Case Study – 13 FEET DEEP: LESSONS LEARNED FROM A REMARKABLE COMPANION AVALANCHE RESCUE


Summary

This was an incredible read that ended in a miracle survival.

The author made a last minute decision to head out on a day tour with two of his friends in the Canadian Rockies. He rushed to unpack all of his photography gear from his pack and put his ski gear in. His recovery gear was small and light in order to allow him to carry extra camera gear in the field. After he was packed, his quickly looked at the avalanche forecast and saw it was Low, Low, and Moderate. Pretty safe, right? 

The group headed out and close to the top of their peak, they were touring up a face when he stepped and a crack shot out from under his ski. Before he knew it, a huge slab broke and carried him and his two friends down the hill. He was able to self arrest, the friend right behind him rode out the slide and was only buried waste deep, but the third friend was missing. After uncovering his half buried friend, they immediately started their search for their other friend. Their lowest signal showed 4 meters which means the buried victim was 13 feet below the surface. They knew the probability of survival was very slim and were terrified to see the condition of the victim once uncovered. 

Both of them pulled out their probes but they were not long enough to reach that deep into the snow. So, they started digging, checking the signal, and digging some more until they were able to get a probe strike on the victim. This was a bit of a relief because they finally knew the exact location of their friend. The only problem was she was still about 3 meters deep. 

They were able to dig and clear her airways within 20 minutes. When they got to her, they heard mumbling so they knew she was alive. What a relief… It took them 2 more hours to fully dig her out. She survived this accident with 0 broken bones, 0 brain injuries, and just a couple scratches.

If her survival isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is.  


Ian’s Take Aways 

  1. Never skimp on gear just to save weight – safety is the number one priority when in the backcountry
    • Always use the right tool for the right job
    • As the main guy was a photographer, I understand why he wanted to have lighter and smaller recovery gear. Extra lenses and batteries are heavy and take up a lot of space but as he learned: those extra batteries are not going to save your friends when presented with a situation like this. 
    • Saving weight is a large part of many sports where traveling uphill is a necessity. In a sport like cycling, I think this is great. A lighter bike is easier to pedal uphill and will allow you to go faster. That said, a bike is not a tool to save lives like a shovel and probe are. When choosing a shovel and probe for your backcountry setup, your thoughts shouldn’t be: “is this light and small?” They should be: “Will this help save a life in an extreme situation? Will this be long enough for a deep burial? Is this straight forward and easy to use? etc.”
  2. When searching for a buried victim, your beacon reading is not always going to show close to 0 meters. It will depend on how deep the person is under the surface
    • While having done a lot of beacon practice in my AIARE 1 class and on my own, the readings on my beacon are always close to 0 m when I get to the hidden device. This article said that their lowest signal was 4 meters which set a light off in my head. While this totally makes sense, I hadn’t thought about how a buried victim will be a ways under the snow and the reading will not be 0. This is where the importance of bracketing comes into play in order to pinpoint the victim. 
  3. Be careful, know your priorities, and act quickly 
    • His priorities were to make sure it was safe for him to travel to the burial site, help dig out his half buried friend, and both of them would then be able to search for and dig out their missing friend. His order of operations were perfect to ensure his safety and his friends safety all while being efficient with the rescue process.

Allison’s Take Aways

  1. Read the avalanche forecast in depth even if the avalanche risk is low
    • The author looked at the avalanche forecast, saw it was green and yellow, and just assumed it was safe. What he missed was there was wind loading and persistent slabs possible on the aspect they were skinning up. Had he read the details of the avalanche advisory, they would have avoided that slope and not been caught in this slide. 
  2. Go out with people you trust 
    • He recaps his learnings from this event and one of them is go with people you know and trust. There are a lot of people just heading out with people they met online. 
    • Question: Do you want your life in the hands of people you just met? Do they know how to perform an avalanche rescue? Do they have experience in the backcountry? Are they going to put you in a situation you are not comfortable with? 
  3. When your group is caught in a slide, be aware of where each person is to expedite the search process. 
    • Once he realized he was going to be able to self arrest and was safe, he looked down the slope to locate where his friends were. This was a super smart move because he could go straight to where they were seen last and start his search there in order to save time. This could save you a number of minutes and in an avalanche rescue, every second counts.  

Take our Avalanche Safety Quiz to see how much you know and how much you have to learn! 

 

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