The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 74: Reprise: Staying on Top of the Snow

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Snow falling from the sky is an event of gentle beauty. But if that snow falls again, off a mountainside, we call it an avalanche. This week on The WildeBeat; a reprise of Staying on top of the Snow.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number seventy four, a reprise of number twenty eight.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Avalanches claimed the lives of twenty three backcountry travelers in the oh four, oh five season, according to the Cyberspace Avalanche Center. An estimated one hundred more were seriously injured. The snow seems like nice, soft, fluffy stuff. So how could a bunch of it falling on you, be that dangerous?

GARY BARD: You're in the mountains, and it snows seven/eight inches overnight. So you go to your car and you wipe of the windshield of your car and the snow just kind of flakes-off and it's wonderful and lovely and it's not a big deal. Now while you're doing that the snow plow goes by, and moves the snow from the street to a berm at the end of the driveway. And you go down to go out of the driveway and that berm doesn't even relate to the snow on your windshield. It was the same stuff a few minutes ago, but what happened was, it got moved. And the movement of the snow breaks down the snow into smaller pieces, it also creates some free water. So when the snow sets-up, as in an avalanche, it sets-up and it's a whole different being. It's like white concrete. It's hard; it's heavy.

STEVE: Gary Bard teaches avalanche safety skills and rescue techniques.

GARY BARD: Everybody looks at a ski area and they understand that when the ski patrol is out throwing explosive charges in the morning and you can hear the, "whumph, whumph, whumph," that they're managing the avalanche hazard. What most people don't recognize is that the act of grooming also manages the avalanche hazard. But you turn around and you take that same angle slope, and you put it in the backcountry where nobody's touched it, it's a very different thing. And I do believe that people see that in the ski area and they go, "oh yeah. I can slide, board, whatever down something like that." But in the backcountry it's very, very different because it's unmanaged.

BRANDON SCHWARTZ: Avalanches don't just come out of nowhere and hit people. When folks are involved in recreational avalanche accidents they made a decision to set foot in terrain that's capable of avalanching. And based on their level of education, they may have gone into that terrain with good knowledge, or poor knowledge, or they may have gone in without any knowledge and just not even aware of the risk itself.

STEVE: That's Brandon Schwartz. He's the forecaster for the the Sierra Avalanche Center.

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BRANDON SCHWARTZ: It's near daily during storm cycles it's daily, as things slow down between storm cycles it will go to every-other day and occasionally a three-day forecast. So I'm out moving around each day on skis looking at snow. And that may consist of just moving through the snow on skis, seeing what it feels like, digging with my hands, poking with probe poles, digging in the snow, doing snow pits that are a test variety, or of a more complete, full-profile variety, to try and answer questions and keep tabs on how the snow pack is changing over time. And I'll create a forecast for what the avalanche danger is going to do, integrating current snow pack, current weather, and forecast weather to create the forecast that's published on the internet, also recorded on the phone message.

STEVE: How much of the information that goes into the report is hard science?

BRANDON SCHWARTZ: Very little of it is done through what someone would consider was hard science. It's a very intuitive, experience-based, pattern-watching, type process. But we do know certain things that when we have precipitation we're going to increase danger. There are some things that link-in pretty well.

STEVE: So how can I stay out of the way of avalanches, if I don't have the formal training? Here's Gary Bard.

GARY BARD: Stay away from slopes steeper than twenty-five or thirty degrees if it's within two or three days of a storm. If this is about as steep as your stairs, you shouldn't be on it. Most people kind of get that when they look at stuff. And interestingly enough, it's people who are pretty good at what they do, that really get into trouble. Beginning people understand, they look at it and they go, "that looks kinda steep," and they'll over-estimate how steep stuff is. And that's a good thing, right? I mean they're kind of timid about it, and in many ways that's probably saved people's lives. Even when you're in the meadows, look out for the steep ground around you. Just because you're in the flat of the meadow doesn't mean that the snow can't slide from something high so look around, see what's above you. And, look to see what the snow is doing. If the snow starts to make noise, when it makes the whumphing noise, that means that you shouldn't be going up on anything steep.

STEVE: The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, known as AIARE ["airy"], is one organization that certifies avalanche safety instructors. Tom Murphy is AIARE's executive director.

TOM MURPHY: If you're considering going out into the backcountry, into avalanche terrain, number one try to access a bulletin from the avalanche forecast center from around wherever you live. And heed that bulletin. What we're finding is that, time and time again, almost every single time, people who end up getting killed in the backcountry have not accessed a bulletin. And the bulletin has got an enormous amount of good and relevant information that's going to keep you safe. Secondly, people need to create options. They need to not get stuck on one trip. Not get stuck on, you know, the summit of Big Man Peak. You need to have options in place, prior to going out. So that if you wake up the morning that you're going to do Big Man Peak, and it's snowed ten inches with a lot of wind, that you've got an option in place to go do a completely different trip. And then I would say other than that, the other thing that's really important is picking who you go out with. Pick someone with similar goals and objectives, similar attitudes toward life, people who you know might have the same sort of risk acceptance levels that you do.

