Avalanche Cord — String of Life or Placebo of Sad Demise?


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 14, 2017      

The history of electronic avalanche locator beacons is somewhat recent, with the first truly functional units coming on board in the late 1960s. Before that, skiers employed various methods of locating a buried avalanche victim; methods that for the most part were largely (and sadly) ineffective. The most popular of these was the “avalanche cord,” simply a lengthy chunk of string, with direction and distance makerers. You’d trail the string out behind you while skiing. If buried, your partners ostensibly found the string and followed it to you.

This was way too time consuming of a rescue process. Moreover handling the spider web a larger group of skiers created was not pretty, not to mention time consuming storage winding-coiling that was worthy of nautical sail rigging. Good to look back, and thank heaven we now have electronic beacons.

I recall a few individuals in the 1960s era writing about the efficacy of avalanche cords, pondering if any live saves had ever occurred by virtue of using a cord. Consensus was a that a few climbers might have been saved when their rope was used in similar fashion, but there might have been only one or two documented saves that were definitely due to the use of an avalanche cord.

Crimped metal markers indicated number of meters to victim.

Avalanche cord, you’d stow it in a string ball or reel it in on some sort of spindle or spool you’d hang from your belt. Crimped metal markers indicated number of meters to victim.

Weight: 154 grams, 5.4 ounces (modern electronic beacon ~ 198 grams, 7.0 ounces)
Length: This cord is about 17 meters long, perhaps shortened, as apparently some were about 25 meters.
Markers: Spaced at 173 centimeters, odd, as I thought most avy cords had the markers as meters.

(Thanks goes to Mary Ann Parke for donation of this avalanche cord to the WildSnow collection.)

1960s avalanche safety technology,  the avalanche cord.

1960s avalanche safety technology, the avalanche cord.


Comments

20 Responses to “Avalanche Cord — String of Life or Placebo of Sad Demise?”

  1. Steve September 14th, 2017 11:07 am

    And to think they used these around helicopters in the early days! There are also several historical accounts of climbing teams being caught in avalanches and the climbing rope was followed to locate buried people. I wonder if that simply led to the “invention” of the cord…

  2. Hacksaw September 14th, 2017 2:51 pm

    I know of no cases where an avalanche cord actually saved a buried person.

    I also know of one case where two climbers got hit by an avalanche on a glacier where they were roped up. Not one inch of the rope was above the surface on the avalanche debris.

    I ended up over the years cutting up my avalanche cord. But, I still have some ot the sections with the metal direction markers.

  3. Dale Aatkins September 14th, 2017 4:29 pm

    Ah…the old avalanche cord that for most of us was a tangled ball of cord we kept wadded up in a pocket. It didn’t work as a rescue tool, but it was effective as a mental cue. It made us think avalanche, and since it was such a hassle to use, it was easier to decide to stick to the less steep slopes rather than messing with the cord.

    For interested folks I have a history of the avalanche cord (in Colorado cords were first mentioned in 1908) in The Avalanche Review, v27, no 3 p 26. Here’s the link: <>

    About live rescues because of an avalanche cord. In the US there has been only one.

    On Christmas Day, 1969, a Breckenridge ski patroller out inspecting a fracture line (4-7 ft deep by a half mile across) from an explosive release earlier in the morning was caught and completely buried when the slope released a second time. He was saved when a companion spotted a bit of his orange cord on the surface of the debris.

    If you’re wondering how common is a second release after an explosive release, well, it’s rare but it happens. That day 5 patrollers and Forest Service staff went out to inspect the avalanche. At the fracture line they found the avalanche ran on top of a 3-foot hard slab still perched on thick layer (15-30 inches) of depth hoar. While checking out the fracture line and the slab and depth hoar still underfoot, the slope collapsed with “a sharp sound, like a clap of thunder.” The second avalanche released 200 feet above the earlier avalanche and swept down four of the crew. It buried one whose cord was found. Two others were partly buried. That time the cord worked as intended, but such a result was the exception.

