Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Avalanche Rescue

When we arrived at the Valhalla lodge a couple of Saturdays ago our group of 10 started our week with avalanche rescue practice and -  as always - it was a great learning experience for all.  Subsequent to that brother Paul spent a day in the Uintas with a snowmobile avalanche class doing the same.  We agreed that a bit of a discussion regarding avy rescue practice was worth a blog post. 

It is important to shift the discussion from “beacon search” to “avalanche rescue”. New beacons are good enough that people with no experience with avalanche beacons are able to find transmitting beacons pretty easily, so given the limited amount of time available for succesful rescues there is an increasing emphasis on the other critical aspects of rescues.  And executing observing avalanche rescue scenarios is always a great – and humbling – learning experience. 

Taking a cue from Wilderness First Responder instructors who take great pride in their abilities to create frighteningly-realistic scenarios, we try to make avy rescue practice as real as possible. So instead of a putting a beacon under a foot of snow, bury a pack – containing a transmitting beacon! - as deeply as possible; it’s amazing how difficult it is to “rescue” a pack that’s 5’ deep, and then muck up the snow in the surrounding area to simulate avalanche debris and not make the burial spot too obvious.  Putting the “victim” on the uphill side of a tree adds much to the complexity, even as it’s a very real possibility.  And we always time the rescues, annoyingly calling out the elapsed time every thirty seconds. 

Below are some issues with regards to these rescue simulations that seem to come up pretty consistently:

  • The first two moves of a rescue team is for all the rescuers to look for and investigate surface clues and turn their beacons to receive. However, a common practice is for ALL the rescuers to start searching with their beacons simultaneously (sometimes so focused on their beacons that they miss the surface clues).  Theoretically, however, if the group of skiers has executed decent on-slope protocol and skied one at a time and kept the skiers in sight there should be at least a trajectory of the ride and one or two beacon searchers is all that is needed if a signal is acquired right away.  If there’s no signal, then all do the macro search until a signal is acquired.

  • If everyone is searching with their beacons no one is busting out their probes and shovels for the next phase of the rescue.  When brain cells are dying, every second counts, so those need to be deployed as the (hopefully quick) search is in progress.   Even in a group of three, where there’s one down and two searchers, there should be one person searching and one person prepping the probe/shovel.  Maybe even the beacon-searcher’s shovel also, since that will definitely be needed. 

  • Many times at least one person seems to get flummoxed by their beacon.  It’s out of batteries, they are following the distance readout but not the arrows (or vice versa), or the fragile gizmo that rarely gets tested in the receive mode is simply out of whack.  If this beacon-bumbler is you, recognize it quickly and let it go; let others search and get out your rescue gear.  If you see a fellow rescuer who appears to be way off, holler at them to let it go and get their gear ready. 

  • Most of us buy a probe, look at it, deploy it once in the yard in October of 2010, and then put it in the pack, never to be seen or touched again until…..someone is buried. Rare is the rescue scenario where someone doesn’t plunge in their probe and yank it out only to have the probe come apart; a discouraging development.  Make sure that you know how to assemble and latch your probe. 

  • Shovel deployment – fortunately, shovels are typically more easily deployed than probes, but shoveling is the most important and physically hardest aspect of a rescue. Know how to extend your shovel if it has that capability.

  • First aid instructors always make a point  of  avoiding the cry of “someone call 911’” because the automatic human response is “someone else will do it”.  The same goes for an avy rescue.  Instead of a general shout of:  “Someone get a probe out” make eye contact and say “Jonny – get your probe out!”

  • Which leads to the concept of leadership.  High tension situations demand leadership, and usually the most experienced people are immediately deferred to as the leader.   But this can be tricky:  what if the “most experienced” is buried?  What if the amount of “experience” in each of the individuals is equal?  What if the most generally-alpha individual actually is not experienced?  And does the perceived “experience” come from skiing ability, years of resort skiing, or the fact that someone medical professional?  Someone needs to step up and take charge, and if you practice enough – or even at all – it will likely be you.  The group needs and wants a leader. So be prepared for this role.  Most people are not. 

  • You don’t need to be a great rider, strong trail breaker, savvy terrain-reader, or  snow scientist to be a good rescue person. You need to practice rescuing enough  to be confident that the decisions that you make and the commands that you order in the heat of the moment will be the correct ones. 

  • Back to the specifics of the rescue – as the beacon searcher hones in, the prober and shovelers should be ready to probe hard and make snow fly.    Again – especially on the fine search – only one beacon should be necessary; more and people are just dundering into each other. 

  • If you are on skis, when do you take them off?  A common mistake is for people to leave them on too long.  Skis were meant to keep you on the surface, and burials by definition mean you need to get deep, and quickly. And avalanche debris sets up remarkably quickly, so chances are you won’t be plunging in to your hips.  So as the beacon is showing sub-2 meters, it’s probably time to get your skis off to a) do the fine search on the snow surface, b) be nimble enough without your skis to do a systematic probe, and c) be ready to bend over and dig.

