Searching through the
Four of us were halfway into a backcountry ski/snowboard trip on a beautiful sunny day in midwinter last year. Overnight, two feet of fresh snow had covered the region in a blanket of powder, and the skiing that day looked to be just about perfect.The fresh snow muffled the sound of our skis and snowshoes as we trudged through an alpine meadow, making everything unusually quiet until the silence was broken by the piercing cries of a woman running toward us yelling something in French about an avalanche.Don’t worry, that was just the beginning of a fictional rescue scenario that three of my avalanche safety classmates and I found ourselves Tuesday morning in a clearing near Alpine Meadows ski resort. We were there for a field session for the avalanche safety class offered through the Forestry department of Sierra College this fall.Earlier in the day our class had practiced avalanche rescue techniques and beacon use, and the rescue scenarios gave us an opportunity to put everything we had learned together into one exercise in decision making and rescue work.And that’s how my group found itself with an over-excited French woman yelling about three or four victims who had been caught in a large avalanche on the slope in front of us.Our instructor for the course, Dick Penniman, hadn’t left us any clues on the surface of the snow about where to find the buried skiers, so the four of us immediately took out our avalanche transceivers, set them to receive mode, and went in search of our missing classmates.”The first thing that I’m trying to get across,” Penniman said when it was over, “is that being in an avalanche is a bad thing to start with. Essentially, the rescue is slow and not a sure thing, and if you figure you’re down underneath the snow for however long … the question is: How long you can hold your breath?”Hopefully for at least 16 minutes, because that’s how long it took my group to finally find all three of our missing classmates; one buried under the snow in the “avalanche debris,” one lying partially buried beside a tree with a hypothetical broken arm and leg, and one eight feet up in a tree trying hard not to laugh as we futilely searched every inch of the ground below.The two victims buried in the snow seemed logical when we were finally through with the exercise, but the guy in the tree?”Powder blast,” explained Penniman, referring to the high speed blast of air that can precede the actual debris of an avalanche. An avalanche can attain speeds of 200-plus mph and have enough energy to snap mature trees, or in this case, throw unfortunate skiers into them.Sixteen minutes was decent time, Penniman said, although we only proceeded so quickly because we were searching on a relatively smooth slope versus a rough field of avalanche debris. Probably more important though was the fact that everyone we were trying to find had a working avalanche beacon on and we had already witnessed the other group – the current “victims” – go through the same exercise.”It was definitely worthwhile, definitely educational,” said Joe Rosenfeld who finally found our classmate Joel Tebbutt hiding in the tree after almost 10 minutes of searching. “I learned that avi search is three dimensional; it’s not just on a two-dimensional plane.”Annie Giedt, who volunteered to be buried in the snow for the scenarios, got an interesting look at what being stuck under avalanche debris is like.”It was cold definitely, but it made me think about the scenario … It was really interesting hearing everybody and waiting for that rescue. I actually started getting really cold and wondered ‘What if I get hypothermic?'” Giedt thought that the exercises our class did on the hill were good preparation for an authentic avalanche rescue situation. Because as Penniman said, one of the best ways to learn is by making mistakes. And when all was said and done he assured us that most real rescue scenarios will be more straightforward than the mock situations we found ourselves in.”You get a feel for how difficult it is to find the victims, what the possible problems in locating the victims are, and what the pitfalls of an organized rescue are from the very start,” he said. “The real thing is inevitably a lot simpler than anything we do in our rescue scenarios.”Of course the ultimate goal of the class is to make sure that we all have the knowledge and common sense to avoid a real-life scenario where a friend is stuck under the snow.Backcountry enthusiasts looking to learn more about avalanche safety, safe route finding in winter and avalanche rescue techniques may be interested in one of the upcoming Donner Summit Avalanche Seminars put on by Randall Osterhuber. Upcoming seminars will take place on the weekends of Jan. 15 and Feb. 19, with two more to be announced. Call Randall at 546-4491 for more information.
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