Avalanches: Snow smarts work better than beacons

Article by Allen Best

Snow Safety – March 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

TEN YEARS AGO I invested in my avalanche beacon. A “beeper,” people called it. It emits a signal or, at the flip of a switch, picks up the signals emitted from other beacons.

Companions on back-country ski adventures routinely carried beacons.

“Everybody have beacons?” somebody always asked as we set out for one of the 10th Mountain Division huts. Then we were off.

Finally, I left my beacon at home. “Why?” somebody asked in alarm.

Because we never skied slopes steep enough to warrant them, I said, and also because we never practiced using them. Besides, what about the shovels?

Neither practice nor shovels were even mentioned when a novice snowshoer was killed recently by an avalanche west of Denver. The victim and her two companions rented snowshoes, and according to first reports, had been told there was no need to rent beacons. That account was in error; they apparently had not asked. The lingering impression of the stories I read, however, was that an avalanche beacon might have saved her life.

Maybe, but probably not.

Avalanche beacons are not the end-all of snow safety. Think through the sequence of an avalanche.

Snow flakes that tumble down a slope are shorn of the “branches” of their flakes, and the heat of the movement fuses the snow together. Within seconds after the snow stops moving it sets up like concrete. People who have been somehow buried by avalanches up to their chests have reported taking hours to dig themselves out by hand. Your salvation is in your companion’s shovel.

A shovel is of value only when you know where to dig. You know where to dig by learning how to operate a beacon. They cost $200 and the new ones work wonderfully. Still, locating a beacon buried under two feet of snow in a field of rubble takes practice, and 10 feet of snow is more difficult yet.

Experts recommend practice sessions. Ski patrollers at some ski areas, including Vail, will assist in that practice, even though nearly all avalanche danger on patrolled ski runs in Colorado is eliminated daily.

Practice counts because time is crucial in rescuing avalanche victims. A study of 578 burials by Nick Logan and Dale Atkins of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center shows why. Only 50% of victims survived beyond a half-hour, 33% after an hour, and 10% after three hours.

Virtually the only way a buried victim will survive is to be found by his or her companions, they say in their book, “The Snowy Torrents.” One in five victims was found alive by organized rescue teams.

Once, in 1984, somebody was buried underneath an Interstate 70 bridge near Vail Pass. The avalanche merely knocked the victim over, and he was buried by a thin layer of snow. Still, he was too far from organized help, and he died.

Even rapid response may be insufficient. Again, “The Snowy Torrents” tells why: Only 29% of victims totally buried, with no feet or hands sticking out, survived. No victim survived a burial deeper than 7 feet. The snowshoer in Colorado was under 6 to 10 feet of snow.

And here’s the most searing statistic of all: In the 67 cases where beacons were used to find the victims, 36 were found dead.

KNOWING THAT, you may want to know how to avoid getting caught in an avalanche to begin with. You can’t get that knowledge as you’re renting your skis or snowshoes. Many good books, several good videos, and some nifty Websites about avalanche safety have been created, including one maintained by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

In Colorado, snow safety workshops, most of them free, are held almost every weekend. You will learn that danger is greatest during and immediately after a storm, and on slopes of 25 degrees or greater. They’ll tell you about many warning signals, probe poles, and tests. They’ll also tell you there’s no way to perfectly predict avalanches. It’s an inexact science.

Picking up an avalanche beacon on the way to the backcountry, along with Powerbars and Gatorade, and draping it around your neck like a garlic strand is of small value. Knowledge is invaluable.

Allen Best, who has edited several ski-town newspapers, has avoided avalanches, but did get frostbite while sking over Old Monarch Pass in 1985.