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Win the Avalanche Game

Adventure
posted: 09/15/2004

What can prepare you to deal with a real avalanche rescue? In my experience, nothing. But practicing mock scenarios is as close as it gets. To execute one, pick a safe slope that's at least 100 meters wide and 100 meters long; it should be heavily tracked to make it easier to hide buried packs. Using three stuffed backpacks as bodies, secretly bury them one meter deep in different locations. Don't forget to stuff an avalanche beacon inside each pack and have it turned on. Meanwhile, have your buddy hike to the top with all her gear. Now the fun starts. I like to set the scene by freaking out hysterically while at the same time screaming out details about the scope of the avalanche. Start your stopwatch as your friend turns around and skis to the "top of the avalanche. The drama helps induce game-day butterflies. Here are some common search errors to watch for:

Fumbling with gloves and layers: The rescuer should aim to have the beacon out and switched to receive in 15 seconds.

Slow traversing/redundancy: The rescuer should know her beacon's range to minimize the area covered on skis.

Holding the transceiver too high during the pinpoint search: Remember, since the body is buried, the rescuer should move the beacon mere millimeters above the snow until she picks up the strongest signal possible. Mark the spot with something that won't blow away.

Failing to probe/poor technique: People forget to use their probes, period. Unless you get a digital readout of less than a meter, probe in a circular motion away from the strongest signal marker. Watch for disorganization (gloves and packs all over the place) and slow probe setup—same goes for setting up the shovel.

The more you practice, the more you'll find areas to work on. The American Mountain Guide Association (amga.com) exam requires candidates to locate three bodies (by signal and probe) and dig out two within seven minutes. Don't be surprised if it takes you a full 10 minutes to find just one body on your first try. And don't enter the backcountry until you can recover two bodies in seven minutes.

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