In part 1 of our article we talked about how to spot potentially dangerous terrain, avoid avalanches, pick your lines and ride safely in the backcountry. Now in part 2, we will go over another important topic – avalanche safety gear. As in part 1, we will go over the basics only, so reading this is no substitute to a real avalanche training course and practice with your equipment.
Basic avalanche safety gear
Having the proper safety gear is important for any sport, and avalanche safety gear should be used by anybody going outside of the groomed ski slopes into deep snow. This also includes snowmobilers, snowshoers and anyone else heading into potentially dangerous terrain. In case of a fully buried victim, the right gear will help you get them out much faster. Statistics show that much more people die from asphyxiation, than from the trauma caused by an avalanche, so time is of the essence in such cases. Not having any avalanche gear will leave your search and rescue entirely up to luck if someone is fully buried and most of the time this does not end well for whoever is under the snow. After around 15 minutes chances of survival after being fully buried start declining rapidly. It’s also very important for every member of your group to have this gear, as getting someone out is a team effort.
The avalanche beacon/transceiver is probably the most important piece of equipment you can take with you into avalanche terrain. How does it work? You turn it on in the beginning of your day and leave it on. It constantly gives out a signal, that can be captured by other such devices (make or model doesn’t matter, they all use the same standards). In case you are caught up in an avalanche and are fully buried, the rest of your group can switch their beacons to “Search Mode”. With the help of flashing lights and beeping signals, the beacon will guide you to where the victim is buried. Using it is a little complex at first, so training beforehand can save you valuable time in case of a real emergency.
Once you’ve found the general location of a buried victim using a transceiver, the next step is to pull out a probe and find exactly where they are. This is an important step, as digging in the wrong spot can cost you again valuable time. It’s also good to know how deep the person is buried. A poke with the probe is better than getting hit with a shovel or ski boot during the search and rescue. A probe is also your best bet if the buried person doesn’t have a transceiver, as you can search a larger area much faster. What to look for in a probe is it’s length, weight, reliability and fast deployment. Probes also have markings on them to show how deep they are in the snow.
Once you’ve located the buried person, it’s time to dig them out. Avalanches can bury you under a lot of snow and digging down 1 meter for instance will take too long without a shovel. That’s why it’s a must have item in your backpack. Shovels suited for the job will be foldable and lite weight. Some shovels also have a built in saw in the handle. This is used when doing a profile of the snow to see the different layers. An important thing to consider when buying a shovel is for it to fit into your backpack.
Having a proper backpack for your sport is also important, at least for carrying around all the gear mention above. For snow sports there are many manufacturers who make skiing and boarding specific backpacks. Some key features to look for in a pack are:
- proper back support
- separate shovel and probe compartments (you need fast access to these)
- the ability to attach your skis or snowboard for carrying
- the proper volume for your needs (if you are doing long tours, a bigger pack will be needed for extra gear, while a small 15L pack will be sufficient for skiing around the resort with just the basic gear and water
If you want to be even safer, you can get a backpack with an airbag system (pictured). These bags are much more expensive (over 400 euro for the bag and airbag system), but increase chances of not getting buried in the first place drastically. There are many brands and models now and hopefully prices will go down in the future. The main principle behind this type of backpack is that you have a trigger you can pull if you’re caught in an avalanche. This causes flotation devices to fill with air and keep you above the snow. Most such backpacks use a canister of compressed air, but some more expensive models use a mini-compressor.
Any intermediate and advanced skier who wants to venture off-piste into more technical terrain should consider visiting an avalanche safety course. And if your into powder skiing it’s best to get the proper gear as well. Considering that the price of a beacon, probe and shovel is less than that of a Go Pro, there really isn’t any excuse to not be prepared if you plan on riding in potentially dangerous terrain. If you’re visiting a new resort consider getting a specialized guide to show you around. This way you will ski the best a resort has to offer for your abilities and minimize any risks from bad judgment.