Whether you're new to the backcountry or have many days of experience under your belt, you owe it to yourself, your family and your friends to know as much as you can about avalanche risk management. With an AST 1 course you'll learn the vital fundamentals of travelling in avalanche terrain and carry out a companion rescue.
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What's in your pack?
Gear plays a critical role in avalanche safety. It’s simple: if you’re in avalanche terrain, you’ve got to carry the right gear and know how to use it. Everyone in your group needs an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe. One or two of the three isn’t good enough—you’ve got to have them all.
The best way to stay safe is to make good decisions—but if something goes wrong, avalanche safety gear is critically important to a successful rescue. And it goes both ways: you’ve got to carry the gear so you can rescue others, and make sure all your riding companions do as well so that they can effectively rescue you if necessary.
When a person is buried in an avalanche, minutes can make the difference between life and death. You can waste a lot of time if you can’t use your gear efficiently. Make sure to take a training course, and practice, practice, practice.
Avalanche transceivers are small electronic devices worn close to the body. When travelling, everyone’s transceiver sends out a radio signal. In the event of an avalanche, those not buried switch their transceiver to search mode and follow the signal toward a buried person.
Three antennae digital transceiver with a visual display and audio display set the standard for ease of use, speed and accuracy. Features and functions may also include a marking function for locating multiple burials, or transmission of “vital data” to support triage.
Single antenna (analog) transceivers are considered obsolete. Need convincing? Three antennae digital transceivers generally won’t find single antenna transceivers as well as digital units. That means if two people are buried close together, the one with the digital transceiver is likely to be isolated first. Signal overlap can also be a significantly bigger issue with old transceivers in a multi-burial scenario.
Remember, people who practice post the fastest transceiver search times. Whichever avalanche transceiver you choose, practice before, during and after the season.Probe
Transceivers get you close to buried victims, and probes help you find them. Probes snap together like tent poles. An assembled probe inserted in the snow in a systematic pattern lets searchers physically pinpoint someone under the snow so that time isn’t wasted digging.
Probes vary in length, stiffness and materials, which translate into difference in weight, durability and cost. Smaller diameter probes may be more likely to bend or deflect. The locking mechanism and line are important: you want a reliable, durable mechanism and a cable that doesn’t stretch (to prevent wear, tear and breaking). 240cm is the shortest standard length, and works fine in drier climates and for most rescues. If you recreate in deeper snow pack areas or use it for snow pack observations, consider a 320cm probe.Shovel
Good shovelling technique can shave serious time off a rescue. Remember, not all shovels are created equal. It must fit into your pack, but within reason bigger is better. Avoid plastic or flimsy shovels, as they can break in cold temperatures or while digging in hard avalanche debris. An extendable shaft helps make digging easier so you don't fatigue as quickly. Practice effective shovelling techniques: it can make the difference between life and death.
Avalanche Airbag Packs
Avalanche airbag or balloon packs can help reduce the severity of the effects of being caught in an avalanche by reducing burial depth (or even preventing burial), and/or facilitating rapid localization. They also help with visibility and may provide some degree of trauma protection.
It's crucial to remember that an airbag is not a silver bullet. You need to know how to set it up and deploy it properly. Even if deployed properly, you can still be buried with an airbag pack on. Failure to deploy the bag, failure to set up the equipment properly (e.g. using the crotch strap), and failure to recognize the seriousness of terrain traps have all occurred for airbag users and resulted in death.
Remember, even if you have an airbag pack you must also carry a transceiver, shovel and probe and know how to use them.Emergency Communication
Although not a substitute for companion rescue or self-sufficiency, emergency communication is valuable. Cell phones may work close to ski areas, cities or along highway corridors. Satellite phones work in most remote locales. VHF radios are an option but require a license. Personal locator beacons such as InReach or SPOT are also a good option.
No matter what you use, it’s important to know your rescue options and whom you want to talk to. If possible have the phone number of the agency you want. If you don’t have that, ask 911 for your local RCMP and get them to initiate a SAR response.
Also, recognize that these
electronic devices come with electromagnetic interference. It’s
critically important to keep them separated from your transceiver when
transmitting, and even more important when searching with a transceiver
tips came from the Avalanche Safety pamphlet from Alaska.
When you are heading into the area that you want to ride, you should be alert to the following signs of instability:
1) Watch for recent avalanches - don't play on similar, unreleased slopes.
2) Watch for amount of new snow or wind loading on leeward slopes.
3) Beware of rain. If it is raining it will weaken the snow quickly but will stabilize when refrozen.
4) Listen for whumping noises, you may even feel it when you get a group of sleds together in one spot. The extra load causes the collapse of a weaker buried layer of snow. This could be the layer that lets go and allows a slab to release. This collapse of a weak layer can actually travel a long way and release a large slope that you are not actually on. The release could have a track long enough to catch your group.
5) Watch for shooting cracks in the snow, this shows the snow is ripe for fracturing.
6) Does the snow have a hollow sound to it? This could indicate a buried weak layer.
7) Is the temperature warming quickly? This will weaken snow quickly.
Now that you have arrived in the area that you wish to ride, here are some additional tips:
1) Choose slopes that have been stripped by wind (windward) over slopes that have been loaded (leeward). Snow that is rock hard can still avalanche if it is poorly bonded to layers below. Be wary of steep, smooth, leeward slopes.
2) Start out on the less steep slope angles and on the side of a slope instead of center-punching it. Do your first runs low and fast rather than maximizing your commitment and exposure by climbing as high as possible right away. If possible, do your first runs from the top down to get a feel for the snow and improve your chances of escape.
3) Always turn towards the edge of a slope rather than turning towards the middle.
4) If unsure of the snow stability, favor slopes that have recently avalanched over those that have not yet slid. You can still sled on unstable days -- just chose slopes less than 25 degrees that are not connected to anything steeper.
5) Do not approach steep convex rollovers or aim right for a large rock or tree isolated in the middle of a steep slope unless you know the snow is stable. These are places where the snow pack is under greater stress, and thus where you are more likely to trigger a slide. Also be suspicious of steep area where the snow is shallow and weaker.
6) Avoid deadly terrain traps such as gullies, steep-sided creek bottoms, or slopes that end in depressions because of the high probability of a deep burial. Do not ride on slopes with cliffs below. Favor slopes that are fan- shaped at the bottom and do not have obstacles like rocks or trees to crash into. Concave bowls are nasty traps because the fracture propagates around the slope and all the debris collects at the bottom. This is why it is not uncommon for snowmobilers to be buried under 10 to 30 feet of debris.
7) Allow only one rider at a time on the slope. If a person gets stuck, DO NOT SEND A SECOND SLEDDER TO HELP!!!! Fact: Roughly 33% of snowmobile fatalities occur when a sled is stuck. About 34% involve more than one machine on a slope at the time of the avalanche. It is common for a second rider to turn above the stuck person and trigger an avalanche onto the sitting duck below.
8) Everyone should be watching the climber from a safe spot.
9) Always park well away from the bottom of steep slopes. Do not count on being able to outrun a slide. Get in the habit of parking parallel rather than one behind the other, have your machine pointing away from the avalanche path, and always have the kill switch up.
Hopefully these tips will help to educate sledders out there!