Avalanche Rescue Practice: 4 Core Skills

Avalanche Rescue Practice: 4 Core Skills

The days are getting longer, the temperatures are rising. Spring brings some of the best skiing (and snowboarding) conditions here in the Canadian Rockies. But it can also bring increased avalanche risk.

Many of us are keen to practice our avalanche rescue skills at the start of the season, but it’s important to keep those skills sharp all season long. Here are a few ideas you can use in your next companion rescue scenario to test your group's emergency readiness.

There are four core skills when it comes to practicing avalanche rescue: beacon search, probing, shovelling, and patient care.

Avalanche Beacon Search Practice

Where do you typically practice your companion avalanche rescue scenarios? For some, it’s next to the car or at the trailhead, before your day really begins. While this allows us to go through the steps and then move on to an uninterrupted ascent, it doesn’t create the most realistic scenario.

In the event of an avalanche, you will be having to do this step on a slope. If you find yourself in some low angle, low risk terrain, suggest setting aside a few minutes of your day to put your group to the test.

The other advantage of practicing in more realistic terrain is that you will have all your gear on - backpack, skis and everything. I will be the first to admit, many times I have done these scenarios it’s been skis off and the prober and shoveler are ready to go with gear in hand. This way forces you to really start from scratch.

The other important thing to keep in mind with your avalanche beacon rescue search is to slow down. In a real life situation it is easy for panic to set in, but one of the best things we can do to help someone who is buried is to stay calm.

As the saying goes, “when we rush we do things twice”. Verbalizing your search process can be a good way to keep you focused on your task, plus it will ensure your avalanche rescue group is communicating with each other and anticipating next steps.

Avalanche Probe Rescue Practice

This step can be really easy to slack off a bit. Often when we’re doing scenarios you may be avalanche probing in shallow snow, or you’re not getting an actual strike (especially if there’s nothing to strike).

Before you even start probing you’ll need to assemble your rescue gear. Throughout the day, have everyone in your group take turns calling out “probe and shovel” at random and see who can assemble everything the fastest.

When you’re doing a full scenario, if you set yourself up in that more realistic avalanche setting we mentioned above you’re more likely to have deeper snow. This will allow you to watch for changing snow depths. For even better practice, bury an object like a backpack so you can feel when you’ve got a strike.

Avalanche Rescue Shoveling

This can be another tricky one to practice for a few reasons.

Just like probing, shallow snow doesn’t make for a great practice setting for avalanche rescue shovelling. The other thing to keep in mind is that avalanche snow will be very different from untouched snow, and is much more difficult to shovel.

This is where practicing roadside can have it’s advantages. Debris left from a snow plow will be more similar to avalanche debris, so if you happen to find a large bank left from the plow, use it to your advantage and get some digging practice.

Sometimes when we practice, the items we’ve “buried” are really just snow-covered. Be sure to take the time to practice deep burials, and know that there is a big difference between fast shoveling and good shoveling.

Lastly, time yourself. Studies show that victims recovered in 15 minutes or less have a 92% survival rate. By 35 minutes, their chance of survival decreases to 35%.

Avalanche Rescue Patient Care

And that leads us to the fourth step of companion rescue - avalanche patient care. This step is often missed when we do these scenarios, however, the reality is that your day is not over once you’ve recovered your partner from a burial.

Traumatic injuries, asphyxiation and hypothermia are all possible scenarios you may be dealing with when you rescue someone from an avalanche. Here are some ideas of first aid scenarios you can tack onto your next companion rescue practice.

Avalanche Practice Scenarios

  • Avalanche patient is awake but confused, and keeps asking what happened every 2 minutes. You do not uncover any other injuries and they claim they are able to self evacuate. As time passes they become increasingly agitated about you checking up on them.
  • Avalanche patient’s right leg appears shorter and is slightly turned out. They are in a lot of pain but have good distal pulse.
  • Avalanche patient is awake but in a bit of a daze. At first they are shivering but a few minutes later they stop, speech starts becoming slurred and confusion worsens.
  • Avalanche patient is completely unresponsive (no pulse, not breathing).

What do you have in your pack that could help stabilize an injury? Is self evacuation an option? Do you have a communications device to initiate a rescue?

Just like taking an AST course, having the proper medical training will dictate your readiness to respond to an emergency in the backcountry. At minimum, an emergency first aid course will teach you how to perform CPR. For frequent backcountry travelers, a wilderness first aid course will teach you how to respond when help may be hours away.


Avalanche Rescue Practice Summary

When an emergency happens and you have to help a friend, you don’t want to waste time thinking about what to do. That’s where regular, effective avalanche rescue practice across these 4 skills will pay off.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us below, visit us in store, or take an AST course to help develop your avalanche rescue skills!


Related Avalanche Articles 

Avalanche Safety Gear for Splitboarding

Why You Should Take an Avalanche Safety Course



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