. In the real world, some of my gear is new and shiny, while some of my gear is on the torn and tattered side. I do a similar activity with gear as I do with first aid… I run through a mental exercise of what is likely to break and how I can repair it. I assess my gear and I assess my partners’ gear. If I can’t look at my partners’ gear, I think about the show stoppers or the day ruiners. I carry back-ups or repair pieces for these.
Communication — Communication skills are essential and are often overlooked. Touch base with your local search and rescue to understand what information they want if you call them. Or more importantly, HOW you call them. Often it’s 911, but sometimes it’s better to call both 911 as well as calling your local rescue volunteers directly. Write the numbers down and keep them in your first aid kit, as well as storing them in your phone. Also, think about cell coverage in your favorite ski touring areas. If you do tour in areas with cell service, leave home with a charged phone and use a waterproof case or storage bag. If there is no cell service, consider carrying a 2-way capable emergency communication device (e.g., DeLorme InReach or a satellite phone). The one-way communication SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger can be useful as well, it’s saved lives, but having 2-way comm is so much better.
Snow is flying and winter is quickly approaching. Take the time now to practice rescue skills, restock first aid and repair kits, and upgrade your kit with things like better communication devices. That way you can spend your 10,000 hours making turns.
(WildSnow Guest blogger Sarah Carpenter has spent most of her life on skis. She is the co-owner of the American Avalanche Institute and an AMGA certified ski guide. She lives in a strawbale house with her husband, Don, in Victor, ID. A year spent building a house convinced Sarah that backcountry skiing, climbing, and working in the outdoors is easier than working in construction.)