Unearthing avalanche awareness

Posted 1/28/10

The eight took a class and practiced Saturday, but a Level I avalanche course runs 40 hours, Gildehaus said.

To get the ball (or beacon) rolling, the eight skiers had to dig up a body. Well, sort of.

“This is going to be our body …

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Unearthing avalanche awareness


With snow falling in big, fat flakes and temperatures in the low 20s on a snowy slope above Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort, it seemed the ideal setting for eight people to get their feet wet at an avalanche-awareness field day Saturday.It was just avalanche awareness — the very tip of the iceberg in avalanche training, said the instructor, Jeff Gildehaus, Red Lodge's snow ranger from the Beartooth Ranger District.

The eight took a class and practiced Saturday, but a Level I avalanche course runs 40 hours, Gildehaus said.

To get the ball (or beacon) rolling, the eight skiers had to dig up a body. Well, sort of.

“This is going to be our body today,” said Gildehaus, indicating a knapsack.

Everybody fired-up their transceivers that chirped like electronic sparrows.

Within Gildehaus' pack was an avalanche transceiver, set on transmit. Gildehaus disappeared down the hill, and buried the pack in 2 feet of powder. Then, the skiers were tasked with finding the “body.”

Gildehaus said the pack feels like a real body — just like a body feels like, well, a body.

“You'll know,” Gildehaus said.

Gildehaus stabs a ski pole into the snow. This represents the search point — the last place the victim was seen before the pretend avalanche swept the skier away.

Panic sets in fast. That is why a search leader must be appointed. Gildehaus reminded the group to make sure everybody's unit is on receive, otherwise searchers will be homing-in on themselves.

Pack along a first aid kit and know first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he added.

“Avalanche!” Gildehaus calls, and the clock is ticking.

Jack Exley and Jim Kyner of Red Lodge, Mont., the first team, set out.

Kyner zooms down the hill, making sharp, swooshing turns to check his speed. Exley makes tight zig-zags like a skier looking for a lost glove.

Although this is just an exercise, there is a sense of urgency as tangible as the blowing snow tickling their cheeks.

The skiers zero in on the victim buried on the edge of the run.

They mark the approximate spot with lines drawn in the snow. Then, they poke the snow with their poles to pinpoint the victim and start digging with collapsible shovels that fit onto their packs.

It's hard work and the men's heavy breathing is audible as the white stuff, resembling talcum powder, flies.

It took Exley and Kyner 6.5 minutes to uncover the victim.

“Not bad!” Gildehaus said. If the victim can be uncovered within 15 minutes, there's a 90-percent chance of survival.

Thirty minutes and their chances are down to 50 percent, he added.

But the bad news is, according to Gildehaus, “Twenty percent of the time, you're not going to survive the ride.”

Although there is oxygen in the snow, the victim creates an ice lens and will begin breathing his own expelled air and soon suffocate. The victim should claw an air pocket as they feel the avalanche slowing, Gildehaus said.

Another group races down the hill. As they get closer, the beacon trills faster, like, a smoke detector wailing for new batteries.

“Got a signal!” the rescuer calls as the beeps become more frantic.

Each team finds the victim in less than eight minutes.

Next was stability-analysis testing on a steep hill in 2-plus feet of powder.

It's like skiing in a sugar bowl, Gildehaus said.

Indeed. It was like paralleling a tidal wave, with plummeting walls to wash the unwary skier in a wall of snow to the timber below.

The slope is 32 degrees, and Gildehaus said almost all avalanches occur on slopes between 35 and 45 degrees.

In this particular area, about 40 centimeters of snow accumulated from October storms comprises the bottom layer of snow. The total depth is 72 centimeters. The additional 32 centimeters are the result of three or four storms from December through January, Gildehaus said.

The upper layer has been subjected to very cold temperatures and is extremely unstable. The slope could fail and so, avalanche, Gildehaus said.

When visiting the back country, the essential items to pack along are an avalanche probe, collapsable shovel and transceiver.

Practice, practice, practice is paramount when exploring the back country during avalanche season.

“There is no substitution for practice,” Gildehaus said. “It has got to be second nature to you to be effective.”