10 Things To Know – Part Two: How to dig a person out of an avalanche

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | September 18, 2007      

(Preamble: I’m skipping around the “10 Things” list as resources become available, so today is #3.)

Avalanche digging.

“If your friend’s out of shape you’re dead.” That’s the take at Backcountry Access (BCA) about avalanche rescue shoveling (makers of Tracker avy beacons as well as researchers of avalanche safety issues.)

I just got off the phone with BCA, as I knew they’d have some pithy comments as well as the latest beta on this fatally important subject.

To be honest, I’ve got no small amount of angst about this stuff. With my wife and son getting out quite a bit every winter (and in the Colorado snowpack no less), preventing an avalanche tragedy in my own small sphere has become a mission. And sharing my focus seems like the right thing to do. Hence my regular blogging on the subject of avalanche safety. So bear with me and leave some comments with your take!

Bruce Edgerly of BCA, along with well known avy safety expert Dale Atkins, authored a study and paper they call “Strategic Shoveling: The Next Frontier in Companion Rescue.” This thing is required reading. Main conclusion is that EXCAVATING WITH NO STRATEGY IS A GOOD WAY TO KILL YOUR COMPANION. Secondary fact: Shoveling simply takes way too long in most avalanche burials — frequently 30 minutes or more. Doing it correctly could easily be the difference between life and death.

So what’s the strategy? While the Edgerly/Atkins study gets into details worthy of an industrial safety thesis, it can be summed up this way: Mainly, you dig toward (rather than down to) the victim by working a trench to the side of the burial pinpoint. You know their depth since you did your final pinpoint with a probe, so you start digging a terraced hole at 1.5 times the burial depth from the pinpoint location — or if that feels excessive you keep extending the hole to that dimension as you dig down.

Mainly, with all but a shallow burial you have to avoid the panic inspired act of digging straight down the probe to the victim. This results in slow dig that resembles an unhealthy frenzy similar to yelling “gold — I found gold!” in a mining camp, with associated problems such as snow being knocked back down a tunnel-like hole, or difficulty reaching the victims airway. Which brings to mind at least one horror story I’ve heard about a first aider trying to do CPR while being hung from her feet. They don’t teach that in first aid class — so it’s probably best avoided.

Here are the steps in summary, for memorization:
1. Leave the probe in (if you find that the victim is a short distance down, just dig down to them disregarding the following).
2. Begin a “starter hole” as wide as your extended arms. Or if two people will start shoveling, go with two meters width.
3. Extend the starter hole 1.5 times the burial depth, downhill if you’re on an incline, or in the direction of easiest shoveling if you’re on the flats.
4. Start shoveling on your knees and throw snow to the sides of the pit, perhaps a bit in the direction away from the victim so when you reach them you have NO extra snow to contend with.
5. Once you’ve shoveled the starter hole to waist level, begin throwing snow to the rear, not to the sides.
6. Once at waist level, start digging a lower level hole beginning at half the distance to the probe. This results in a terraced system.
7. Take care to keep the probe uncovered and in view as you dig, so you don’t end up below the victim.
8. Once the person is located, concentrate on revealing their head.

Read the whole article, and combine some shoveling practice with your beacon drills!

The list:
10. Jump start a car without blinding yourself.

9. First-aid a serious laceration.

8. Rip skins in the wind without giving your scalp a bikini wax.

7. Fix a broken ski pole with duct tape and pocket knife.

6. Do a jump turn in the face of danger.

5. Start a fire in the snow — while you’re shivering.

4. Read a topo map quickly.

3. Quickly dig a person out of an avalanche.

2. Keep your feet warm.

1. Practice a humble mindset so caution rules the day.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


6 Responses to “10 Things To Know – Part Two: How to dig a person out of an avalanche”

  1. Rick September 18th, 2007 12:41 pm

    Minor correction — you wrote:

    you dig IN to the victim by working a trench to the side of the burial pinpoint.

    Ideally you start below where you’ve successfully probed your located burial victim, creating your terrace IN from both below and to the sides. You note this in step #3, the prior text might be a typo? Perhaps I’m misreading it.

    I was a test digger/dummy for some of their work, good fun!

  2. David September 18th, 2007 2:54 pm

    Great blogging subject.

    When you get a chance, I would be curious to read your thoughts on Edgerly’s Revisiting Multiple Burial Statistics piece.

  3. Lou September 19th, 2007 7:11 am

    Rick, yeah, I wasn’t sure “in” was the right word. I was trying not to use the word “down.” I’ll try editing it…

    David, yes, I spoke with Edgerly about that yesterday and will write some opinion about it shortly.

  4. Matt September 24th, 2007 9:11 am

    I read this in Couloir last season and I believe this is the most important newly-presented info relating to avy rescue to come out in a long time- thanks for posting Lou. So often people over-emphasize beacon practice when that is just a tiny slice of the overall picture!

    I’d love to see you do a piece on ABS packs!

  5. IanA September 24th, 2007 11:40 am

    Thanks for post this Lou. This is critical information. Between this data and the heuristic traps research its clear that your companions are the key to your survival!

    Know what you are doing out there, and choose your partners carefully!

  6. Paul October 22nd, 2007 12:06 pm

    Thanks Lou. Well done as usual. I noted that the article is no longer available via the BCA link, but it is ‘out there.’ Here’s a link to Mono County Sherriff where the article can be found:



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