As I brought my winter gear out of hibernation and went through my pre-season inspections thoughts of snow safety churned over in my mind including the question I ask every year “Are people truly prepared?” The answer is “NO”. People from all over the world flock to Mammoth Mountain each year for fun in the snow and many are ignorant of the fact that this is a mountain environment that can be unforgiving at times. Each year ski areas across the globe have deaths resulting from avalanches and snow immersion suffocation (SIS). There are many aspects to playing safely in the mountains ranging from how to navigate different types of terrain to recognizing hazards all of which include education, developing good judgement and decision making skills, carrying specific types of equipment, and frequent search/rescue practice. In this blog, I will focus on the importance of carrying and learning how to use a transceiver, shovel, and probe “in bounds”.
People often ask: “Why carry a beacon, shovel, and probe in bounds? Ski patrol does avalanche control work and patrols the mountain…there is no need for it. My clothes have a recco chip.”
In bound avalanches are a reality now that ski areas can conduct avalanche mitigation and open terrain quickly. People with fat skis and better skiing ability are able to get into avalanche terrain during a storm or immediately after before the snow has a chance to stabilize. Avalanche control work is purely mitigation. It doesn’t prevent avalanches from occurring 100% of the time. For example, Jackson Hole just had a post control release. To bring it closer to home, in 2006, I was approximately 45 seconds ahead of the Climax in bound avalanche at Mammoth Mountain. Several bombs had been thrown on it and patrollers ski cut the terrain that morning with no results. Mother Nature decided it was time to let go after skiers/riders had been ripping turns for about an hour. Had I gotten on the chairlift earlier or was faster at strapping into my snowboard binding I could have been one of the victims. I wasn’t carrying any avalanche equipment. I was one of the many ignorant and was inspired or scared into getting educated.
At Mammoth Mountain there are approximately 6 Recco search devices scattered across the mountain. All ski patrollers wear transceivers. In the case of a post control avalanche, a beacon search can start in as little as 5 minutes depending on the location where as a Recco search can take 10-15 minutes or longer to start. Transceivers find people alive. Recco devices find dead bodies.
I have also been asked “Why not just wear an avalanche beacon so ski patrol can find me faster?” Avalanches are not the only hazard present. We have some great tree skiing in the Sierra. The presence of trees plus snow = tree wells. It is not always possible to land in these pockets feet first when taking a tumble. It is also easy to lose sight of your partner with all the tree obstacles. That being said, I cannot stress enough staying near your partner, so you can see them go down. In these cases, it can take ski patrol a lot longer to find and extricate a victim especially if it was unwitnessed.
Another hazard that people often underestimate is the depth of fluffy powder. For those of you that are thinking “I just ski groomed runs”, it is difficult to keep runs groomed during epic storm cycles. While it often brings out uncontrollable giggles, for the person that takes a fall and stuffs themselves accidentally head first in the snow, they can not only be completely engulfed but immobilized especially in the maritime snow pack the Sierra is known for. Lets be real…this could happen to anyone of us! Certainly has happened to me as pictured on the right. I thankfully landed feet first.
“Terrifying Video of Snowboarder Caught in Tree Well A Good Reminder of the Dangers they Present” (retrieved 12/9/2018 from www.wearsufer.net).
Now lets talk numbers (1 meter = 3.3 feet)…
While the above chart is specifically for avalanches, the idea that it takes a lot longer to find and extricate someone without a probe applies to SIS incidents too. It doesn’t take much effort to carry a beacon, shovel, and probe in bounds. You can carry a small lightweight backpack. If you prefer to go sans backpack you can carry a shovel and probe by feeding cordlette through the holes in the scoop and clove hitching it to the top of the handle. Use two ski straps to attach the probe to the handle. Create a sternum strap with a small piece of cord and plastic clasp. These three pieces of equipment can be found at a relatively decent price as most people do not need a lot of bells and whistles; just the ability to search, find, and rescue their partner or someone else in need of help. It’s a small price to pay for saving someone’s life.
Shovel/Probe setup. PC: Brigitte Denton
Deepsnowsafety.org – great resource describing what is SIS, recognizing these hazards, what to do during an incident, and prevention/equipment published by Northwest Avalanche Institute.
Sierra Mountain Guides – take course. While many of these courses are backcountry focused it all applies in bounds.
Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center – stay informed. Know what the snowpack is doing.
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education – find educational opportunities near you!
Featured Image Credit: National Geographic (retrieved from SnowBrains.com 12/9/2018)