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This is Your Brain in the Backcountry
And Other Critical Avalanche Safety Gear

Slab avalanche
The most important piece of equipment to bring with you when traveling in avalanche terrain is your brain. Not your partner's, your employer's, and certainly not your mother's 'cause she says you shouldn't be out there in the first place. YOUR brain! Too many avalanche accidents are the result of leaving one's brain in the sock drawer.

You need your brain in order to figure out
A) If you are in avalanche terrain;
B) What the snow pack stability is and how weather is influencing avalanche hazard; and
C) What the consequences of your decisions may be.

The goal should be to avoid getting caught in an avalanche, rather than focusing on getting out of one. Avalanches will kill, maim, and otherwise ruin your trip. Avalanche hazard is not influenced by your work schedule, social life, hormone level or your ambitions. Your decision making, on the other hand, is influenced by these factors and you need to be aware of this. Have you paid a lot of money to get as much vertical in as you can? You feel unsure about crossing a slope and if you speak up your friends might think you are a wimp and will never invite you again? The weather is absolutely beautiful, the snow perfect and the six guys ahead of you made it down okay?

If you decide to expose yourself to some degree of avalanche danger, and most of us do if we ski, ride, climb or explore there is some basic equipment that can increase your chances of surviving an avalanche.

avalanche transceiver Avalanche transceivers are small devices that transmit and receive a radio signal from another transceiver. When traveling in avalanche terrain, everyone has a transceiver on in transmit mode. In the event that an avalanche catches someone in the party, those that are not buried then switch over their beacons to receive and locate their buried friend.

It takes practice, practice and more practice to reliably conduct a beacon search on an avalanche debris pile. Speed is absolutely critical when searching for a buried victim. After 20 minutes under the snow, there is less than a 50% survival rate, but 20 minutes goes by in a flash when an accident happens. Fresh batteries are also essential. Remember this if you rent or borrow a beacon and always put in your own fresh batteries.

"After 20 minutes under the snow, there is less than a 50% survival rate, but 20 minutes goes by in a flash when an accident happens...."

A major shift in avalanche transceivers occurred several years ago when all new models were switched to a higher single frequency of 457 kHz. There are some older models that can send and receive on two frequencies (dual beacons), but these are becoming rarer and have a smaller range.

Compatibility is an issue if someone is still clinging on to their old and unreliable single frequency 2275 Hz transceivers. Be sure to check this out with new hiking partners before starting your trip. If you have not retired your old low frequency beacon, do so now. Another major change now underway is the advent of digital beacons.

The existing analog beacons work on the principle that the closer you get to the transmitting beacon, the stronger the signal gets. In order to locate the buried beacon, you must know how to perform a specific search pattern to hone in on the signal. The new digital beacons work on the same principle and there is hope manufacturers will incorporate the added feature of direction finding capability.

avalanche shovel You find your buried partner, now you must have a means of digging them out. A real shovel, and not those little GI things you carried when you were a kid, is absolutely essential. Avalanche debris can set up like concrete, even if the initial snow seemed like bottomless powder, your hands, water bottle or ski tips are not going to do the job. There are good, lightweight snow shovels out there, and if you do not have one now, you will be surprised the neat things you can do with it, including digging quick snow pits as you travel. Carry one. Transceivers and shovels go together and everyone should carry one of each in your party if you are traveling in avalanche terrain.

avalanche probe poles Close on the heels of avalanche transceivers and shovels are avalanche probes. Avalanche probes can be a long, collapsible probes designed specifically for this purpose, or convertible ski poles that screw together to become one long probe. In a pinch, regular ski poles, ice axes, tree limbs, and skis can be used. Even if a buried victim is located with a beacon, it can be difficult, the deeper they are, to determine exactly where to dig.

A probe can quickly pinpoint the victim, thereby minimizing the amount of debris to be shoveled away. This becomes particularly important with deep burials and steep slopes. If the victim is not wearing a transceiver, the only way to locate them will be through the use of probes. Probing is done in a systematic fashion below the last seen area at the toe of the avalanche, near trees and rocks, benches and curves. Probing is exhausting and difficult work and nowhere near as effective as an avalanche transceiver in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.

avalanche probe polesCollapsible avalanche probes are now very lightweight and simple to use. If you have probe ski poles, be sure you can really get them to function as such. It has been my experience that most ski probe pole owners can not get their baskets or handles off, or get the poles screwed together so that they will not come apart when probing. They can work if you take good care of them and know how to use them.

Another useful bit of equipment, mercifully inexpensive and lightweight, is an inclinometer. An inclinometer is used to measure slope angles, which are key in identifying avalanche terrain. Most slab avalanches release on slopes of 30-45°, but they do occur at lower and higher angles. Practice measuring a slope you are about to climb up or ski down so you can improve your ability to recognize more hazardous terrain.

Keep in mind the best use of avalanche safety equipment is locating your body and assisting someone else in getting it out of the snow; it will not keep you from getting caught, nor will it keep you from getting smashed up and killed on the way down. AVALANCHE SAFETY EQUIPMENT IS FOR RECOVERY! Think about this when the thought flashes through your mind, "I will be okay, I am wearing my transceiver" or my favorite, "I am not going to invite so and so along because they do not have a beacon." An avalanche beacon is not a magic amulet that will protect you against the evil avalanche spirits lurking in the snow. It will not prevent you from getting swept over a cliff or sieved through the trees.

A dangerous time exists during the transition from winter sports to spring climbing and hiking. Just because you have hung up your boards for the season and pulled out your rack, it does not mean that chance of getting caught in an avalanche goes away. On the contrary, avalanches can occur whenever you have avalanche terrain coupled with unstable snow. Bring along your beacon, shovel and something to probe with even when no one else in your party does. You never know when you might come across an accident scene, or heaven forbid, you are the subject of a rescue. Your chances of coming home alive are better if you are prepared and at least cognizant of avalanche hazards.

This brings us back to your primary piece of equipment, your brain. Know where you are going, know how to recognize changing conditions, and go prepared to accept the consequences of your decisions. Be able to change your plans, stand your ground when you have a gut feeling that something is unsafe, so you'll live to do it again another day.

Written by Cynthia Hickey, Mountain Zone Correspondent

Cynthia Hickey is a field team leader for the Ski Patrol Rescue Team, a unit of Washington State's King County Search and Rescue Association which specializes in avalanche rescue and year-round backcountry medical care and rescue. Hickey has been teaching avalanche safety and rescue for the National Ski Patrol for over 15 years and this is her 19th year as a volunteer backcountry patroller for the Cascade Nordic Ski Patrol. She is a member of the American Association of Avalanche Professionals.