STEVE: While staying away from the steep slopes is the best way to stay out of snow's way, it can take a lot of fun out of traveling in the mountains. The avalanche forecasts can give you a regional idea of the risks, but identifying the risks in a specific location, takes education and experience.

TOM MURPHY: In our AIARE Level one avalanche courses we give you tools that you can take with you that allow you manage your risk. After you go through one of these courses, you'll begin to get a better idea of where the danger lies, where the hazard lies, and how to avoid it. We go out and we learn how to companion rescue. We spend time teaching people about what to do in the worst case. We teach people how to efficiently carry out a rescue. After that we actually travel through avalanche terrain, showing people how to select terrain, how to observe avalanches, weather, and snow pack, the sort of observations that we take that might give you a clue as to the stability and then prior to going out, we also talk about planning and prep. Putting some options in place, understanding what our route options are, understanding what emergency gear we need to have with us. And then the other part of it is who we're going with. So we actually go through that entire process. Some of that's indoors, and a lot of it's outdoors. We try to make at least fifty percent of the course outdoors, if not more.

STEVE: There are at least thirty schools and guide services around the country that offer AIARE certified avalanche safety courses.

TOM MURPHY: Unfortunately, people do still forget to bring a beacon, a shovel, and a probe. Those are three pieces of equipment that you need to have with you. An avalanche beacon, a shovel, and a probe. Those three pieces are pretty critical to have.

STEVE: An avalanche beacon is an electronic device that you wear on a harness, inside your outer layers. In normal operation, it transmits a radio signal that can be tracked over a short range. In case of burial, rescuers can switch their beacons to receive, allowing them to locate the victim. An avalanche probe is a collapsable rod, like a tent pole, that you can plunge into the snow to pinpoint the buried victim.

TOM MURPHY: There was an accident here in Colorado recently a party of seven were caught, and two of the people were completely buried. Out of the party of seven, three people had beacons, none of them had shovels, and unfortunately, the two people that were buried didn't have beacons. And they ended-up dying. There was the potential that had everyone been equipped, had everyone been practiced in rescue, potentially they might have found these guys alive. But that was not possible, given that the two guys that were fully buried did not have beacons, and so they spent hours probing around with sticks from branches off of trees until they finally found these guys.

STEVE: So suppose your enthusiasm overpowers your caution, and you wind up in avalanche-prone terrain. Gary Bard walks us through a textbook rescue.

GARY BARD: You want to have the slopes skied one person at a time in a particular area. And then when that person gets all of the way down, clear to the trees down there, and they're in a safe area, then the second person is going to ski it. They're going to ski it in the same general area and kind of spoon the other person's tracks. So they still get first tracks on some untracked snow. So you ski it conservatively and then, so say something happens. What you've done is you've minimized your risk because now you only have one person involved in the accident, and not two or three. So right away you've got more resources for the rescue and fewer people to rescue. The worst possible case is there's four of you and three get caught in the avalanche. So now, there's three of us standing at the top of the hill and the first person is caught. I'm thinking, "I'm O.K. My team is O.K." I look down I decide we're going to ski off to the right into the trees and we're going to come out and go into this zone. So we've got a safe way into where the rescue is. We've observed where the person was last seen, so we know they're going to be downhill from there so we don't have to waste any time above there. We're going to come into that point, spread out across the slope and use our beacons to find a signal. We've established where they're going to go if there's a second avalanche, scurry away. And then we begin the search, staying together and when we get a signal we move toward it. If there were any clues on the surface, a pack, a ski, a pole, something like that, we've picked it up. I mean, there's a great story in Colorado years ago, a ski patrol story where somebody got caught in an avalanche and they saw a hat on the slope, and they lifted it up and it was the person underneath it, you know? So you've got to check the clues. And then you're going to begin the actual pinpoint search with the beacon. One person will be pinpointing. Everybody else ill be assembling their probes and getting their shovels out. And once the pinpoint is completed, you probe, and then dig the person out. It's a big job, you move a lot of snow. It's heavy, nasty snow. Once the person is exposed, the first goal is to open the airway. Then after that you can finish digging them out.

STEVE: You should know that the survival rate for fully buried avalanche victims is pretty low. So the important thing is to take every precaution not to get caught in the first place. We'd like to hear about your thoughts on this edition, and your suggestions for future programs. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find out more about avalanche training, links to forecasts, and an extended version of this edition, on our web site. This program was originally posted on February second, two thousand six.

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STEVE: Next time -- Winter Shopping.

STEVE: Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications. This has been The WildeBeat, program number seventy four. Thank you for listening.

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