Oct. 24, 2012 - Issue #888: Winter Guide 2012
Training and equipment integral to backcountry safety
Or, at least, that's how Tony Parisi, a snowmobile guide in Valemount, BC, describes it. Parisi, who has level 2 certification from the Canadian Avalanche Association, has only been caught in an avalanche once, although he's responded to many during his years as a guide.
His incident was so many years ago now that he can't even pin down the date. But, he does remember how it feels.
At the time, Parisi was performing a ski cut—a stability test where a skier crosses an avalanche starting zone to see if it initiates an avalanche.
"But I got tripped up by a rock," he says. "I was lucky because it wasn't a large accumulation of snow, so I was probably only about 20 centimetres under, maybe a little more. It wasn't much of an avalanche.
"If a mountain of snow had come down, it would have been a bigger ordeal than that."
Parisi says it was just enough to give him an idea of what it feels like to be buried.
"You can feel the snow pushing harder and harder against you, just like if someone had their hand around you, squeezing tighter and tighter and tighter until it becomes very difficult to breathe," he explains. "Luckily there were people watching me and they came and dug me out right away."
Had his companions lost sight of him, Parisi's recovery would have been more painstaking.
It would have required the use of transceivers, probes and shovels, the three must-haves when travelling in the backcountry.
A transceiver is both a transmitter and receiver. Anyone who spends time in the backcountry should own one of these, says Steve Blake, visitor safety specialist in Jasper National Park.
"It's something you wear on your body for the day," he says. "It sends out a single pulse, like a beeping pulse that is inaudible to you, but if you're buried, other people with transceivers can switch theirs to receive mode and they can pick up your signal and the device will tell them which direction to search."
Then, once your companions have reached your location, they will assemble a probe and start poking around in the snow until they hit what feels like a person.
"And at that point you leave your probe in and you shovel down the length of the pole until you get to the person. So, that's why transceiver, probe and shovel are all a kit," Blake says, noting there's another piece of equipment that can help a person stay on top of the snow, in the case they're swept away by an avalanche.
"It's called an avalanche balloon pack," he says. "Some of them blow up around your head and some just inflate on your back.
"If you're caught in an avalanche, what you do is you inflate the balloon pack and that helps you from being buried."
Although all of these tools are integral to a speedy recovery, Blake says they're worthless if the person using them hasn't been trained.
"You can get all of this nice equipment in a Christmas present, but without practising it and knowing how it works and knowing how to do the essential terrain recognition, it's not going to do much good."
So, Blake recommends that before taking a trip into the backcountry, everyone should first undertake avalanche training with a mountain guide or avalanche expert.
He also suggests checking avalanche bulletins and doing a quick practice test with your companions before your adventure: "You should start your trip by having a real conversation about what people have for equipment and doing a bit of practise with your transceiver and your probe and shovel before you go."
This is especially important because it's your companions knowledge and equipment that will determine whether you're pulled out of the snow dead or alive following an avalanche.
And, if they aren't trained, or if they freeze up, your chances of survival will diminish quickly.
Blake says if a person is found within 15 minutes, it's likely they'll live to tell the story, but if that time is doubled, the person's chances of survival diminish to 50 percent.
With such a short time frame, your companions are your best hope for survival, says Blake, noting that is especially true in Jasper National Park.
"Depending on where you are in the park and how long the notification takes for the event, it could take us half an hour to two hours to respond to an accident because we don't have a helicopter on the ground here in the park.
"So, if you're thinking, 'What's my best use of time when someone is stuck in an avalanche,' it's to find that person. You only go for help when you've exhausted your efforts."
The last fatal avalanche in Jasper National Park was on Mount Athabasca in August 2008.
"That's the other thing that you have to remember with a place like Jasper, with the Columbia Icefields, it snows all year around, so the avalanche problems can exist year around."
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