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Anatomy of a Rescue

Features
posted: 03/17/2006

Three of you are whooping it up in the backcountry when your brother/best friend/spouse gets buried in a slide. Only you can save him. Mountain guide Eli Helmuth shows you how.

1. 00:00 seconds — AVALANCHE!
Make sure you're out of harm's way, but try to keep your buddy in sight as the slide rolls down the slope. A mental note of the last place you saw him will help speed up the rescue. Uncover the victim in the first 15 minutes and - if he wasn't killed by trauma - he has a 90 percent chance of survival.
COMMON MISTAKE: Don't wear your transceiver on the outside of your jacket, where a slide can rip it off. Keep it on top of your inside layer. Digital transceivers are easier to use than the old analog models, so get one.

2. 00:30 seconds — ASSESS THE SITUATION
Don't panic. If you don't see any hangfire (remaining unstable snow), turn your beacons to "receive and send one rescuer onto the slope while the other spots him. Then work together down the slide path looking for obvious clues like a glove or a ski tip. In a wide slide, both rescuers zigzag down the slope simultaneously, no more than 60 feet apart. Drop only 60 feet or so with each pass.
COMMON MISTAKE: Panicking. This will cloud your decision-making and could put you at risk.

3. 01:30 — SHOUT WHEN YOU HAVE A SIGNAL
As you close in on the victim, the numbers on your beacon should continue to drop. If they're getting bigger, you're going the wrong way. Turn 180 degrees and keep searching, following the flux line (or arc) of the signal. Move steadily until the distance reads three meters or so.
COMMON MISTAKE: Dallying when your beacon says you're more than three meters away.

4. 03:00 — FOLLOW YOUR TRANSCEIVER
Keep your beacon oriented in the same direction as you continue working toward the victim. Watch for the smallest distance reading, which won't be zero since the victim is buried.
COMMON MISTAKE: Waving your beacon over the snow. You're not wiping off a countertop; you're looking for a friend.

5. 03:30 — NARROW IT DOWN
When your beacon hits its smallest number, start a pinpoint search. From center, move two meters to the left, right, top, and bottom; then draw an X in the snow or mark it with a piece of your clothing.
COMMON MISTAKE: Tunnel vision. Don't wait for the perfect reading. Start probing once you have your lowest number.

6. 04:30-15:00 — DIG!
Probe deeply in a set pattern until you feel a body. Start digging a relatively large hole — three feet across. It'll narrow as you dig down. Avy debris can set up like cement, so cut away at it with your blade before trying to move it. When you find the victim, work hastily to clear an airway before digging his entire body out.
COMMON MISTAKE: Don't try to pry the snow away. In heavy debris, you can snap your shovel blade or shaft.

MARCH/APRIL 2006

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