A-Basin’s Beacon Bowl is coming up. How prepared are you to rescue your backcountry ski partner? And how prepared is your partner?
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — One second, you’re on top of the world, floating blissfully through a foot of crystalline powder, but an instant later — just as long as it takes a 150-foot slab of snow to crack loose — all hell breaks loose.
Instead of dancing gracefully with the mountain, you’re suddenly in the icy arms of a much crueler mistress who aims to batter your body, snap your bones, plug your mouth and nose with snow, and finally trap you and crush you in an icy tomb. Just before the snow stops heaving, you lunge and swim and thrust your upper body toward daylight.
It’s not enough. Darkness and silence, except for the pulsing thunder of your heart. You’re lucky, because there’s small airspace in front of your mouth, but with every exhalation, it becomes more ice-like, blocking what little flow of air there might be under three feet of dense snow. Soon, it will be a mask of death.
You try to remember when you last practiced an avalanche rescue with your ski partner. Since you survived the initial slide, your chances of survival are nine in 10 if she finds you within 15 minutes. After 30 minutes, only about half the buried victims survive, after 45 minutes, only a quarter.
There’s no time to call for a search and rescue team, to wait for an avalanche dog or the Flight for Life chopper. Your life is in your partner’s hands. Is she fumbling with her beacon, trying to switch it to search mode with cold, numb fingers?
Can she put together a probe without breaking it? Does she know how to do a fine search, down to the last square meter, or will she have to waste precious time probing a larger area? Is she physically able to shovel 1.5 tons of snow to free you (the average amount of snow above a victim, with an average burial depth of about three feet)?
Every second is critical — literally a matter of life and death.
How good are you?
One way to find out just how good your partner is — and how good you are — is by signing up for this Saturday’s Beacon Bowl at Arapahoe Basin. Along with benefitting the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the Beacon Bowl features a beacon recovery contest, open to amateurs and pros.
The event also includes a snowpit demo, a raffle, a silent and live auction for lift tickets, ski passes, an A-Basin avalanche school registration, a Chicago Ridge cat tour, gear from Hestra, NTN and Flylow, Avalanche tickets, concert tickets, a New Belgium cruiser bike and more.
The après ski party and the live auction will begin at 3:30 p.m. on the first floor of the A-Frame sponsored by New Belgium Brewery. Proceeds from pizza and beer sales will also be donated to the CAIC. Click here for more information.
Most buried victims die
The importance of a speedy partner rescue is underscored with recent research by Dale Atkins, one of the country’s top avalanche experts. In a 2009 paper, Atkins looked at every single reported avalanche death in the past 10 years to paint a statistical picture that is somewhat frightening, but also instructive.
“Two things come to mind. The first is that most people who wear beacons and get buried in avalanches die,” Atkins said. “The second is that rescue professionals are twice as fast as finding buried victims. And they practice. All the time,” he said.
In situations involving ski patrollers or other rescue workers with plenty of beacon practice, tow-thirds of the victims were saved. In rescues involving recreational beacon users, the statistics are reversed, with only one-third of the buried victims surviving.
“The take-home message is, once you’re buried in the snow in an avalanche, you’re probably going to die. Most people that have a beacon around their neck don’t use them well enough to save lives,” Atkins said, acknowledging that he’s painting a gloomy picture, but insisting that the data unfailingly shows the need for more training and practice.
Avalanche awareness has increased in recent years, and the use of beacons has become more widespread, but that hasn’t necessarily been reflected in the survival rate, Atkins said, explaining that most of the victims killed by snow slides in the last few years had beacons. In the big statistical picture, Atkins said your chances of surviving a burial are 50-50 if you’re wearing a beacon.
“That may sound good on paper, but would you go out and ride your bike on the shoulder of the road with those odds?” Atkins said.
Atkins said the one key factor in the 10-year study is that the information is biased toward fatalities, since all those accidents are reported and investigated. What’s not known is how many other close calls and rescues took place without ever being reported to an avalanche center.
That said, Atkins reported that between 1999 and 2009 there were 97 victims found with beacon searches.
“It’s far better than any other method,” he said adding that 58 of the victims found with beacons were dead and 39 were found alive. Eighteen people were found by spot probing, only three of them alive.
Atkins has interviewed scores of people who have done beacon rescues, and they’ve reported similar experiences when it comes to training.
“It’s completely different from what you train for. It’s almost impossible to replicate the urgency and the terror … People need to train in the most realistic conditions possible,” Atkins said. Weekend warriors often say their first reaction is stunned disbelief and shock.
“You’re going to have a hard time getting organized when your heart is racing and pounding, and that’s when you have to slow down and be very deliberate,” he said, explaining that even the simple things, like where you put your gloves, are important. “The pros practice a lot for when things go wrong,” he said. That’s what enables them to stay calm and methodical to conduct an efficient search.
“What we see and hear is that people pick up a signal very quickly but have difficulty in pinpointing it down to the last few meters,” he said, adding that the newer beacons, with three antennas, have helped. But still, many people start digging in the wrong spot, off by a few meters. In terms of rescue, that difference can be a lifetime, he said.
Check back with Summit Voice the next few days for several more stories in the series on avalanche rescues.
Filed under: Arapahoe Basin, avalanches, recreation, search and rescue, ski industry, Ski Resorts, skiing and riding, snow, Summit County Colorado Tagged: | avalanche rescues, avalanche statistics, avalanche survival, avalanches colorado, backcountry, backcountry skiing, Beacon Bowl, skiing and riding, Summit County News, Summit County snow