  • Pack and gear:  do not take off your gloves or your pack and leave them somewhere; both common rescuer actions.  Again taking a cue from WFR instructors, your safety as a rescuer is paramount.  A rescuer with cold hands becomes nearly worthless and potentially a liability.  Your pack has everything that both the victim and you will need post-extraction.  If you have to slog back uphill to get your pack to get your first aid kit or puffy coat (likely both will be needed) that’s extra time and energy that is ill-afforded.

  • Practice rescue scenarios equipped exactly as you would be on a slope:  gloves, goggles, and helmet on, jacket zipped, skins tucked in your jacket, etc.  Are you able to deploy your probe and shovel with your mitts on?  Can you see your beacon readout with your goggles on? 

  • Keep your gear together; if any formal rescue is needed, the pros will be looking for surface clues and they may have dogs who will need to isolate scents.

  • Probing – it seems common that the searcher declares “probe here!” and the probing commences with great gusto….but it’s random probe thrusts in the general area.  Concentric circles around the hot spot is best.  One person only; if the beacon search is decent that’s all that’s needed and two will just be bumping into each other.  No digging at the snow while the probe effort is taking place.   And when there’s a strike (since you’ve practiced a lot you know the difference between the ground or a log and a pack) the common reaction is to yank out the probe and yell “dig there!” .  But the probe strike is – at this point – your only marker on the victim so keep the probe in place. 

  • Shoveling – it’s time to Move The Earth .  There’s a great video on digging on the BCA website worth watching because – as they say – “there’s a lot more to shoveling than you might think.”  Start digging towards the tip of your probe 1.5 times downhill from it. This is pretty counterintuitive; that means if you get a strike 2m deep then you need to start digging nine feet below the strike for efficient extraction!  It might feel too far away. 

  • It’s hard to comprehend how hard shoveling is, especially in hardening avalanche debris.  Elmo, the venerable BD warranty guy, was buried deeply in a slide in BC a few years ago and his buddy – a big, strapping lad   was ready to chew up the entire mountain on the searchers’ word.  And he did….for about one minute before he blew up in desperate exhaustion.  So the effort needs to be a good combination of high, but sustainable output, and – if possible – good teamwork to trade off. 

  • And “trading off’ doesn’t mean sitting back and catching your breath, it means clearing the area behind the diggers for their debris to pile up on.  Again, watch the video link above for more on good team-shoveling techniques. 

  • If you can’t go downhill from the strike (victim is up against a tree), go in from the side.  And this is where coordinated teamwork – clearing the lateral trenches – becomes even more critical.  Digging is so hard that you must make it as easy as possible. 

  • Extraction – keep in mind as you’re digging that the odds of going straight to the face are relatively low and once the victim is seen it’ll still take extra time to fully extract them (especially if they are on non-releasable tele or snowboard bindings or wrapped around a tree). Don’t yank the victim – real or simulated; be prepared for an injured victim and don’t tear apart the buried pack in your zeal!

  • Once you have exposed your victim is when the hard part really starts.  In simulations I like to throw out real scenarios that I’ve heard about to the already-exhausted and wet rescuers:  victim is blue and unresponsive!   Pulse/no pulse!  Broken femur!  One victim broken femur and the other blue and unresponsive!  Husband dead and friend bleeding badly!  One foot doesn’t have a boot on it and it’s zero degrees and 4:30pm in early January!  Two blown ACL’s!  Major laceration from a tree/rock/ski! Inexplicable but acute pain! HYPOTHERMIA!!!!  

  • Other questions:  numb toes/fingers (cold or broken neck?)!  Broken helmet and victim asking same questions over and over! Who you gonna call?!  Where from? There’s no cell coverage!  Where’s the heli going to land?  How will the heli pilot spot you?  What do you have to extend the life/comfort of the victim (puffy jacket, hot liquids, fire-making capabilities, big drugs, little drugs) if – as is likely – it will be many hours before help will arrive? 

  • Lastly, hysteria rarely makes a good bedfellow to an emergency.  Legend has it that Paul Petzoldt, the founder of NOLS and patriarch of mountain medicine, proclaimed that the first thing to do when coming upon an accident scene is to…..have a smoke.  While that’s pretty unrealistic - as is the total suppression of totally freaking out  - the ability to be sort of cold, calculating, and mechanical can go a long ways towards an effective rescue (in fact, if you have the numbers, taking the leader completely out of the rescue operations to act solely as an overseer is ideal).  And fellow rescuers rarely perform best when screamed at. 

Weeks after Elmo’s burial I asked the our friend Russ  -who was the leader of the rescue - how he felt as the intense, difficult situation was going down. He just sorta shrugged and said “we just executed what we practice every week, and it worked out.”  Words to live by…..literally.    

I’m no avalanche expert, and this is more amateur opinion than professionally-generated or well-researched facts, so comments/suggestions/abuse are welcome. 

And thanks to brother Paul for his great help with this…..