  4. Lou Dawson 2 September 14th, 2017 4:44 pm

    Thanks for stopping by Dale! See you at CSAW? Lisa and I will be there. Lou

  5. Blair September 14th, 2017 8:09 pm

    I still, fondly, recall the idea that one of the brilliant academics who were active in the Varsity Outdoor Club had. Get some helium filled weather balloons from Geography and tie a balloon to the loose end of the avalanche cord. Given the right atmospheric conditions…

    Just the image of a …party…of ragged skiiers, as many were in those days, sliding along on our Vinersa skins, riding an inch or two of snow built up under the skins, dragging vertical cords (umbilica) ,sic, has entertained me during a few slogs.

    I’d be interested in other trips into nostalgia as we enter the beautiful
    autumn months.

  6. justin September 15th, 2017 7:48 am

    So the cord was just dangling behind you as you skiied? I guess no one was skiing trees in the 60s?

  7. Lee September 15th, 2017 9:45 am

    Related-I remember watching on tv Jean Claude Killy with others skiing with helium balloons floating behind them and the voice over saying it was to help find them in case of avalanche.

  8. See September 15th, 2017 10:04 am

    Not an “avalanche cord,” but I remember “powder cords” being useful occasionally— the idea being to tie strings to you binding heels and then stuff them in your pant cuffs so if a ski released in deep snow and got buried the string would help you find it. I haven’t used powder cords in a long time but I have spent quite a while digging for a ski as recently as last season.

  9. James Moss September 15th, 2017 10:42 pm

    I have yet to find a case, although I have not searched that hard, of someone dying when using an avalanche cord. In discussions I’ve had with a lot of old timers (Older than Lou even) no one could remember a case. However, at those ages, memories could be bad.

    So I think the question is not, did the avalanche cord save anyone, but rather has anyone died in an avalanche using avalanche cord?

    Dale can you email the link and I’ll re-post it for you.

    By the way, how come you don’t accept pillow case for the anti-spam quiz……?

  10. furreti September 16th, 2017 1:13 am

    As late as in the mid 90’s we used avi cords in the Norwegian army when patrolling during winter. It seemed smart at the time for a foot soldier, but now, looking back I don’t know. That said, we could not use avi beacons either (we had some) since it would deffie its purpose while sneaking around. The best use I heard of back then was during a daring escape on a exercise. A patrol of four abseiled of some cliffs on a rope made of 3-4 shoestring thin avi cordes.

    Since the avi cord system was still implemented in the mid 90 I guess they used it years to come! I hope the Russians don’t reed this!

  11. Jim September 16th, 2017 2:10 pm

    The 40 yard range of a beacon is pitifully small in a big mountain environment. Last seen evidence is critical. What if we carried confetti or an orange day glo paint bomb that streamed color out and expanded the last seen chances.

  12. Dave September 18th, 2017 10:20 am

    I remember a version of the avalanche cord that was wound up on a reel that you wore on your belt. The loose end had a disk attached with the idea that in an avalanche the disk would go one way and the skier another unreeling the cord.

    One benefit of following a skier trailing an avalanche cord was in whiteouts it helped see the slope angle and direction.

  13. Dave Smith September 18th, 2017 3:13 pm

    An interesting look back at a rudimentary technology. Snowy Torrents I documents an avalanche on Cardiac Pass (near Alta, UT) on Dec. 14, 1969 in which the 5 skiers were using “special ski poles supplied by the International Vanni Eigenmann Foundation”. The unique feature of these poles was an avalanche cord coiled inside the pole handle. The one skier caught by the slide (fortunately not buried) had deployed his avalanche cord before the slide, but the cord was completely buried–along with his skis and poles. Another case in which the avalanche cord was totally ineffective. Transceivers certainly eliminated the hassle of the trailing cord tangling around and snagging trees–which the “special” poles were designed to prevent. Unfortunately, the cord (even when deployed) was completely buried in this case.

  14. James Moss September 18th, 2017 5:58 pm

    Thanks Dave!

