Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Post sponsored by Cripple Creek Backcountry, now with three locations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
My last highlights post regarding ISSW (International Snow Science Workshop). Interesting discussion material buried below, persevere!
First thing: a shout out our friends at Backcountry Access, makers of the excellent Tracker beacons and so much more. They’ve been publishing a series of avalane safety videos with a younger slant, covering the basics. Eternal denizen of BCA, Bruce Edgerly, presented one of the vids as his segment of the ISSW conference. He said they’re using an educational concept, “peer to peer communication,” to reach their target audience. I picked an example as follows, see what you think. Too hokey? Fun? There is one blooper in there, see if you can spot it as an educational exercise. The entire series is here.
Freeride vs, Freedead, Pyrenees
Next in our video lineup, this one was not so wonderful. I wish I could share the visual. But it’s not public as far as I know (though we’ll be using it for a presentation at the Mountain Rescue Aspen community avalanche seminar Jan 18, 19). Worth summarizing: Resort skiers with head-cams recorded the whole sordid chaotic mess of what appears to be a fatal or close-call avalanche burial within resort boundaries. A crowd gathers, people run around in a disorganized mob, digging with their hands. Overall disturbing. Lesson: don’t get buried if many people are around, the cluster will take too long to find you. There is no strength in numbers, especially with untrained under-equipped people.
Words and captions from the terrifying video (they generically call avalanche beacons “arvas:” “Stay there, do you have a shovel? I have no ideas, I don’t have a shovel. Is the guy here? Turn off the Arva, probes! Probes! If you have an Arva turn it off this is going crazy. He is here!” Much of the digging is done with hands, a few shovels are eventually deployed. They dig straight down to the victim, with no effort to come in more efficiently from the side. “He is purple!” At 21 minutes, they’re still digging…
Lack of self-rescue gear was a big thing in this vid, yet I found the “arva” frustration more concerning. I’ve felt for a long time that all beacons MUST, once and for all, solve the problem of confusion due to searchers who don’t change their rig to search mode. This needs to be inculcated into the industry standards, so it works across brands and models. How would it work? Probably something to do with an accelerometer identifying stationary vs. moving transceivers, and the units communicating with each other. I recall some beacon companies have made a stab at this, but nothing substantive that is industry-wide and cross-brand compatible. Readers, any comments?
Manuel Genswein gave a presentation. He’s the guy we have to thank for heavier shovels — that don’t break. He said that in 2013 they began the process of creating UIAA standard for avalanche rescue shovels. The first standard was approved in 2017 and amended this year. It’s UIAA standard 156.
The standards put shovels through a wringer. They combine eight lab tests with field testing (324 excavations!). Test plots are recorded, load vs displacement on an XY graph. They identify a variety of failure modes, then the develop specifications based on the failure modes. Said to be challenging. Probably the most important aspect of the standard is the shovel needs to endure 300 Nm of torque, meaning if your shaft is a half meter long, immobilize the blade and hang 62 kilos (136 pounds) from the handle. (They had a chart of weight vs bending strength. Interesting.) For field testing the shovels, they used SAR groups as well as recreational “companion” rescue groups. 33% of product failed during field test.
Genswein’s team also studied shovel size. Conclusions: Minimum size is 500 square cm, medium size shovel is best as opposed to large such as grain scoop. Hoe configuration leads to reduced performance with less experienced users, okay for pros. Genswein related that despite binding standard not being legally binding, they’re getting good compliance in the ski touring shovel industry. In my view the standard appears reasonable, though I feel it should be split into two: “one-use rescue” and “multi-use professional” thus providing significant weight savings for skiers who may never use their shovel.
Full ISSW article is interesting. As are the following UIAA publications.
Do avalanche courses save lives?
This one had me thinking. The operative question: are avalanche courses the new high risk sport? Stefan Martensson begins his synopsis with this: “In a perfect world, the risk of dying in an avalanche should decrease with increased knowledge. On the contrary, studies have shown that this risk might increase after an avalanche course…”
It’s been obvious for years that avalanche safety education isn’t a panacea. More, the fact that so many “experts” die in avalanches brings reality to the theory.
Martensson said they figured what might occur is that avalanche courses attracted “sensation seeking” individuals who were indeed more likely to get in trouble.
Martensson and his co-workers issued a standard Sensation Seeking Scale test (SSS) to 343 course participants in Sweden, and found that the average score aligned with what you’d get from individuals who practiced high-risk sports. The highest value was found in in the pro course, age 20 to 29.
“Avalanche courses should be regarded as a high-risk sport because the participants have high-risk preferences,” is how Martensson stated it. He suggests that perhaps the SSS test should be issued to all avy course participants, with ensuing discussion regarding the participant’s behavior, goals, and so forth.
Backcountry Ascender avy education programs. Learning technologies. This is an application to encourage snowmobiler engagement. Built from a curriculum. Reach unaware demographic, and inspire people to continue education, also to help them become aware of the social contract. Instructional Design is key. “Gamification” focus on human factors. HUMAN factors to motivate the training, not just battle against them. This thing looks cool, 5 levels of achievement. At first level, gear, second level “Forest” CPR, etc. Built-in feedback, from approvers, they’ve had more than 60,000 messages exchanged. Selfies? 20,000 selfies, badges. Ask BCA about this. 24,000 users. Club with training based culture is more popular. More info here.
Lastly, an avalanche metadata and rescue digging study, presented by Bernd Wallner :
Statistics continue to roll in as the years roll by. Latest according to Wallner: 91% survival when rescued within first 18 minutes (companion rescue). Beyond 18 minutes the odds are dismal. Asphyxia begins during the first few minutes of a burial — you’ve only a few minutes to get to the person’s airway — but it takes excessively long to excavate a victim to the “standard CPR position.”
These guys did a field study with actual dummy burials and rescue diggers. A few more factoids from that effort: Ten minutes dig time for every meter of depth. During their, first test cycle both singles and doubles were equal in dig time. That’s encouraging for those of us who ski in duos, though I’d still offer that a group of three is ideal (assuming you’re skiing one-at-a-time and only one person is caught.) What seemed to be implied in the presentation was that perhaps some way of quickly reaching the victim’s airway, despite whatever body position they were buried in, is key. That along with starting rescue breathing before excavating to the “standard CPR position.”
All the ISSW papers are available here.