More than ten minutes too long for avalanche victims

Trent Ernst, Editor


It happens every year here in BC, at least a couple times a year, but that doesn’t make the news any easier.

On Sat. Jan. 18, 2014, one person was killed in an avalanche while snowmobiling near Valemount, BC.

An Alberta man, Kym Alvin Avery Wilson, was snowmobiling with four others in Goat Ridge in the Clemia area south of Valemount, when an avalanche hit.

Wilson was found dead a metre below the snow by Parks Canada employees after the avalanche risk had passed.

While everyone in the group was carrying essential safety gear—avalanche transceivers, probes and shovels—the victim could not be located for over three hours.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) says that locating an avalanche victim quickly is a critical factor in increasing their odds of survival.

“Avalanche victims have an 80 per cent chance of survival if found and dug out within 10 minutes of burial, but the odds drop dramatically after that,” says Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) executive director Gilles Valade. “After just 35 minutes, there’s less than a ten percent chance of survival.”

What happened? Why did it take so long to find the buried man?

James Floyer, Public Avalanche Forcaster says that, while the CAC wasn’t on the scene, it is common for people in these situations to start to panic. To become frantic, and without being extremely familiar with how an avalanche beacon works, it’s easy to get confused.

“Some of the issues associated with the recent fatality might be associated with poor group management,” says Floyer. “You need one or two people to be able to assume leadership. That person needs to stand back and make sure resources are deployed properly. You need to make sure that everyone has turned their transcievers to recieve, so that you’re not chasing someone around on the surface. You might send someone to probe some of the debris while other people are searching in another area. These sort of things can make the differnece between a successful recovery and a tragedy.”

The best way to find someone who is buried in the snow is by doing a methodical, controlled search. While a person’s first reaction might be to start digging where they saw the person get buried, the victim can get pushed a long way, depending on the severity of the avalanche. A few moments to organize at the front end can save precious time.

Floyer says that modern digital transceivers are very intuitive tools, but practice is still required in order to become adept with their use. Simply having a beacon with you is not enough; you need to know how to use it.

The easiest way to learn how to use it is to use it. While an avalanche course is extremely useful, they are not often offered in Tumbler Ridge. Instead, says Floyer, people can just get to practice. “Like any piece of equipment, the more you practice, the better,” he says. “Set aside half an hour before you go out riding in the morning to practice. You don’t even need to be out in avalanche terrain. In fact, you don’t want to be out there when you practice. You can do quite a good practice in someone’s back yard. Bury a six-pack along with the transciever as a reward.”

Foyer says that one of the lessons from this tragedy needs to be that the whole idea of companion rescue is really critical. “We talk about this ten minute window,” he says. “If you’re well-versed and know how to use your equipment, you can do a good job of rescuing your friend. But in order to perform at that level, it’s really important to know how to use the equipment. You need more instruction than the five minute intro they might give you at the rental agency.”

Of course, says Floyer, the best option is to take a course. Most courses offered are built around a curriculum that the CAC provides.

How to perform a search

Even though there are many different types of beacons available today, the method of searching is essentially the same.

The first step is to have all the members of the search party switching their transceivers to RECEIVE. This means they are no longer sending a signal, which can interfere with the search.

The next step is to obtain a signal. The primary search pattern depends on how many rescuers are available and how large an area needs to be searched. A beacon has an effective range of about 30 metres. While some beacons have a range of closer to 100 metres, you want to base your search on the lowest common denomenator.

If you are the only person on-site, walk an S-shaped search pattern, cutting straight across the slope, then turning, walking 30 m down or up the hill and cutting back across the path of the avalanche slope.

Don’t focus entirely on your beacon. If you spot a foot sticking out of the snow, you can shortcut the search.

Once a signal is obtained, the next goal is to locate where the victim is buried. When there is a single victim and multiple searchers, one person should conduct the beacon search and the others should assemble shovels and probes and visually search the debris (too many searchers following a single signal can become confusing).

It is important to understand that you will not walk in a straight line to the victim; rather, you will move in an arc along the flux line. Different beacons have different methods of indicating how close you are to the buried victim.

Once you are about three metres from the victim, you must pinpoint their exact location. That means getting your beacon down next to the snow and searching at 90 degree angles. Begin by slowly sweeping your beacon back and forth in a cross pattern directly above the snow surface. Sweep left to right and then forward and backward, all the while looking for the strongest signal or lowest number. Remember that your beacon must always point in the same direction.

Once the beacon searcher believes they have pinpointed the victim, probe the location in a spiral fashion until you strike the victim.