  15. Dale Atkins September 20th, 2017 12:18 pm

    @Jim… The misconception — no one died with an avi cord — was reinforced and the myth perpetuated by Wastl Mariner of Austria (one of the two grandfathers of modern mountain rescue) when he wrote in the late 1960s that “Until now, there exists no known case…where someone who was buried and had used an avalanche cord was recovered dead.” But he had no data to support his supposition. His view was disproved — but not before it found its way to the US — in the early 1970s when the Swiss (SLF) did a thorough survey of Swiss accident records and then field tested avalanche cords on dummies. In 1975 the Swiss reported cords were not reliable, but that message took another 20 years to be heard. In the US there was only one accident reported that the victim, actually victims, died while using avalanche cords. On 21 Jan 1978 near Turnagain Pass, AK. 4 backcountry skiers with avalanche cords deployed were buried and killed. Their bodies were found months later after the snow had melted away. I mentioned it in the article — http://www.americanavalancheassociation.org/pdf/TheAvalancheReview/TAR_27_3_Feb_2009.pdf.

    There are couple of other anecdotal reports of US deaths where the victim’s cord was buried, but they were never confirmed.

    @Dave Smith… The ski pole you mention was named the Gramminger-Hauser Rescue Pole, named for Ludwig Gramminger of the German Bergwacht (the other grandfather of modern mountain rescue) and Christian Hauser of the Swiss Retungsobmann. In the spring of 1968 150 test pairs were passed out in Europe and some to the US. Skiers were generally favorable with the prototypes; however, the big rescue services in Austria, Germany and Switzerland were “absolutely negative.” Oddly, but not if you know the history and circumstances of early mountain rescue in Europe, the rescue services’ criticism was not about the usefulness, rather it was about the appearance of the poles. The function of the poles and their appearance were improved. In March of 1969 version 2 rescue poles were passed out in Europe and few were sent to the US (to Alta). I am not sure, which version was used on the Cardiac Ridge tour. But their experience was consistent to what happened when the Swiss tested cords in the early 1970s.

    While Wastl Mariner was very pro avalanche cord, some in Europe, especially at the Vanni Eigenmann Foundation were suspect. In February 1970 the first “rescue pole” tests were done in Zermatt, more were done in Davos a month later. A ski pole with its avalanche cord deployed was tied to plastic dummies (or sacks) filled with sand and sawdust. In those early tests the “cords were never found above the dummies.” If the dummy was buried, so too was the cord and at the same depth as the dummy. If the dummy was partly buried some of the cord was also on the surface. These early tests with their under performing avalanche cords meant the end of the avalanche cord ski pole.

    Interestingly, an improved ski pole strap developed for the Gramminger-Hauser Rescue Pole in 1969 was suggested by Fanco Malnati (Italian Alpine Club). In the late 1990s Leki introduced their “Trigger System” straps, and it looks almost exactly like the 1969 G-H Rescue Pole strap.

    @Lou… looking forward to seeing you and Lisa at CSAW!

  16. James Moss September 20th, 2017 11:19 pm

    Awesome Dale. Thank you so much!!!

  17. Dave Smith September 21st, 2017 9:19 am

    Dale:

    Thanks for the additional information!

  18. Steve Conger September 28th, 2017 8:48 pm

    A little more history from Snow Structure and Ski Fields. It was the idea of Herr Eugen Oertel. Such early technology was not well received by some in the ski world. Seligman quotes one writer, “The vision of a line of sturdy mountaineers tripping intricately across a snowfield like embarrased macaws in pursuit of each other’s scarlet tails may give us some pleasurable moments.”

  19. Fred Trimble October 14th, 2017 1:21 am

    Lou,

    Would you like another vintage avalanche cord that was used in Alaska during the early 70’s for your collection?

  20. Lou Dawson 2 October 14th, 2017 10:11 am

    Hi Fred, we don’t need another one here at WildSnow, but it’s possible that Mountain Rescue Aspen could put it in their historical gear collection on display at their HQ. I’ll ask. I was looking at their collection just the other day, it’s quite nice. Lou





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